What It Is
Planet 51 begins with a clever layering of spoofs. In the first scene, a young couple is scared first by an alien attack, and then by a military unit who attacks the attackers (called “humaniacs”). Not only are all of these characters aliens—green skinned with googly eyes and rubbery, four-fingered limbs-- but when the camera pulls back to show they are all characters in a movie within the movie, you see that the audience members are all aliens too. When, some minutes later, a unknown spaceship does land in someone’s back yard, the visitor is a human astronaut, Captain Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).
Once this happens, the movie turns into a more straightforward and unoriginal adventure, as Chuck tries to get home, with help from a sympathetic planetarium worker, Lem (Justin Long), his best friend Skiff (Seann William Scott), and Chuck’s doggy-like robot, Rover (part R2-D2, part Wall-e, part Bolt). Though Lem is initially skeptical of this cocky oddity, he and Chuck soon bond over discussions of galaxies, rockets, and girls (Lem has a crush on his pretty neighbor, Neera [Jessica Biel]). All the while, Chuck is being hunted by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who mean to kill and then dissect the stranger they assume is a threat just because he’s strange.
Why It’s Fun
If the adults are fearful and violent, the kids on Planet 51 are open to new experiences and even new life forms. Lem is particularly predisposed to adventure, as he sees his job at the planetarium—giving lectures for bored students, assembling displays—as a way to open up others’ minds and imagine his own escape through space travel. The planet where he feels so limited is characterized by quirks: the rain is made of rocks (a little bruising), the dogs pee acid, the cars hover, and the cops are immensely dumb (and so, easily convinced by Huck they have been made zombies, even though they haven’t). All this helps you believe that the unsurprising fun Lem has with Chuck—hiding from his parents, running from armed soldiers, seeking out the top-secret Base 9, where the government hides evidence of aliens from outer space—is comparably exciting.
Who’s Going To Love It
Kids may find the middling animation entertaining, and they’ll likely identify with Neera’s little brother Eckle (Freddie Benedict), who tags along with Lem and admires Chuck. The film is full of positive messages—don’t be afraid of the unknown, be friendly and generous, accept yourself and help out those who might be mean to you, because all they need is a chance to be nice -- all good to talk about after the show.
What To Be Aware Of
Aside from the initial movie-within-a-movie’s early explosions, most caused by the gung-ho military’s excessive use of force, the action is by and large slapsticky: characters fall down and bounce back, crash their vehicles and emerge unharmed. The soldiers patrol streets, carry guns and point them at people, but tend not to shoot. Even the big showdown with the extremely intolerant, increasingly aggressive general ends well, as Chuck does the honorable thing—saving him from a burning enclosure—rather than seek righteous revenge. Though Chuck at first seems awfully shallow and boastful (“Why do chicks love me? Because I’m n astronaut! And handsome!”), he still has plenty of the Rock’s well-known and frankly irresistible charm (albeit in a cleft-chinned, Caucasian form). It’s hard to dislike him, even when he preens too much or teaches Lem to hotwire cars.) Lem and his friends, including his rival for Neera’s affection, a long-haired, guitar-playing rebel named Glar (Alan Marriott), are all quite pleasantly laid back. Glar and his friends are more or less all-purpose protestors, showing up on sidewalks with placards announcing, “We’re really upset!” over nothing specific. And that makes them about as amiable and as bland as everyone else on Planet 51.
5 out of 10
Director: Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Seann William Scott, Gary Oldman
Studio: Tristar Pictures
US Premiere: November 20, 2009
UK Premiere: December 4, 2009