Planet 51

Sometimes a film has a very clever idea but lacks something in the execution – this animated tale is a classic case in point. It’s a neat set-up – the good people who live on Planet 51 are living an existence which looks very much like 1950s America, with white picket fences, Cadillacs, bowling alleys and comic book shops. Showing in the cinemas are sci-fi films warning of an invasion by "humanoids", which terrify the populace. The occupants of Planet 51 all have green skin, three fingers and, strangely, no trousers.

When an "alien" ship lands in the back garden of Lem’s suburban house he panics – the boy has enough problems as it is, with trying to ask the girl next door out but being scared off by a folk-singing long-hair. However he soon discovers the alien, Captain Chuck Baker (Johnson), is a decent, peace-loving chap who just wants to catch the shuttle back to earth thousands of miles away. Lem decides to hide Captain Baker from his parents and the fascistic General Grawl (Oldman), who just wants alien blood.

Lem, by the way, works in the Planetarium, giving lectures to the local schoolkids on the universe which are littered with errors. Will he learn about space from Captain Baker, and will the astronaut learn the meaning of friendship and escape back to planet earth? And will he manage to pluck up the courage to ask his neighbor on a date? Well, duh. Any idea, however clever, has to be backed up with some jokes and solid characterization, and this is pretty weak in that department. There are simply too many irritating characters on display – a dog which look like Ridley Scott’s alien is particularly annoying – and even the likes of Cleese as a mad scientist, or Horne and Corden as dumb soldiers are given too little to work with. Only Johnson really gets stuck into his character as the vain, absurd but likeable Captain Baker, with the help of a couple of cracking one-liners.

That said there are a few highlights – the film is absolutely stuffed with references to other movies. See if you can spot them all – there’s ET, Singing In The Rain, Star Wars and many more. The world of 1950s suburbia is lovingly recreated, and there’s a hint at the end we might get a sequel set in the 60s. It’s clearly aimed at very young kids, some of whom will be too young to get all the jokes, but it might keep them quiet until the next Disney film turns up.
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SECOND OPINION | Louise Robina Happé ***
As Pixar rides the success of unrivalled animated victory, this year has seen numerous studios attempting to set their mark alongside the CGI greats.  With Monsters Vs. Aliens, Coraline, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 9 having cropped up, new Spain-based Ilion Animation Studios have now tried their hand, offering an original twist to an alien invasion. Set in a world reminiscent of 1950’s American suburbia, Planet 51 is a light comedy offering jabs at a time when things were pure and sweet, whilst whimsically setting them in an alien environment.  But despite an all-star cast, the underdeveloped characters lack likeability and alienate (pun intended!) viewers from feeling any real connection with the little green men.  Poorly cast Justin Long, with his awkward personality, does not translate well as an animated character, and both Jessica Biel and John Cleese are barely noticeable in their feeble roles.

Although the visuals are admirable for an independent animation studio, the comedy is so mediocre that it cannot contend with most of the animated greats released this year; and with references to a plethora of films – from WALL-E to Star Wars to Terminator – the film lacks comical originality, a great shame as the inventive story could have made it a successful release if the boat was pushed just that little bit further.  As an average animated film, Planet 51 fairs well enough, but without a distinct spirit it offers a bubble-gum sweetness without the pop.

Planet 51 at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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