Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Review: Planet 51

"Planet 51" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Planet 51" (2009) is an interesting sci-fi family film with a twist. The world created here is not unlike our own, say 50 years ago. Doo-wop music plays on the soundtrack, girls wear mini shirts, guys drive convertibles. But, the twist is it is not planet Earth. We are on another planet occupied by green creatures. For some reason their planet is the equivalent of 1950s America. And we (the humans) are the dreaded space invaders.

I couldn't understand why this title was decided. Does it represent the year the movie takes place, 1951? Or is it a reference to Area 51, the supposed military base where alien spacecraft exist? And why are they trapped in the 50s? They also speak English and are surprised to find out people on Earth do too.

"Planet 51" has a nice look to it but I've come to notice pretty much all of today's animated movies look the same. What is so different about this movie and say "Shrek" (2001)? With the technology "Toy Story" (1995) introduced each studio has tried to duplicate the same look. So visually nothing really strikes me anymore. "Planet 51" has your standard animated look. But what separates it is the feel one gets from the time period created.

Our hero is Lem (voiced by Justin Long). Lem is a science teacher who teaches his students space is 500 miles wide. On his planet he is pretty educated. But Lem is one of the bashful, shy, guy next door types that has a crush on the neighborhood beauty, Neera (Jessica Biel). If only he can muster up enough courage to ask her out on a date.

As fate would have it, Lem never gets the opportunity to ask his dream girl out. You see, an alien spacecraft has landed on his family's yard, causing wide spread fear. Does the alien want to take over their planet? Will it turn everyone into zombies?

The "alien" is really Captain Charles T. Baker (pro wrestler Dwayne Johnson) an astronaut. Once he becomes public enemy number one Charles needs a place to hide. And his only hope is Lem and his friends like Skiff (Seann William Scott), a sci-fi movie junkie who thinks Charles wants to eat their brains for dinner.

Charles needs to find a way to sneak back onto his ship so he can head back home. But the planet's military, headed by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) have barricaded the space ship and have called for the help of Professor Kipple (John Cleese) who wants to run experiments on the alien's brain.

"Planet 51", which was directed by Jorge Blanco and co-directed by Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez, is quite political. It can be interpreted many different ways and be seen as having several different political agendas. However, the underlying theme here seems to be tolerance of the "other". We all need to learn to get along. It is a big world out there and there is room for everyone.

Since a majority of the production crew seems to be Hispanic it is not a crazy idea to assume the movie is about illegal aliens. Everyone is afraid of Charles because he is different and don't know what his intentions are but, once they realize he is friendly they learn to accept him. Isn't that what the open border crowd says? Illegal aliens aren't drug dealers or violent. They are merely here looking for jobs and a better life. They mean us no harm. They come in peace.

One of the more interesting characters is Glar (Alan Marriott). He is presented as a possible rival for Neera's affection but is also a man (?) ahead of his time. He is the cliche liberal stoner. He has developed a new concept called "protesting" which he has persuaded Neera to do in support of the alien. He also warns her "the times, they are a different", echoing the immortal words of Bob Dylan, well, almost.

Despite "Planet 51"s good nature and important social message I ultimately don't think the movie is going to please its target audience very much. There are too many references to things they don't know about. The 1950s, Area 51, Bob Dylan, the hippie movement. And worst of all, I didn't find the movie particularly funny. It doesn't have that cross-over appeal the best animated films have like "Finding Nemo" (2003), "Toy Story 2" (1999) or the recent "Megamind" (2010) where both adults and children can laugh at it. There also aren't any memorable characters. A child is going to be more interested in Buzz Lightyear and Shrek than Lem.

"Planet 51" isn't a bad movie. It has some entertaining moments. Though in the end, the kids are going to want to watch something else instead.