The Spanish-based animated feature “Planet 51,” the first from Madrid’s Ilion Animation Studios, is as American as Apple Pie. The Iberian peninsula is not known for its digital cartoons, and while the colorful setting and playful sequences will occupy any youngster’s imagination, it may stretch some parents’ comfort in the theater seat next to junior’s. The best fun us oldsters can have is guessing which film/character/settings/music the film’s creators are paying homage to, from the initial military standoff of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to the acid-spewing creature in the “Alien” films to the town square of Glipfrog which appears lifted from the “Back to the Future” set to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a.k.a. the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme. And that’s just the opening few minutes.
Perhaps “Planet 51” should have added a dash of Pedro Almodovar, one of Spain’s preeminent directors (and out soon with the deliciously enticing “Broken Embraces”) to spice up a rather ordinary revisitation of “ET,” with dollops of more than a dozen other movies, character allusions, and splashes of “Twilight Zone” to provide an amicable, but not terribly original, film.
When self-absorbed and slightly clueless 21st century American astronaut Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne Johnson) lands on what he believes to be an uninhabited planet (Odd that he didn’t look out his flight vehicle’s window first, don’t you think?), he manages to plant the U.S. flag in the backyard of a suburban alien family. Only then does he realize the planet is actually occupied by cute little 4-fingered (per “hand”) green beings, who just happen to speak perfect English. The generally friendly residents are molded out of 1950s Americana, without the burdensome nasty cold war climate, but still anxious for modern automatic washing machines and a burger at the neighborhood drive-in. Television is in black-and-white, with live commercials. (How many of my readers remember those, I wonder?)
Yes, they still have a spooky, comic book “alien menace” mentality, exacerbated by a cockeyed scientist and a right-wing, civil defensive military commander, but it’s an amiable enough landscape. You’ve seen enough of these films to know, heck, it’s a family feature and the filmmakers aren’t going to demand too much from anyone in the audience. C’mon, you expect something less than a happy ending? Chuck’s inaugural visit thus becomes quite the hide-and-seek escapade. An earlier, un-manned excursion to the planet brought a smart robotic rock-fueled “dog” nicknamed Rover, which had been secured in an Area 51 equivalent, a secretive desert base that is the center of numerous UFO controversies. With Chuck’s arrival triggering the robot’s wake up, it becomes an integral part of the chase — to get Chuck back to his orbiting ship within 72 hours so that he can return to Earth. An ecstatic Rover does a cute solo to the tune of “Singing in the Rain” when a cloudburst brings a storm of rocks.
Johnson, no stranger to family comedy/chase films (“Race to Witch Mountain,” “The Game Plan”), manages to convey the bubbly warm and mildly dimwitted personality of the fish out of space, while Justin Long (“Mac” in all those wonderful Apple TV commercials) voices Lem, a geeky teenager/student by day and a floor-swabber at the local planetarium by night, who half-heartedly befriends the human visitor. There’s the proverbial beautiful girl next door, Neera (Jessica Biel), for whom Lem moons over, but she seems attracted to hippie Glar (Alan Marriott). Yeah, a 1970s hippie (complete with a VW “bus”) in a 1950s futuristic setting. Other chronological anomalies follow, thrown in for quick effect. Stir in some other young members of Lem’s entourage: Skiff (“American Pie’s” Seann William Scott). Lem’s paranoid best friend and 7-year-old Eckle (Freddie Benedict), Neera’s sci-fi smitten brother. Don’t forget the meanies, Professor Kipple (John Cleese) and General Grawl (Gary Oldman), out to defeat reason.
As for the birds and the bees, I’m glad the film doesn’t delve into anything more than a kiss here and there, because the male aliens all appear neutered and wear no pants (think “Donald Duck”), so it’s anyone’s guess (if anyone cares) how these antennae-headed creatures reproduce.
The soundtrack is a potpourri of moldy oldies that spruce up and reflect on the action, including “Lollipop,” “Be Bop a Lula,” and (naturally) “Earth Angel.” “Macarena” makes a blessedly brief and out-of-date cameo. Product placements are evident, but not obtrusive.
Pre-pubescent kids will probably enjoy “Planet 51” and their parents will have enough chuckles to bide the time. (Mr. & Mrs. Moviegoer, please don’t text in theatres during periods of boredom.) The problem with “Planet 51” isn’t that it doesn’t have plenty of The Right Stuff, but that it doesn’t include enough of the write stuff.