Planet 51

Voiced by  Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman and John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco.
Rated PG (Mild violence and crude humour). 90 min.

This is one of a large number of animated movies out this Christmas season that taps the realm of sci-fi fantasy. The movie tells the story of an astronaut from NASA, Captain Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) who lands on Planet 51, certain that he is the first person to take a step on it. NASA has mistakenly told him that the planet is not inhabited. However, a community of little green people live on the planet, and they exist in a world they have created exactly as it was in America back in the 1950s.  The inhabitants of Planet 51, who sprout antennas, have barbecues, love fast cars, live in white-picketed fenced houses, and spend much of their time anxiously thinking about being invaded from unfriendly forces outside their planet. They are thus fantasy figures representing Earth concerns. The inhabitants of Planet 51 are as shocked as Captain Baker to find each other. The movie thus begins with a very inventive idea that is developed during the rest of the film. For Captain Baker, the dilemma is to get to know this alien community and fit in, or go back to earth where he came from. For the community, the dilemma is to attack him to get rid of him, or get to know their invader. Captain Chuck is eventually helped to return to Earth by a teenager called  Lem (Justin Long), who unlike other inhabitants of Planet 51, such as General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and Professor Kipple (John Cleese), retains an open mind on the new intruder and wants to help him. General Grawl leads an army against Captain Chuck, and Professor Kipple wants Chuck’s brain for scientific reasons.

The film is highly derivative of “E.T.” and many animated space movies, and especially “Wall-E”. Planet 51 is mistakenly being perceived by its own inhabitants as ripe for alien invasion, and the movie begins with the idea that such an invasion has happened, but loses pace as its core gimmick begins to weaken. It aims for a distinctive visual style, and largely succeeds in that respect, but misses out in the development of a story-line that holds attention. The style of the film, which is strictly cartoonish in character, will appeal to children, but poor scripting will leave many adults disappointed. The appeal to the 1950s, which taps adult-nostalgia in ways that children can’t readily share, is geared to keep adults engaged, and there is an attempt to fill the gaps with comic appeal. 

The film has some sexualised humour in it. The behaviour shown is not age-appropriate, but it is unlikely to engage child-viewers, who will be captured more by the neat reversal of fortunes for an “invading” astronaut from Earth. On Planet 51, there is a community of fantasy figures who have similar anxieties to real people on Earth about intrusion, threat and attack, but the moral persuasion of that lesson is soon lost in the story’s many side-plots. The film ends with Chuck proving he is a man who can do (in his own words) “the right stuff”, and everyone finally becomes the best of friends.

The film is not of the same quality as other animated movies around this Christmas-New Year period, but it will be entertaining to children. Children clapped in the session this reviewer went to. Adults will be intrigued initially with the inventiveness of the film’s core idea, but the main appeal for them will be to take their children to it. 

Ilion Animation and Handmade Films  Out Dec. 10, 2009.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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