Published Nov 19, 2009Aside from their flying cars (which we on Earth were promised but cruelly denied), the smooth, green, four-fingered bipeds of Planet 51 ― think Shrek, as constructed of unripe bananas, and with a gym membership ― live in a kinder, gentler version of our drive-in, bowling alley, malt shop '50s.
The universe, they believe, is 500 miles wide. There's no crime to speak of. The proto-hippies in their floating VW vans, while a little grubby and dishevelled, are essentially kind and incrementalist (the protest song of the day is "The Times, They Are a-Different"). And the brain-sucking aliens of popular film are entirely allegory-free. (No communists under these beds, thanks very much.)
Enter into this Ozzie and Harriet placidity American fly-boy Charles T. Baker (Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson), arriving to claim the (he thinks) uninhabited planet for the U.S. of A. In the Gaston/Buzz Lightyear tradition of blustery, self-loving hunks, Baker is granite of jaw but bone of head (and, oddly, Chris Isaak of nose), and so is more pants-wettingly afraid of the bemused locals than they are of him.
In reverse E.T. fashion, Baker is accidentally taken in by good-hearted teenaged astronomy nerd Lem (Justin Long), his putative love interest Neera (Jessica Biel, smokin' even in the ambulatory fruit format) and their cadre of can-do, authority-tweaking cronies. In exchange for hiding him from the dementedly space-zombie-phobic military and getting him back to his spaceship, Baker drops some Earthly (and earthy) knowledge ― not so much in the line of love, acceptance and the other Spielberg-ian values, but news-you-can-use stuff, like how to hit on chicks and hot-wire a car.
Things come to a head with the inevitable chase scene, and a fiery crescendo at super-secret Base 9 ― the local Area 51 analogy ― where a nice (if overly explicit) lesson is delivered on fear of "the other," and appropriate rewards/comeuppances are visited on the assemblage.
But although the animation is never les than stellar and a nice background hum of low-level yocks is maintained, Planet 51 never takes flight, unable or unwilling to transcend its playful but obvious rehash of sci-fi conventions. The canine antics of Baker's uncomfortably WALL-E-esque droid buddy Rover are dopey and wildly overused. The John Cleese-voiced, know-nothing, monocle-sporting alien "expert" is deeply trite. And (nit-picking here) the writers are too lazy to explain Planet 51's unusually convenient adoption of the English language. But the real killer is the film's failure to replicate that arcane, Pixar-patented alchemy ― viz. Up or Ratatouille ― of managing a higher parallel track to challenge (or at least engage) the post-pubescents.
A perfectly adequate timewaster for the tweens, but parents seeking to access Planet 51's primary surrogate babysitter function will do well to wait for the DVD. (Alliance)