REVIEW: Planet 51 [2009]

“Sea monkeys dancing to the Oldies”

There is a new competitor on the animated picture front. The Spain-based company Ilion Studios has thrown their hat in the ring with the new film Planet 51. Unlike some of the other upstart firms that have cropped up in the past decade, Ilion’s artistry is very much on par with Dreamworks and Fox, (no one can compare to Pixar, sorry), and surprised me with how clean and polished the animation was. A studio like this needs to find success early, however, in order to keep capital up and the ability to continue forward into the future. With the worn-out premise of alien invasion turned on its head to become fresh and inventive, success may be upon them. It is a concept that appears so easy to have thought up, yet for the life of me I can’t think of something that has done it before. Having seen only photos of rocks from Planet 51’s NASA rover, America assumes the world is uninhabitable and thus sends an astronaut over to explore. Captain Charles T. Baker is in for a surprise, though, once he discovers that not only is there life, but that he is now an invading alien enemy.

That basic central storyline is one to keep the adults intrigued, because honestly, besides the role reversal, this is pretty much The Day the Earth Stood Still. The little kiddies have no idea what that film is and having cute, green, amphibious creatures to relate to while a large, charismatic Hollywood-type human goofs around reels them into the tale, whether they comprehend what’s going on or not. To the adults, Gort has been replaced by a very resourceful planetary rover that looks like the offspring of Pixar’s Wall-E and Eve, and Klaatu by Dwayne Johnson’s Chuck, a glorified button pusher that went into space so that he could come back to Earth as a hero well on his way to a government position. Even John Cleese is here to play the same role he did in the remake of that 1951 classic, although while the scientist of reason there, he is the scientist looking to cut open a head and play with alien brain this time around. But of course, there is that local Good Samaritan who puts the well being of a stranger before his own to save a life from bigoted attempts at eradication. At its core is the message that just because someone is different does not mean they mean ill will. Sometimes it is our own fears that cause the violence we blame on others.

That young boy is Lem, voiced by Justin Long, a high schooler that has just landed a job at his local science museum as an assistant curator. He has the goofy best friend, (Seann William Scott’s Skiff), the girl of his dreams next door, (Jessica Biel’s Neera), and confidence issues to hold him back from being the man he wants to be. Lem is the epitome of confused adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, a role that the youth of America can relate to when they sit down to enjoy an hour and a half of laughs. Stumbling upon the visitor from Earth hiding out in his museum, Lem finds that Chuck is just like him, a dreamer. Not the hero he thinks he is, nor the villain the town thinks he is, Chuck is just trying to get back home, discovering on the journey that maybe he can help this boy that has stuck his neck out for him. Sure the “girl advice” is cheesy and meant for laughs, but the sacrifices taken and the lessons of being more than the world thinks you are hit home, adding a nice theme to the mix, delivering a message for the kids, hopefully noticed amongst the humor.

Some moments may be deemed as a little risqué for the audience a PG film targets, but I think that is pretty much across the board these days—except for Pixar who truly seems to be able to tell a story so good that gimmicky humor is unnecessary. One moment comes directly before the credits with two alien, to us, youths parked on a cliff about to makeout. Once the Humaniacs come to destroy their world, the male says quietly, “I knew that would happen if we kissed”. It’s a funny moment and not anything for parents to worry about their child hearing. Those instances are mainly for the parents that brave their way through such a kid flick, some stuff to keep them awake and invested in the jokes. But that’s not all that Planet 51 is infused with, as there are a ton of references to cinema’s history. Not only does the dog-equivalent look like the titular character from Alien, but also the one wreaking havoc on the local mailman is actually named Ripley. Than there is comical homage to the lunar landing, Back to the Future flashes, especially Parts I and II, a Full Metal Jacket helmet nod, and even a Singin’ in the Rain dance number. Ilion pays respect to the past and brings it to the consciousness of the future.

Again, too, the animation is really well done. The realism quotient isn’t quite there; instead a stylized aesthetic is utilized. With plastic textures and shiny surfaces, Planet 51 is a cartoon as cartoons should be, adding its realistic moments with renderings of fire and smoke among others. Its story of beating the odds and getting the girl is cute, but I myself really enjoyed the environment it all takes place in. A hybrid of the past and future of humanity, this race lives in a world that resembles our own 1950s, complete with the music, the diners, and the wardrobe. However, the characters have hovercraft capabilities and laser weaponry to counteract the old-time look. To have that kind of technology and still only think space is 500 miles long is a fresh take on advanced intelligence for sure, just one more point making this film original in its own pastiche-like way.

Planet 51 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] “Lem” voiced by Justin Long and “Chuck” voiced by Dwayne Johnson in Columbia Pictures’ animated comedy PLANET 51. Photo By: Courtesy of Ilion Animation Studios
[2] “Neera” voiced by Jessica Biel and “Lem” voiced by Justin Long in Columbia Pictures’ animated comedy PLANET 51. Photo By: Courtesy of Ilion Animation Studios


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