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Non-Review Review: Planet 51

Planet 51 is an enjoyable little animated film. It mostly skirts by on it’s rather interesting premise (what if an astronaut landed on an alien world exactly like fifties America?) and razor-sharp pop culture references (I wonder how many kids are going to get the references to E.T. let alone Alien or 2001: A Space Odyssey), but it’s ultimately let down by the fact that nobody involved seems to be trying too hard… or at all, really. The film relies on its intriguing premise to carry it, which it just about does, but it’s hard to feel that there isn’t so much more that could have been done.

I'm not sure if Chuck demonstrates to Planet 51 that there's intelligent life out there...

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments in Planet 51 which really gel. For example, the moment a technician drops the astronaut’s iPod and it starts playing The Macarina only for the general overseeing the project to decry it as some sort of barbaric weapon of war. Or a surprisingly straightforward (for a family film) solution to the probing dilemma. Still, these moments are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of the movie is, like Chuck’s spaceship, on autopilot.

Perhaps the most telling example of this is the ridiculous modernising of classic fifties tunes. Throughout the movie we hear Mister Sandman, Lollipop and Grease Lightening, among others – but not one is presented as the original classic recording, which would have greatly helped establish mood. Instead we’re offered versions that sound like they could have been offered by Miley Cirus or the latest Disney channel tweeny bobber sensation. It’s particularly obvious when they’ve sanitised the lyrics of Grease Lightening down to “you’re such a dream” instead of “chicks will cream”. If you don’t have the guts to use the song as written (which, despite its smutty content, has been considered a wholesome family classic for literally generations), then don’t give us a pale soulless imitation. It just irks me.

The movie pads out its runtime with generic sub-Disney clichés. From Chuck’s own inevitable character growth from smug and self-centred to genuinely caring, or the subplot following a rock-obsessed sentient rover unit (clearly designed to play on Wall-E‘s success), or even the fifties-centric moral about accepting and celebrating diversity and difference (complete with McCarthy-ism metaphor) the film never really rises above the quality of a below-average Dreamworks production, rather than hitting the fun of a Pixar animated film.

The cast here do next to nothing – with most of them phoning it in. I can’t even imagine why Jessica Biel gets second billing, given she’s certainly not anything resembling a lead. Dwayne Johnson appears to, paradoxically, given up on being a grown-up action superstar and his childish nickname “the Rock” to provide us with a perfectly adequate – if not exceptional – leading performance. Justin Long is strangely soulless as the alien who must aid our trapped astronaut. British thespians Gary Oldman and John Cleese aren’t performing at anywhere remotely approaching the top end of their talent, but they still provide the most vivid performances of the film as the military stiff and the crazy doctor who wants to run his own alien autopsy. Oldman actually provides most of the film’s wit, particularly a brilliantly deadpan delivery of an insanely thoughout defense against alien mindcontrol.

The animation is lovely in a wonderfully cartoonish sort of way and just screams quality in a way the rest of the film can’t. There are all manner of smart and even subtle pop culture references. My own personal favourite introduces Chuck humming Also sprach Zarathustra to himself as he plants the American flag at a family barbeque. Sadly the references appear to be the area of the film that got the most care and attention, and it’s a shame that they don’t accompany a more interesting or witty plot.

There is, sadly, nothing too special about Planet 51 despite it’s fun premise. It isn’t quite out of this world.

6 Responses

  1. Completely forgot about this one. Really wanted to see it when it was in the cinema. Watched the trailer again before reading your review- it made me chuckle. The animation looked really good and as you said it is a fun premise. Thought it would be better than your review suggests. I’d probably still watch it on DVD if I got a chance.

    • I certainly wouldn’t cry from the rooftops not to watch it, just that it isn’t an exceptional film in any sort of way. It’s a great premise, but I didn’t think it really did anything with it.

  2. The only DVD we’ve bought for our daughter that I regret adding to my collection. I think my wife knew I was avoiding it, and waited until my back was turned before buying it.

    Completely agree with you on the music front. I don’t think they could help themselves on how things were sanitized.

    Is it just me, or was there a serious parallel between Planet 51 and Back to the Future?

    • I can understand that they couldn’t include “she’s a real pussywagon”, for example, but why use the song at all in that case? The kids only know it because they hear the inappropriate one all the time. I don’t know why it irritates me so much, but it does.

      Yep, it’s hardly an “essential” family film. I thought it was just meh. A lot of stuff bother me when I analysed it, and it didn’t have me in stitches the whole way through. It was just… meh.

  3. Yeah, I watched this movie with my little bro, and the constant jokes centered towards the Cold War, were stupid, and meaningless when it comes to a kids movie.

    • Not even that – I think the under-seen animation classic The Iron Giant proved that Cold War allegories still have weight. It was more just how ridiculously pointless it all seemed and how phoned in the entire movie was.

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