Space-age toon covers familiar territory but still has fun
Directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad & Marcos Martinez
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel
After having our eyes thoroughly scourged by the monstrous, 3-D “performance capture” technology of Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Kill it! Kill it with fire!), the comparatively old-fashioned computer-animation of Planet 51 comes as something of a soothing balm. The film isn’t anything special, but the high-concept setup, pleasing animation and intriguing art design make for a fun family romp.
Planet 51’s simple, “How has nobody done this before?” premise finds cocky astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) landing on an alien world to do his heroic duty and plant the American flag. Unfortunately, this world is already well-inhabited by ordinary, green-skinned suburbanites who are terrified of this silver-suited “space invader.” Planet 51 is basically every ’50s flying saucer film told in reverse, and makers have a lot of fun spoofing their way through drive-in staples like The Blob, Teenagers from Outer Space and Invasion of the Saucer Men. Chased by paranoid neighbors and hunted by the trigger-happy military, Chuck finds sanctuary in the home of nerdy, stargazing teenager Lem (Justin Long). But Chuck’s got just 48 hours to get back to his spaceship before it returns to Earth without him. Cue the frantic race against time.
Admittedly, Planet 51 offers up very little that’s certifiably original. The plot is probably 60 percent E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and throws in just about every character trope you could expect along the way: The conspiracy-believing sidekick (Seann William Scott), the secret-crush-worthy girl next door (Jessica Biel), the xenophobic army general (Gary Oldman) and even the cute, Wall•E-style robot all make an appearance.
Still, the production (shot entirely in Spain, of all places) has an infectious energy to it. The design work is top-notch. Just ogling the film’s background details is a gas. No, the animation isn’t quite on the Pixar level (what is?), but it does have a bright, bubbly Cars-esque look to it. Plus, the creators clearly got inspired modeling the retrotastic characters, vehicles and white-picket-fence houses after ’50s American suburbia—with, of course, plenty of added extraterrestrial flourishes. The Play-Doh-haired aliens listen to bubblegum pop on vinyl records, for example, but these records are slyly shaped like flying saucers. Tanks, Jeeps, hamburgers, gas stations, greasy spoon diners and other Earthly sites get a similar familiar-meets-alien makeover.
I’m not sure if young kids will get the film’s multiple mid-century Americana references, but there are plenty of laughs to distract them—from the antics of an Alien-inspired pet to the rock-collecting obsession of Chuck’s little robot pal Rover. Planet 51 isn’t anything you’ll remember five years from now. It’s not something you’ll rush out to buy on DVD. Still, in a year crowded with computer animation, Planet 51 stands out as enjoyable little matinee-filler for kids and their chaperones.