If Planet 51 had come out in a world where animation was not at such an advanced level of storytelling it would have garnered a much more successful run at the box office during its release. Visually the movie is beautiful, and the script has enough cultural references to entertain both (very) young kids and (very) bored adults alike. But, in an age of animation defined by films that have consistently put story and character before pixel count it can’t help but be subpar.
The resident aliens of Planet 51 are living through the American equivalent of the 1950’s, which (on earth) was the height of alien dominance in pop-culture. As such, their cars, music, movies, and comic books all resemble those that our grandparents and great grandparents grew up with. It’s a great setting for the story and a welcome throwback to a time when popular culture was actually fun and interesting.
Our hero, Lem (Justin Long), is a teenage space enthusiast whose life is on the up and up. He gets the job at the space museum that he always wanted, he finds out the love of his life and next-door neighbor, Neera (Jessica Biel), has been waiting months for him to ask her out, and it seems like nothing could go wrong. Enter Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne Johnson), a NASA astronaut searching for other forms of life in the galaxy. Unknowingly, he lands smack dab in the middle of Lem’s front yard and consequently all of Lem’s future plans.
The first fifteen minutes of 51 do a great job of bringing you into the universe. By the time Baker shows up you’re convinced that a movie just about Planet 51 would be entertaining on its own. His arrival, the main plot-mover of the story, is where the film really loses course.
Baker winds up in the space museum where he runs into Lem. When the two try to get Baker back to his ship they find it has been quarantined by the military. They decide it be best for Baker to stay in Lem’s parent’s house where he is soon discovered by Lem’s friends. They decide to try and help Baker get back to his ship but have to first outsmart the military. From there the story goes on.
The problem with Baker is that he’s written as such a cartoonish buffoon that it’s difficult to relate with him. His tomfoolery especially works against the film in its quieter scenes, the ones that are supposed to keep the audience emotionally invested. The result is the whole movie feeling more like a half-hearted attempt at the careful mix of humor and emotion that other animated films have come to balance so well.
Even at 90 minutes the movie feels a little long with a second act that spends a lot of time meandering from scene to scene without really discussing any of the core themes of the movie. Some of the jokes work really well, but older audiences these days expect more than just movie references and silliness. At the very least you have to give them something they haven’t seen before.
Despite the shortcomings of its script, there is a lot in Planet 51 that much younger audiences will enjoy. The supporting characters, specifically the tiny robot named Rover, offer some wonderful comic relief and the movie never gets too scary or too heavy handed. Also, the soundtrack is filled with rerecording’s from some of the best songs of the 50’s that could bring a smile to anyone’s face.
There is a lot about Planet 51 that could have been better, but if you’re ever babysitting the Johnson’s kids and they’re crying that they want to watch a movie, and Planet 51 is the only thing available consider it your lucky day. It’ll hold their attention just long enough to put them to sleep.
DVD Special Features:
Run Rover Run Obstacle Course Game, The world of Planet 51, The Voice Stars of Planet 51, Life on Planet 51, Music Video Montage, Animation Production Reels.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Seann Williams Scott
Director: Jorge Blanco
Writer: Joe Stillman
Runtime: 91 minutes
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