Chesapeake Family provides family-friendly reviews of movies, concentration on material parents may find objectionable, such as sex, violence and language.
Worth the Spacewalk
Animated fun for parents and kids.
by Roxana Hadadi
Planet 51 may be about aliens. But that doesn’t mean the latest animated film (starring the voices of former-wrestler-now-family-flick-man Dwayne Johnson and Mac guy Justin Long) has a tale that’s too far out of this world for you to fully understand – or amusedly appreciate.
In fact, it may be one of the only animated films coming out this holiday season that both parents and children can fully enjoy. Sure, the tale is somewhat expected: Guy (well, in this case, alien) likes girl, other guy (in this case, a human) gets between them, guy fights to get girl back. But it’s the film’s little touches for grown-up audiences that help it progress past its Kumbaya-like message and incite some real chuckles along the way.
The film starts off in the city Glipforg on a planet reminiscent of 1950s America, but with aliens instead of people: The girls wear poodle skirts, the guys are obsessed with comic books and everyone listens to oldies. For Lem (Long), things are going perfectly: He recently got promoted at the city’s planetarium; he’s hoping to ask out the girl of his dreams, Neera (Jessica Biel), who just happens to live next door; and he’s got a solid friend in Skiff (Seann William Scott), even though he doesn’t share Skiff’s obsession with and belief in aliens.
Though Skiff is particularly excited for the release of Humaniacs 3, a film that portrays human-like aliens as murderous killers, Lem doesn’t take any of it seriously – until a spaceship lands in his backyard while his family is barbecuing, that is. And when the ship opens up to reveal Capt. Charles T. Baker (Johnson), who is freaked out by all the alien life and runs away, the city’s Pleasantville-like calmness is turned on its head: Military officials led by the slow-witted but dastardly General Grawl (Gary Oldman) swoop in and secure the area, separating Baker from his ship and from his way back home.
But of course, Lem and Baker end up crossing paths – in a pretty funny scene where the astronaut ends up hanging upside down as part of the planetarium’s exhibit on the universe – and the former ends up committing to helping the latter get back to his ship and out of his life. Yet inevitably, the two craft a friendship that helps each learn not only about the other’s race, but the emotionally weighty things the two have in common. For example, while Lem struggles to ask Neela out, Baker grapples with the fact that he’s only a famous astronaut because of his good looks and charm, not any actual intellect (no offense, NASA).
However, while the two unsurprisingly inspire confidence in each other, the relationship that develops – and the dialogue and plot twists that are a part of it – will definitely elicit some laughs. For example, when the slack-jawed Baker (who at times strongly resembles Gaston from Beauty and the Beast in his self-assurance) sputters “You speak my language” to Lem and then goes off on a rant about how the planet “is supposed to be uninhabited … not full of sea monkeys dancing to the oldies,” his sheer shock is utterly believable. And his development as a character – from first being ambivalent toward the aliens and later acting selflessly to save them – works well, too, especially because Johnson is just so good at sounding calming and trustworthy. There’s a reason he’s crossed over so well from professional wrestling to acting in family-oriented films, and this is a strong showing for why that is.
Plus, any adult alien-lovers will appreciate the numerous references to both modern technology and classic sci-fi films, such as when the aliens hear the Macarena blasting from Baker’s iPod and Grawl mutters, “I’ve never seen such a heinous weapon,” or when Baker scolds the space exploration vehicle Rover, who breaks free of a secret warehouse holding parts of the Sputnik satellite, with lines like, “A planet full of aliens, and you send back pictures of rocks?” Add that to many allusions to Star Wars (like when Baker meets Lem for the first time and asks, “You’re not, like, a 1,000-year-old Yoda or anything?”) and Alien (as the planet’s pets strongly resemble mini-face-huggers, whose urine just happens to be acid), and you’ll get some grown-up chuckles, too.
And since Planet 51 never veers into anything unfriendly for kids (though there is a scene of some brains that have been extracted from aliens who are supposedly Baker’s zombies, the two are still alive and cracking jokes, so it’s not too creepy) and only features one chaste kiss, the whole thing should work for any family interested in sci-fi. While it’s somewhat formulaic, that doesn’t detract from the film’s positive message – and it doesn’t detract from Planet 51’s funniness, either.