Planet 51 is an odd entry into the animated feature realm. With only “fairly cute” and “moderately entertaining” in its arsenal, Planet 51 is easily overlooked, and I suspect, destined to be forgotten rather quickly. Under normal circumstances, I believe I would be on board with a general effort of leaving the film as unnoticed as huge marketing campaigns will allow, but I saw the movie with my son, and he loved it.
We have to take our insights where we can, and besides being a member of the target audience, my son (at eight years of age) is rather bright, serious, and enough of a film critic in his own right that Neil Gaiman blogged about his reaction to Coraline.
The plot of the movie is decidedly straight-forward, and while eerily similar to Iron Giant in general terms, it’s the zany, cutesy version.
Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) is an astronaut, and he lands his NASA probe on Planet 51, which he believes is an uninhabited world. Much to his surprise, the planet is not only populated by green “aliens” in their own version of the ’50s, but he finds that these are rather xenophobic aliens. Soon the army is out in full force, the stories of alien mind-control abilities are running wild, and the chase is on. Chuck’s only hope of escape is in the hands of mild-mannered teen alien Lem (Justin Long), whose only worry five minutes ago was working up the nerve to ask out the lovely Neera (Jessica Biel).
It’s General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and Professor Kipple (John Cleese), and their thoroughly closed-minded fear vs. Chuck, a couple of teen aliens, and Rover the wonder bot, and time is running out, because Chuck’s ship is going back to Earth soon, with or without him.
Against a backdrop of a goofed out Happy Days, with floating cars, floating burgers, and sillified architecture, it’s a slapdash adventure with a few laughs and a generally fun tone, but with little that stands out as particularly interesting. There isn’t anything especially bad about it, but it certainly doesn’t have the fun factor of something like a Shrek or Madagascar.
It’s hard to imagine the Chuck and Lem action-figures. There isn’t that sort of fun, and they aren’t the right kind of characters. The level of paranoia, mass hysteria, and mob mentality thrown out to make the movie’s statements are hardly above the excuses for plot steps you might see in a Three Stooges sketch. The love, friendship, and everyman routines are silly, and only avoid being stock footage from other (poor) films by way of being animated.
But, my son really liked it. He didn’t laugh as much, nor did he seem to be generally enjoying it as much as any number of other movies, but when we left he put it on top of almost all of them. He thought it was a lot of fun, but more importantly, he loved the way the movie was telling its story. He knew, for example, that the universe was rather bigger than 500 miles across when the aliens in Planet 51 declared the fact, and he was fascinated by the idea that he suspected at least some of the aliens knew it was too. Then there was an alien, and where could an alien come from in a 500 mile universe? When people still wouldn’t even toy with the idea of a bigger universe, it became a kind of magic movie to my son. As much as it was funny and wacky that some aliens claimed to have had their minds taken over, it said something powerful. People are like this sometimes, this movie is saying… they don’t listen, fear the unknown, judge others based on looks, say things they know aren’t true… even though this movie is about aliens, it means real people… that’s so cool.
I’d have written this movie off pretty quickly, and without giving it that much thought, if it weren’t for my son. For all that I actually try to modify my perspective as much as I can for any movie, this one was sneakier than usual. It just wasn’t that funny really, and well… I’d heard it all before. Good for me, I outsmarted a kid’s movie.
Not all movies for adults have to be Caddyshack or Stripes, and no one seems to mind the idea. Maybe all kid’s movies don’t have to be either.
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