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Skiff (voiced by Seann William Scott) and Lem (voiced by Justin Long) star in PLANET 51, an Alliance Films' release.

2 out of 4 stars


Planet 51

  • Directed by Jorge Blanco
  • Written by Joe Stillman
  • Starring Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel
  • Classification: PG

"The unknown is not something to be afraid of. The unknown can be your friend," is the kid-friendly moral to the story of Planet 51 . Well, you can't argue with the preaching, but how about a little practice? With one exception, everything about this animated flick seems reassuringly borrowed and thoroughly familiar and so soothingly "known." That makes it the filmic equivalent of the old "Do as I say, not as I do" Daddy routine, the sort of lecture that any savvy eight-year-old sees right through, thereby learning a lesson as valuable as it is unintended. Little Johnny, now you can define "hypocrisy" and even use it in a sentence. Hey, welcome to the world of grown-ups.

Perhaps I'm just being a grown-up myself, too cranky and harsh. If so, it's only because the above-mentioned exception - a nifty reversal of the usual scary alien premise - is bursting with potential that never gets realized. But more of that later.

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First, we start on the distant planet in question, populated by amiable green critters sporting wavy antennae and a Day-Glo society right out of fifties America. Darned if the place isn't a galactic Pleasantville - same soda shops and pop songs and cookie-cutter suburbs and paranoid provincialism. That's not to say there aren't a few indigenous differences, but they don't amount to much - cars hover, it rains pebbles, teenagers offer each other "high fours," and a struggling minority of wannabe hippies wave placards reading, "Make like, not war." Okay, the opening is pretty cute.

Then comes the reversal: The planet is invaded by an alien intruder, and the enemy is us. Chuck the astronaut (the voice of Dwayne Johnson) lands his craft in someone's front yard, plants the Stars and Stripes beside a white picket fence, and, by his mere presence, scares the bejabbers out of the natives, at least before they get restless. Certainly, a more clever writer than Joe Stillman (a Shrek alumnus) could generate some real satiric mileage from this premise, adjusted for a kiddie audience but mileage nonetheless. And, obviously, the best animation knows how to take a split-level approach to both its humour and its themes - one story for the young, another for the young-at-heart. But not here.

Instead, having established its fresh conceit, the script simply heads off into stale territory, complete with the inevitable borrowings from Spielberg and Kubrick and any number of B-movie staples from our own Eisenhower past. So, as luck would have it, Chuck has his first close encounter with Lem the open-minded teen (Justin Long), whereupon both alien and local discover they share a facility with the Queen's English and a taste for oxygenated air. Off goes Chuck's life-preserving helmet; then off goes Chuck to the kid's bedroom, the preferred hiding place for every E.T.

Meanwhile, outside in Planet 51's xenophobic climate, brawny General Growl (Gary Oldman) and his Dr. Strangelove accomplice (John Cleese) have declared that "the battle for our world has begun." In short, the chase is on, although not without a side-trip or two down lover's lane. You see, Chuck's new friend Lem has an eye for the spunky gal with those pre-hippie habits (Jessica Biel). And Chuck's old friend, Rover the robot, has a nose for rock samples and big trouble and any native who offers him an affectionate pat on his metallic head. A modest prediction: Expect Rover to safely make the return journey to the shelves of your neighbourhood Toys 'R' Us, touching down just in time for a festive Christmas.

By now, with nowhere to go except toward that incongruous moral, the story is getting thin on the ground, obliging director Jorge Blanco to pad with the usual plush stuffing - bland action and busy edits.

When the end does arrive, the children of Planet 51, like children everywhere, prove themselves quicker studies than their myopic parents, and come to realize that, in a universe as vast as the imagination, differences must not be feared but appreciated. Alas, watching all this back here on the third rock from the sun, our poor kids may be a tad confused, wondering what to believe when the message embraces variety but the messenger is the same old same old.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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