- RatedG /GenreAnimation, Family, Fantasy
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
The landscape of animated films has changed dramatically in recent years.
Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), DreamWorks (Kungfu Panda, the Shrek movies) are gaining inroads in the English-language animation scene that has long been the domain of allied giants Disney and Pixar.
Some independent production firms such as Blue Sky (the Ice Age movies) and LAIKA (Coraline) are also scoring hits, as the annual movie calendar is now filled chockablock with animated/CGI movies during major holiday periods.
The makers of Planet 51 were no doubt hoping to cash in as well, as a widely released animated movie can earn upwards of US$100 million -- and way beyond -- worldwide.
This is the first animated feature to come out of Ilion, a Madrid-based studio whose founders have a background in video games, and it shows.
While featuring the voice talents of big names such as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, John Cleese, and younger stars Seann William Scott and Justin Long, the film is rather safe and lacklustre fare packed neatly in 90 minutes.
The premise has a human astronaut travelling to a faraway planet of green-skinned inhabitants, little green men and women, who fit the 1950s’ popular definition of aliens. (Setting the film in the America that Marty McFly inadvertently travels to in Back to the Future hardly sets imagination soaring.)
On this planet, a boy named Lem (Long) is facing teenage problems of figuring out his career (he has a summer job at the planetarium) and the thing called love, with neighbour Neera (Biel) the object of his affections.
When ‘himbo’ astronaut Charles “Chuck” Baker (Johnson) -- reminiscent of actor Ben Affleck for some reason -- lands on the planet and learns that it is inhabited, he enlists Lem’s help to evade the authorities. The pair form an unlikely bond and realise -- surprise, surprise -- that they’re not much different in terms of hopes, dreams and virtues.
The main problem with the film is that it largely relies on a relentless stream of mostly mediocre, lowest-common-denominator gags and jokes to appeal to younger audiences and short attention spans.
Much of the humour is based on outlandish ideas about hostile, invading aliens (in this case, the astronaut) as perpetuated by local pop culture, which resemble the pulp fiction and B-grade alien/monster movies of 1950s America.
Fun is also poked at alien hippies/slackers that try to protest for peace and at the military dimwits that move in to confiscate Chuck’s space craft and start a witch-hunt for “alien zombies” that are under the control of the human’s supposed mind powers.
And there is the cute factor in the forms of an alien canine that looks like Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens, but is relatively harmless -- except toward alien postmen -- and a rock-obsessed probe named Rover, that zips around on tracked-wheels the way Wall-E did, but with a dog’s personality.
Some of the cleverer references (Lem’s name is a play on the lunar excursion module used for NASA’s Moon explorations) and the idea of reversing human-alien roles to examine prejudice and ignorance are likely to fly over the heads of many.
Credit should be given to the filmmakers, however, for the one, big funny joke of the film towards its conclusion, which took a certain amount of risk to include in a kids’ movie.
But for all its research of and dedication to 1950s America, it does not do enough to develop likeable, memorable characters. (Biel’s love-interest character Neera is as plain-vanilla as you can get.)
This is an animated film that will dissipate from memories as quickly as Arthur and the Minimoys or Home on the Range and make hardly a mark on the greater animation landscape.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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