By David Germain
HOLLYWOOD — It’s been a big year for animation, with a great variety of styles represented by “Up,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the upcoming “The Princess and the Frog.”
The best you can say of the sci-fi comedy “Planet 51” is that like those others, it too is animated.
“Planet 51” is the first feature film from Ilion Animation Studios, established by the founders of video game outfit Pyro Studios. The Ilion crew has all the technical talent to craft decent computer imagery, though it looks commonplace next to the marvels “Up” creator Pixar Animation dreams up in film after film.
But “Planet 51” is an aborted liftoff when it comes to story, presenting a half- or quarter-baked premise of a human astronaut among little green aliens who, for some uninspired reason, are living the serene “Ozzie and Harriet” life of 1950s America.
Working from a screenplay by Joe Stillman (co-writer of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2”), director Jorge Blanco shifts from his Pyro video game career to the big screen with an adventure as bland as the sitcommy decade that fostered it.
Likewise, voice stars Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long and cast mates seem to take their cue from the Ward Cleaver school of parental droning. Even vocal gymnast John Cleese sounds neutered as a partly mad alien scientist.
Lacking any real cleverness — why is it supposed to be funny that this planet’s skies rain rocks instead of water? — the movie piles on frantic slapstick and chases, which may go some distance in satisfying young children. Their parents may find “Planet 51” as boring as an interstellar voyage — a long way to go with not much to do.
“Planet 51” — you know, like Area 51, where the U.S. government keeps its own alien stuff — is a world petrified of outsiders, whose big entertainment is the latest B-movie about space invaders coming to take over.
Brainy teenager Lem (voiced by Long) is an unbeliever, an astronomy nut convinced the universe is only 500 miles wide and that his world is the big cheese, until he becomes reluctant protector of Chuck Baker (Johnson), a NASA astronaut who lands on Lem’s world.
Convinced Chuck is a monster aiming to turn them into zombies, Lem’s fellow citizens want to hunt him down, the charge led by Gen. Grawl (Gary Oldman, who, to his credit, delivers with a Patton-like bark to his voice).
Chuck finds more allies in Lem’s comic-book geek chum Skiff (Seann William Scott) and the lovely, sensitive Neera (Biel), the girl-next-door for whom Lem pines.
Rather than imagining something fresh and sly of their own, the filmmakers fixate on mimicking America in the Eisenhower years, with soda shops, full-service gas stations, beatniks on the cusp of hippiedom, even a hint of McCarthyism when a child tells authorities his mom’s a zombie.
The latter routine is almost funny. Everything else in “Planet 51” is mostly familiar and tired. The buildings and cars are ’50s clones, only with rounded flying saucer shapes to let you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Chuck’s a vain, strutting, wearisome pretty boy, and Johnson’s banal vocals might make you long for the comic gravity of Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s “Toy Story.” The cutest thing about “Planet 51” is Chuck’s robot helper Rover, and even he’s a pale stand-in for a far superior Pixar creation, a guy named WALL-E.
As for the people of “Planet 51,” these aliens are not just a reflection of us — they are us, only with green skin and antennae.
Derivative at every turn, the movie seemingly references every notable Hollywood science-fiction saga — “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Star Wars,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Lost in Space,” “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”
This world has our pop music, too — “Lollipop,” “Unchained Melody,” “Mr. Sandman” — and the movie’s cultural piracy includes Bob Dylan and Beach Boys allusions, even a “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence.
Little of this clutter will register with young kids, and adults are more likely to sigh than laugh over the movie’s repeated skimming of human culture.
“Planet 51” is so behind the times that it eagerly serves up a “Macarena” gag — about a decade after it might have been funny.
“Planet 51,” released by Sony’s TriStar Pictures, is rated PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor. Running time: 91 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.