Planet 51, a new animated film from new Madrid based studio Ilion, drops us onto an alien planet where everything feels and sounds like America in the 1950’s, except that instead of people the world is inhabited by prototypical green aliens. Their world, like ours, has fat cops, status-obsessed parents and bashful boys who don’t have the nerve to ask the pretty girls out on dates. They are also terrified of space aliens who, in their minds, look just like American astronauts so it is easy to imagine their horror when one of our astronauts does crash land right in the middle of their suburban utopia. On paper it is a decent enough premise that plays off of a Freaky Friday role reversal riff on E.T. and they have a little fun with it, but mostly the movie is a parade of bad jokes that are used to flesh out a useless script.
American astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock) needs his ship to get back home but it is being held hostage by the over zealous alien military. Plus he only has a finite amount of time before his spacecraft expires and leaves him stranded on that planet forever. It all feels a little too familiar. He befriends a local teenager Lem (Justin Long) who helps him achieve his goal even though it costs him his new highly prized job. But who cares about all that because he learns a very valuable lesson about tolerance for those who come from other planets. And for a little extra color the writers threw in Rover, Chuck’s roaming camera that is given all the characteristics of a dog (you know, for the kids) including, inexplicably, the sense of smell, which is so stupid that it boggles the mind. Best not to think about it.
Quite obvious the makers of this film (Jorge Blanco is credited as the director but a mess this big is the work of many hands) were trying to play it as safe as possible. The plot feels like a retread of every animated film ever and manages to vanish from your memory bank the second you leave the theatre. The "humor" is comprised of puns so bad they should be considered criminal offenses; ho-hum sight gags, and the all important pop culture references to draw in the older crowd and wink at the parents. Of course those parents, and their kids, will be texting their way through this yawnfest. Much better to do that than to fixate on the fact that the characters lips and words are nowhere near synched-up, or to reminisce about the good old days when The Rock was back in the WWE and still somewhat entertaining.
All of this adds up to the bleak reality that this film stinks. But, in the spirit of the season, let us consider another side of the story. Ilion, the studio that produced this mess, had never before made a movie. They are a fledgling company who worked hard to raise the $70 million needed to finance the film, secure the bold faced names for its cast, and, perhaps most impressively, land that plush Thanksgiving release date here in the states. So if this whole thing feels kind of amateurish there’s kind of a good reason for it. It’s easy to sit back now that the film has bombed and say that they played it too safe but in reality they turned in a poorly executed version of the same slop that the bigger animation studios ride all the way to the bank. Bringing this up is not to explain away incompetence, but considering the resources they had available to them, maybe lowering the bar could be justified just this once. Hopefully those box office numbers won’t spell the end of Ilion Studios and next time around they will sell us something other than the same old song and dance.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Seann Williams Scott
Director: Jorge Blanco
Writer: Joe Stillman
Runtime: 91 minutes