Planet 51

3 out of 5

Directed by: Jorge Blanco

There’s a nagging feeling during Planet 51 that its premise is kind of wasted.  While it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of questioning how, exactly, this premise came to be – that there’s an alien planet that’s somehow come to mimic America during the 50s and 60s, including era-appropriate music, long-haired hippies, and sci-fi monster flicks that cast humans as ‘humaniac’ alien invaders – I’m willing to give kids movies a giant pass on that kind of stuff, as long as whatever the setup is is at least committed to.  But that’s the thing: once the flick introduces a stranded astronaut, “Chuck” Baker – amusingly viewed as the planet invader in a tried-and-true role reversal – it starts coasting, as Chuck is from modern day Earth, switching gags from the Earth vs. Alien Planet mix-ups to present tech vs. past tech…

It’s a missed opportunity.  Not that the 50s gags cut too deep, but there’s some light world-building done that’s cut short by this switch in focus.

The core plot is cute and engaging, though, supported by a good voice performance from Justin Long as the alien Lem, and a great performance – nearly unrecognizably buoyant – from Dwayne Johnson as Chuck, the spaceman discovered and befriended by Lem, setting them on their 90 minute adventure to dodge scientists and the army and get our Earthman back on his ship.  We also have our requisite cute animated creator in the form of Rover, the rock-loving planet probe which wags its antennae like a dog and supplies most of the film’s chuckles, and the movie keeps us moving through expected mishaps and confrontations (Chuck and Lem both mistake each other as the enemy; Lem introducing Chuck to his friends; the army discovers Chuck; etc.) without repeating gags or dawdling.  Ilion studios animation is lively and bright, but Planet 51 does seem like it takes place on a very small stage, suggesting that if things went on a larger scale, the look might not have been able to keep up.

Some poor attempts at “adult” humor are included, and one slightly homophobic joke that 2009 should have been aware enough to skip.  The majority of the film is harmless, and completely average.