by Mel Valentin
The latest in a seemingly inexhaustible series of attempts to cash in on the commercial success of Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation, "Planet 51," made by Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios and HandMade Films for a reported $60 million with English-language voice actors, including Dwayne (ďDonít Call Me the RockĒ) Johnson ("Race to Witch Mountain," "The Game Plan," "Gridiron Gang," "Doom," "The Rundown") is an underwhelming, uninspired, derivative, and ultimately dull sci-fi/action/comedy film that will leave children restless and their parents bored. And thatís just the clichťd, predictable storyline. The computer animation isnít much better. Weakly imagined character designs, flat citycapes, and a dearth of set pieces, de rigueur for family-oriented CG films, all make "Planet 51" forgettable, disposable entertainment (calling "Planet 51" ďentertainment,Ē even by minimally discerning standards, might be a stretch).Planet 51 is set on an alien planet where green-skinned aliens have adopted (or evolved) 1950s culture and technology, mixed in with retro-future advances like hover-cars (but, alas, no jetpacks like films and television shows of that era repeatedly promised). The nominal hero, Lem (voiced by Justin Long), has almost perfect life: a new job as a junior assistant astronomer at the local planetarium, a supportive, if suffocating family, a loopy best friend, Skiff (Seann William Scott) who has trouble distinguishing reality from science fiction, and a neighbor, Neera (Jessica Biel), who seems romantically interested in the shy, hesitant Lem, but somehow Lem can never get the courage up to ask her out on a date. Minor romantic glitch aside, everything seems copacetic on Planet 51.
"Take the first flight home...or better yet, don't take the flight at all."
Of course, Lemís semi-idyllic existence doesnít last long. An American spaceship, modeled after the lunar landing craft, touches down in Lemís backyard, literally, and out pops a helmeted alien, Captain Charles T. Baker (Johnson). Conditioned by their irrational fears, everyone who encounters Baker flees, but through a combination of plausible and implausible circumstances, Baker ends up in Lemís bedroom. Although Baker is eager to return home (somehow he didnít spot the inhabitants of Planet 51 or their homes from space), a short dash to the lander becomes a no-go when the army, led the iron-jawed, Kirk Douglas-lookalike General Grawl (Gary Oldman), and a government scientist, Professor Kipple (John Cleese) eager to dissect Baker, arrive at the landing site.
Screenwriter Joe Stillman, whose previous credits include writing or co-writing Shrek and Shrek 2, as well as episodes of King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead, borrows heavily from 1950s alien-invasion films (e.g., Invasion of the Saucer Men, War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space), adds a reverse E.T.-twist (an idea first explored almost sixty years ago in The Day The Earth Stood Still) wrings the premise for every ounce of verbal humor (obligatory, stale, Shrek-style pop culture references) and physical comedy (of the slapstick kind), but runs out of ideas long before the end credits roll (as in 30 minutes into Planet 51ís 90-minute running time).
Stillman also never explains why the inhabitants of Planet 51 are culturally identical to1950s America, how they speak English (they do just do), and why Baker or other Earthers havenít detected them before, but managed to send a spaceship across vast distances (how vast, again, Planet 51 never reveals) for no obvious reason except exploration. And if thatís the case, why did NASA (or its equivalent) send Baker into outer space with only a dog-like robot as his companion (whoís actually sent ahead)? Stillman also includes a hippie-like character, Glar (Alan Marriott), a decade too early. Itís shoddy, lazy screenwriting that will leave semi-conscious adults rolling their eyes and precocious children with questions Planet 51 never answers."Planet 51" fails visually too. Jorge Blanco and his co-directors, Javier Adad and Marcos Martinez, show little imagination. With their smooth, almost featureless faces, and green-hued skin, the alien designs are, frankly, bland and insipid. Set pieces, obligatory in family-oriented CG films, are notable by their paucity in "Planet 51." The hover cars and cityscapes modeled on crop circles are slightly more inspired, but thatís the outer limit of Blanco and his animatorsí inspiration. The $60 million budget obviously wasnít enough for Blanco and his animators to conjure up Pixar or, more achievable (because it involves far less ambition, skills, or talent), DreamWorks-like success, commercially or critically.
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originally posted: 11/20/09 09:00:00