Friday, November 20, 2009

Planet 51

Planet 51 isn't going to wow you, but as a first animated feature from Ilion Animated Studios it's better than I expected.

The story is pretty simple: a peaceful world is invaded by an alien explorer, and with the help of a goodhearted youngster and his friends he eludes the government and attempts to get back home.

Okay, not that original I grant you. Even though the story does a nice job of tilting the perspective by having a Earthman be the invader on an alien world, the weakest piece of Planet 51 is its plot.

By allowing the film to take place on an alien world, however, the film finds its strength in designing a world that, though goofy, is certainly interesting to explore. This world seems to be centered around a circular design you see in everything from windows to the design of automobiles. Merged with this aesthetic is a 1950s Americana style in terms of look, film, and sound.

It's not only the buildings and cars, which resemble rounded and more molded versions of rides you'd find in American Graffiti, but the people themselves who are imbued with a certain honesty and gullibility found in the B-movies of the period. Although slightly forced at times, it does imbue the film with some innocence and simplicity. The look of the aliens themselves I could take or leave, but the world that they inhabit is one I enjoyed spending some time in.

Our hero is the young junior astronomer Lem (Justin Long) who is just unlucky to have Captain Chuck Baker (Dwayne "Stop Calling Me The Rock" Johnson) land on his doorstep. Along for the ride are the girl next door (Jessica Biel), Lem's goofy friend Skiff (Seann William Scott), and the astronaut's robotic doglike sidekick Rover (who may not be as lovable as Wall-E, but definitely has some charm).

The two main obstacles to getting Chuck home are an army led by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and his pet mad scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who are positive the alien has some kind of mind-control powers and has come to take over their world.

The film doesn't do itself any favors by including rote "kiddie scenes" (cheap jokes usually involving some form of bathroom humor). Here we get an alien dog who urinates acid and chases the mailman (even Rover looses control of his bladder at one point). This is a film that will make you roll your eyes from time to time, but I was never turned off by the film's more juvenile failings. As it makes these mistakes, the film also takes numerous opportunities to pay homage to several sci-fi films of the past, most notably E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Planet 51 isn't a great film and if you are going to try to hold it up to the likes of Pixar or the glory days of Disney you're going to be sorely disappointed. However, if you enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens and the Madagascar films then a trip to Planet 51 might suit you just fine.

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