The 50’s and several 80’s sci-fi classics receive an affectionate love letter in Planet 51. It’s heart is in the right place, but the weak story, lame jokes and bland characters short the postage to get the kid- friendly homage delivered.
It’s obvious early on in Planet 51 that those involved in creating the film have a great love of classic eighties sci-fi films. Within the first thirty minutes I lost count of how many times Back to the Future, Alien(s), and E.T. were referenced. The story is pretty basic, nothing new here. Lem, voiced by Justin Long lives on a planet with a fifties culture and a fusion of that decade’s styles with a bit of futuristic technology thrown in. Alien invasion paranoia runs high among the denizens but also delights the masses at theaters where sequels to invasion films are released ad nauseum. Lem is working hard at landing a job at the planetarium to set up his post school life. He is also working at landing the neighborhood girl that he has a crush on, Neera, voiced by Jessica Biel. Everything is seeming well in Lem’s world until a button pushing, numb-skull, frat boy jock with ‘the right stuff’, NASA astronaut Captain Charles Baker, voiced by Dwayne Johnson lands in his backyard and plants an American flag. Lem and all the inhabitants of his world are green-skinned species that view the astronaut as a hostile threat that has arrived to take over their world and enslave them all as zombies under his control.
Planet 51 is the first film from Madrid based Lion Studios, established by the founders of video game developer Pyro Studios, best known for the Commandos series of video games. The animation in Planet 51 is good, easily on par with if not at times better than that of Dreamworks Animation. It falls short of the golden standard set by Pixar but this first outing shows plenty of promise. Kudos to the studio for taking the highroad and not releasing this in 3D as I can’t think of a single frame where it would have enhanced the film in any way. The character designs all work. That includes the acid peeing H.R. Giger Alien-inspired dog. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Alien dog design worked for me. I came in axe ready to grind and loathe the thing but ended up liking the character more than expected. Luckily, they do not overuse the dog for cheap jokes since he serves strictly as comic relief. Odd observation made while watching the film: None of the men wear pants while the ladies are always fully clothed. This never plays into the film in any way or is explained, I guess that just how things are on Planet 51.
Once the astronaut shows up the film devolves into the typical big bad Military and Science team wanting to get the alien to chop him to bits. If you’ve seen E.T., 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (not that remake garbage of last year), or any other film of this ilk, you have seen the basic premise of Planet 51. I feel the film could have been more effective had they not gone after the easy laugh every time. Unlike other animated films that can seemingly blend adult humor in with laughs for the kids, Planet goes for the lowest common denominator every time. It never falls to bodily function jokes or Astro Boy’s butt guns but it isn’t far off. It’s unfortunate as the premise is a perfect setup to spark a discussion with the kids that this film caters to regarding xenophobia and maybe even use as a primer to many of the films that Planet borrows liberally from and do a better job of sharing the message. The only things the kids will probably recall are the sight gags and jokes.
Planet 51 receives 2 clock towers out of 5
By John Coovert