With the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long. Rated PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor. 88 minutes.
In terms of contemporary animation, Pixar remains the gold standard. “Up” will likely be on many ten best lists at the end of the year, and not only because it’s been a lackluster year at the movies. DreamWorks Animation has been a steady number two, sometimes coming out on top with a movie like “Shrek.” For fans of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki – whose latest offering was the charming “Ponyo” – is the one to measure everyone else.
While there’s been some interesting entries in what might be called “arthouse” animation (“Waltz With Bashir,” “Persepolis,” “Coraline”), most of the rest of what’s out there has ranged from mediocre to dreadful. Movies like “Ice Age 3” or “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” succeed not because they’re good films but because audiences starved for family friendly entertainment will swallow almost anything. That’s what makes the arrival of PLANET 51 so interesting.
It’s a kid-oriented science fiction spoof with lots of in-jokes and references for the grown-ups. The film opens with a couple necking in a car when an alien spaceship appears. It’s a scene right out of the catalog of 1950s SF movies and sure enough it turns into “War Of The Worlds.” The twist is that this is another planet which is replicating the 1950s by way of “Back To The Future.”
Lem (Justin Long) has just gotten a job at the local planetarium and is getting up the nerve to ask out the girl next door (Jessica Biel) when a real alien spaceship arrives containing a truly horrifying alien – an astronaut from the planet Earth. Captain Charles Baker (Dwayne Johnson) is the astronaut as celebrity, sent out to explore with no real skills except playing well to the press and public. He is, in a sly reference to “The Right Stuff” which is also overtly cited, little more than “spam in a can.” Now he needs to get back to his orbiting ship, but with everyone in an uproar over the “alien,” he has to rely on Lem and his friends to help him out. There’s a heavy of course, General Grawl (Gary Oldman), and a crackpot scientist (John Cleese) who wants to examine the astronaut’s brain, but you can pretty much guess where the story is going to come out.
Beyond the references to “E.T.,” “WALL*E” and a truly clever twist on “Alien,” what puts “Planet 51” on the map is the smooth and engaging animation combined with some rich and sometimes surprising humor. This is a truly fun film to watch. What’s unexpected is where it came from: Madrid. Ilion Animation may not be well known yet – this is their first theatrical release – but it is a debut that shows great promise the way so many animated also-rans do not.
Let’s not oversell “Planet 51,” though. It’s fun for the kids, and adults should have a good time too. It’s in the occasional flash of something more than the ordinary where it shows that Ilion Animation may have the “right stuff” themselves.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.