Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures. From left, "Eckle" voiced by Freddie Benedict, "Neera" voiced by Jessica Biel, "Chuck Baker" voiced by Dwayne Johnson, "Lem" voiced by Justin Long and "Skiff" voiced by Seann William Scott are seen in Columbia Pictures' animated comedy "Planet 51."
Planet 51 (PG)
One and a half stars out of four
If you were one of the few who took in "Battle for Terra" from earlier this year and liked the concept but found the delivery too serious and somber, you might like the far lighter, bouncier and intellectually modest "Planet 51."
The "aliens" (which are the ones being invaded in both) look like tadpoles with sad, puppy-dog eyes and speak perfect English. Both alien groups share Western hemisphere lifestyles and values, but those in "Planet 51" distinguish themselves from their "Terra" counterparts by reading comic books, driving VW vans and overcooking burgers on the grill. They more resemble "The Flintstones" than "Star Wars" extras, although a few look like they could be related to Jabba the Hutt.
"Terra" was also original. Everything -- and that means every thing -- in "Planet 51" is stolen, not borrowed, from another sci-fi classic or social/cultural icon. You want a full-screen image of the moon with a silhouette ala "E.T.?" You got it. How about some bleeding heart '60s hippies misquoting Bob Dylan? Check. Perhaps you'd like a slice of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" paranoia on the side? That's here too -- and in black and white. You'll also see a dog modeled after the creature in "Alien" that urinates acid.
This isn't an animated sci-fi adventure, it's a late 20th century recycled cinematic time capsule, and man, it is ugly. The lime-green inhabitants tend to don what used to be referred to as "casual wear," second-rate golf attire available in every possible shade of bleached pastels. The flat backgrounds are dull purple and gray and the entire film looks like it was bathed in milk. The only visuals that stand out are the blue eyes and red hair belonging to invading U.S. astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson).
With a personality that lands somewhere between game show host and used car salesman, the bumbling but full-of-himself Chuck might as well have a huge "L" stamped on his forehead. He shrieks like a little girl at the very suggestion of trouble and is completely dependent on his roving information gathering robot named (go figure) Rover. Never uttering a word, Rover could easily be WALL-E's cousin and is the film's sole interesting character.
All of it makes sense in a whacky Saturday morning cartoon kind of way, which the under-8 set will love but will likely drive more than one parent out into the lobby to wait until it's over. On the upside, there are none of the downbeat subplots that have been so prominent in recent family films.
It's wise that Sony is releasing the film this weekend as to not compete with the Thanksgiving Day release of the excellent "Fabulous Mr. Fox" featuring George Clooney. Director Wes Anderson's stop-motion comedy adventure based on the classic Roald Dahl book could very well give "Up" something to worry about on Oscar night. (Sony/TriStar)