Planet 51 -- Film Review

Sony's entry in the crowded animation field this holiday season is "Planet 51," a perky though not terribly imaginative feature aimed primarily at youngsters. Created by a Spanish company, Ilion Animation Studios, this digital cartoon is a jokey reimagining of 1950s science fiction flicks where Earth faced extinction by alien space invaders seemingly on a monthly basis. The twist in this movie is that it has an alien planet terrified of -- a human astronaut.

Kids will enjoy the swift action and slapstick gags, and adult minders can chuckle at a few more suggestive jokes, so the film should enjoy a solid opening the week before Thanksgiving. After that, Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" hits theaters, so "Planet 51's" boxoffice could suffer a steep drop-off.

The cartoon's planet is populated with little green people that have antennas, four-fingered hands and webbed feet. Their thinking and culture is pure '50s, including the music, comic books and movies that exploit a fear of monsters and aliens. They even know to call these creatures from outer space "humanoids."

Then one arrives.

Chuck (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) isn't particularly bright -- his spacecraft is run by autopilot -- but he certainly is friendly. Yet the green people see an "ugly" monster in a space suit, so they flee in terror. Only Lem (Justin Long), a model student and aspiring astronomer, can see his friendly side. Soon he, his pal Skiff (Seann William Scott) and his not-quite-girlfriend Neera (Jessica Biel) must hide Chuck from the likes of gruff General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and crackpot Professor Kipple (who else -- John Cleese), a scientist who wants to perform a brain extraction on every strange creature he encounters.

There are chases and comical misunderstandings that extend this single-note idea for 90 minutes. When in doubt, the film cuts to Chuck's robot companion, "Rover," a doglike machine that collects every rock it finds.

Director Jorge Blanco and writer Joe Stillman not only don't mind if you associate their derivative images and ideas with other movies, they encourage it. The film references "E.T." and "Close Encounters," plays "Singin' in the Rain" on the soundtrack and makes certain that Rover and several music cues remind you of "Star Wars."

So "Planet 51" is Sci-Fi Lite, running through the cliches -- no, let's make that the memories -- of old sci-fi classics with gentle jokes and cornball battles. It doesn't measure up to what's best in current animation -- say, "Coraline," "Up," "Fantastic Mr. Fox" or "A Town Called Panic," to name a few other films the Academy recently announced as eligible for this year's animation nomination. Those films demonstrate you can make animation that entertains the entire family. "Planet 51" is not that ambitious.

Opens: Friday, Nov. 20, (Columbia Pictures)
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