Andy Bockelman: ‘Planet 51’ is space case story with fun moments
December 3, 2009
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 91 minutes
Starring the voices of: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long and Jessica Biel
There's no shortage of alien stories, but how often do they play out the same way? All those tales of little green men pull a complete 180 in the animated "Planet 51."
The town of Glipforg is the nicest little settlement you could hope to find on Planet 51. Its inhabitants certainly think so, as they go about their lives blissfully unaware that any other life forms could exist in all of the 500 miles of outer space that surrounds them.
But, their perceptions change when an alien spaceship lands right in their own backyard. And when the human life form (voice of Dwayne Johnson) aboard reveals himself, it results in a panic. The alien finds solace with teenager Lem (Justin Long), who agrees to help him return to the space station orbiting the planet.
But with a hard-headed general (Gary Oldman) and a scientist (John Cleese) eager to study an alien brain hot on their tail, the mismatched pair will have to be creative in their escape.
Johnson functions just as well as an action hero in animated form as he does in the flesh, giving Capt. Charles T. Baker an agreeably goofy persona. Long is just fine as aspiring astronomer Lem, a perfectly average kid whose impulsive decision to help out astronaut Chuck may just help him find the confidence that he needs — specifically to finally ask out the girl next door, Neera (Jessica Biel).
Seann William Scott is keenly dorky as Lem's comic book-obsessed pal, Skiff, who assists in the effort to get Chuck back, though with a cautious fear of being probed by the alien invader. As for the villainous heavies, Oldman is menacing enough as the military man and Cleese brings a campy fun to the archetypal lobotomy-happy mad scientist. You can almost hear the electricity crackling as he fires up his equipment.
There's no limit to the science fiction references we see on this planet that are applicable to us back here on Earth.
There's the predictable allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" with a snippet of Richard Strauss's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," but there's also the more clever use of the breed of creature from the "Alien" films functioning as a pet named Ripley. He's just like any kind of quadruped, except he pees acid and uses an ultra-sticky tongue when he terrorizes the mailman. Also filling up the cuteness quotient is Rover, a dog-like droid that resembles the lunar rover accompanying Chuck's mission with a penchant for collecting rock samples.
But besides the sci-fi nods — especially an overall reversal of the plot of "E.T." — there are countless parodies of the 1950s, as the people of Planet 51 are living in that particular decade.
There are a few sight gags for the more observant film buff — Doesn't the observatory where Lem works look an awful lot like the one in "Rebel Without a Cause?" — but the real root of the story comes from Cold War paranoia and propaganda. In this respect, it gets slightly repetitive and not every joke lands as it should, but it's altogether watchable, nonetheless.
"Planet 51" isn't quite the easygoing adventure that this year's earlier alien cartoon "Monsters vs. Aliens" is, but as the first feature from the Spain-based Ilion Animation Studios, it's a welcome effort, even if it's glaringly overproduced.
But at least there are no Uranus jokes.