PLANET 51 is a perfectly sweet film that kiddies will adore. Their adults, on the other hand, may find it more of a slog. The story is predictable, the characters are stock. Both those failings are mitigated by good, if not dazzling, animation, and a mechanical rover, cleverly named Rover, that is in the mold of WALL-E and almost as adorable.
It’s a reverse alien invasion story wherein square-jawed astronaut Charles Baker (Dwayne Johnson) plants the American flag on alien soil. The soil is in someone’s backyard, Lem (voice of slacker god Justin Long) and his family to be exact, and the planting occurs during a family barbeque. It’s cute. As is the reaction of horror by the green-skinned, antenna-ed inhabitants of the alien world to Baker’s chiseled good looks. Fortunately, the script doesn’t dwell on that facet of the situation overly long, though when Baker attempts to coach Lem in the finer points of romance in order to woo the girl next door Neera (Jessica Biel), he is forced to ask if Lems lime-gelatin mold of a face is considered good looking. Not that there’s much time for such tutelage. Baker has been separated from his ship and there’s a deadline for getting him back to it so that he can get back to Earth. there’s also the problem of the military hunting him down in the mistaken belief that he’s the start of a planetary invasion.
Lem, whose name. by coincidence, is also the acronym for NASA’s Lunar Excursion Module, by further coincidence works at the local planetarium, effusively dispensing the summit of his species’ knowledge, things like the universe is 500 miles wide. It’s a subtle dig at believing everything the establishment proffers. Setting the story on an alien planet that is going through the 50s is also cute and a little sly, as are the plethora of references to classic sci-fi from the 50s and later, as well as, and for no better reason than that it’s fun, SINGING IN THE RAIN and FULL METAL JACKET (a helmet in a brief shot declares “corn to mill”). Props must be offered for that. Props must also be offered for the way the animators rendered dust motes. It’s not the showiest example of the art, but it’s darned impressive nonetheless.
The alien world is more than just a simulacrum of America in the 1950s. The problem of language is neatly dealt with when Baker is astonished that Lem speaks his language, and Lem is equally astonished that Baker speaks his, problems with pop references and slang notwithstanding. Hippies and a protest movement, perhaps a scooch anachronistic, provide a running joke about Skif (Seann William Scott), Lem’s rival for Neera’s affection, a counter-culturist with a penchant, but no talent, for protest.
The characters are charming without being original, and the bad guys are more pompous and misinformed than actually evil, even the scientist of the piece (voiced by John Cleese, which makes it the acme of the flick), who approaches the putatively brain-eating aliens with his own plans to remove Baker’s brain. There is bonding, discovery, romance, and house pets that look exactly like the creature in ALIEN. PLANET 51 can’t quite get over the inertia of its failings, but it is a harmless good time for the under-10 set.