Directed by Jorge Blanco. Voices by Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese. (2009, PG, 91 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 20, 2009
I'm tempted to think this animated, yawningly kiddie-friendly potboiler is reverse-engineered from the really cool bits of all the classic Cold War science-fiction films of the Fifties, possibly at the behest of some clandestine PsyOps cabal working out of Area 51. That in itself is not always a bad thing, of course. Tim McCanlies' marvelous The Iron Giant flawlessly manages to incorporate the hoary (but no less relevant) tropes of genre masterpieces, such as It Came From Outer Space and Invaders From Mars, into one of the best sci-fi-oriented animated kids films of all time. But Planet 51 is strictly geared toward tykes who'd sooner eat their brussels sprouts than deign to watch black-and-white humanist scientists, such as Fifties stars Richard Carlson or John Agar, save mankind from its own self-defeating paranoia and who probably would consider The Iron Giant's 2-D animation the equivalent of being held back a year in middle school for coloring outside their minds. A co-production of Madrid-based Ilion Animation, UK indie heavyweights HandMade Films (founded, no less, by former Beatle George Harrison), and Spanish television network Antena 3, Planet 51 is innocuous to the point of distraction – the kids at the screening I caught were noticeably antsy. While the CG animation is colorful and vibrant, the story – penned by Shrek co-writer Joe Stillman – is little more than a compilation of genre clichés that were already old hat by the time Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone episode "The Little People" first aired in 1962. Planet 51's main gag is the reversal of the ancient (by Hollywood standards, anyway) genre convention of society's fear of alien invasion. Here, it's the green-skinned, droopily antennaed aliens who are terrified of a lone human spaceman (Johnson), who crash-lands into their world. In a sop to Hollywood’s golden age of science-fiction filmmaking, the whole planet closely parallels Fifties Americana, right down to the Happy Days slang and the monster-movie matinees playing at the local movie theatre. Johnson's astronaut Chuck just wants to go home, of course, but the greenie military rep (Oldman) and token mad scientist Professor Kipple (Cleese) would prefer that this bumbling menace from beyond the stars stick around long enough to expire and, uh, donate his hideous alien brain to science. Chuck finds an ally in space-mad tween Lem (Long) and his not-quite girlfriend Neera (Biel). I could go on and on about Planet 51's multitude of direct references to its sci-fi antecendents (Robert Wise's original The Day the Earth Stood Still is referenced ad nauseam), but the bottom line is that Planet 51, while expertly executed animationwise and passably entertaining for very young kids (less so for their parents), is still as dull as the hull on Rocketship X-M.