The trick to crafting a good children's movie is to create a film that captures the imagination of young viewers while simultaneously transporting parents back to that time in their lives when anything seemed possible. When filmmakers strike that perfect balance, it's like they're bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood by eliminating the skepticism and cynicism of grown-ups, and gently teaching young ones a little bit about how the world really works. It's obvious that the filmmakers behind Planet 51 worked diligently to create a film that speaks to audiences of all ages, but while the concept of a human space explorer landing on an extraterrestrial world resembling our own 1950s society is ripe with possibilities, their choice to go the conventional route results in a film that's technically accomplished, yet aggressively generic.
Lem (voice of Justin Long) is a brainy adolescent with a passion for astronomy and a crush on Neera (Jessica Biel) -- the little green cutie next door. He lives on Planet 51, a place that's millions of light years away from Earth, yet bares a striking resemblance to Eisenhower-era America. Much like us, the people on Lem's planet are fascinated by the prospect that they may not be alone in the universe. But if there are other life forms out there, are they to be feared or embraced? Lem's just landed a job as assistant curator at the local space museum when a UFO lands in his neighbor's yard. The pilot of that ship is Captain Charles T. Baker (voice of Dwayne Johnson). Captain Baker is on a mission to explore other planets, and he was certain that Planet 51 was unoccupied. When the people of Planet 51 discover that they're being visited by an extraterrestrial, they respond much like we might have back in the 1950s -- by completely flipping out. As General Grawl (voice of Gary Oldman) launches a mission to capture the "alien" visitor by any means necessary, Captain Baker implores Lem to help him get back to his ship so he can blast off back to Earth. At first Lem and his friends are terrified of Captain Baker, but the better they get to know him, the more they discover how much they have in common. Unfortunately, there's no time for fun and games, because if Captain Baker fails to reach his ship before its scheduled take-off, he'll be stranded on Planet 51 and left to the devices of General Grawl and Professor Kipple (voice of John Cleese), who's eager to dissect the visitor and learn more about his anatomy.
With a plot that allows him the unique opportunity to both parody and comment on our own culture after nearly five decades of reflection, it's somewhat unfortunate that screenwriter Joe Stillman would be content to simply coast on references aimed at sci-fi fans and nostalgic music cues. Then again, references were pretty much the driving force of the Shrek films, so perhaps it was to be expected that knowing winks would take precedence over actual plot here, too. It could be that we've simply come to expect too much from children's movies since Pixar raised the bar with films like Finding Nemo and WALL-E -- and it's certainly unfair to compare -- but like the Disney classics that came before them, those movies are first and foremost great films, which just happen to have the distinction of being wonderful children's movies. No one would mistake Planet 51 for a great film; aside from the polished animation, there's just nothing original or innovative enough to distinguish it from the glut of unambitious kiddie flicks that have flooded the multiplexes since computer animation became affordable to independent filmmakers. In fact, we've seen this very same plot -- and message -- as recently as this year's unfairly dismissed Battle for Terra, which touched on similar themes with much more maturity and insight while simultaneously delivering some exciting 3D thrills. The humor in Planet 51 is sophomoric and flat, the action is muted and uninventive, and the characters are all the kinds of stereotypes that we've seen onscreen countless times before. Sure, the message is nice, but that doesn't change the fact that it comes packaged in a product that's about as far from inspired as Planet 51 is from Earth.