Review in a Hurry: Sure, every story has already been told, but there still could have been a smidgen of originality in this role-reversal alien-invasion pic. Staring bright animation and the voices of Justin Long and Dawyne Johnson, Planet 51 follows a hilarious concept with weak execution and way too many references to better films.
The Bigger Picture: Lem (Justin Long) is an astronomy geek living on a far-off planet many worlds away. His community is firmly entrenched in its '50s era, where everyone is dressed to the nines, has faith in the establishment, and fears alien invasion. To us, they are the aliens, from the green skin and banana hair to the "smooth down there" bodies. When Lem crosses paths with a "humanoid"—a.k.a. cocky astronaut Chuck (Dwayne Johnson)—he is suddenly on the adventure of a lifetime, dodging the military, building self-confidence, and discovering more about his universe than he ever imagined.
Frequent homages and outright imitations of other films litter Planet 51. E.T., Wall-E, Singing in the Rain (as in a character actually dances in the rain to the very song)—was there any effort put into the writing of this movie? No animated kids' picture is complete without a likeable, clever hero and a Very Special Lesson, but there must still be new and original ways to tell this story.
Unfortunately, no unique angle exists in Planet 51, and the promising concept falls flat. It offers a few laughs for the kids, and adults too, but the jokes are often vulgar in nature. Anyone can make a fart joke.
Not just unfunny, but plain old unsettling, is the element of adult danger. Our heroes need to be in peril to set up any kind of satisfying payoff, but there are scenes of cute bugs getting squished (even Wall-E spared a roach!), a circular saw about to rip open a brain, and an implied police beating (like, you can see the billy clubs going up and down in the frame, though not making actual contact). Kids are a lot more sophisticated these days, no doubt, but is nothing sacred?
The 180—a Second Opinion: The animation is beautiful, the colors vibrant, the direction is strong, and the cast, especially Johnson, is solid. An emphasis on science and space exploration is also a neat educational aspect of the story that parents will appreciate.
Also opening this week: The Twilight Saga: New Moon