Movie Review: Planet 51 (2009)

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Published on: 2009.11.22

Both fun and funny, the animated sci-fi children’s movie “Planet 51” is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Some big names were drawn in for the voices in this film (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese), and they really helped to pull this off. But it was the writing and the story that did it for me.

Basically, it’s an alien movie, except that the only human in the film is the alien. Johnson provides the voice for a NASA astronaut who lands on a planet that he believes to be empty, hoping to be a hero back home. As it turns out, that planet is entirely populated by cute green aliens who don’t seem to know a lot about astronomy (though they have floating cars, powerful weapons, and massive underground military bases).

In other words, the astronaut is the alien and struggles to overcome the suspicions and fears of the natives, so he can get safely back home.

The movie is full of fun cultural references that many young children won’t get until they’re older… For instance, (1) Astronaut Baker (Johnson) recites lines from Star Wars and Terminator. (2) The automated rover is built like the famed Mars Rover (yet its shell and movements reminded me of WALL-E, something that kids will understand).

(3) Planet 51’s cities are laid out like crop circles, as is the secret underground base. (4) The plot is basically ET in reverse. (5) Several characters use the words “the right stuff,” referring to the movie “The Right Stuff.” (6) When Baker plants a U.S. flag upon his first arrival, he’s humming the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

There are many others.

The animation design was original and fun, with many tiny details apparent to the careful viewer. But a couple of things confused me about Planet 51.

Early on, we’re led to believe that they’re living in an alien version of the U.S., as it was supposed to be in the 1950s. There are full-service filling stations, campy science fiction movies depicting scary alien invaders (one of them is called the “Humaniacs”), clean-cut school children, and white picket fences. People talk to their neighbors, have barbecues, and listen to 1950s rock and roll tunes.

But then we begin to notice things that don’t fit in the 1950s. For instance, all the vehicles on Planet 51 are actually hovercraft, floating a few inches above the ground. The army has very advanced weaponry, though most of the soldiers are ridiculously stupid. The massive underground base (“Base 9”) is quite advanced for such a culture.

Most children likely won’t notice these anachronisms; they just make the movie more fun, so I let it slide.

But one thing I couldn’t let slide were the few science mistakes. When Astronaut Baker is teaching his new alien friend about the universe, he says Earth is about 20 billion miles away. That would put Planet 51 somewhere outside the orbit of Pluto, too far from any sun to provide light and heat for life (yet Planet 51 has sunlight similar to Earth’s).

In real life, the nearest star to Earth (besides Sol, our sun) is Alpha Centauri, about 4.24 light years from Earth. That’s about 25 trillion miles away (a million times further than Baker said).

Another thing that seemed odd was that Baker came all that way (either 20 billion or 25 trillion miles) by himself, yet his starship was clearly fitted for many more people. There were extra spacesuits inside, and several extra seats.

These are the only things I found that justified taking points off my rating.

The music was lively and always fit the scene. Normally, I think movie music should go unnoticed, other than to help set the mood, but in this case it was part of the fun.

Is there anything in this that your kids shouldn’t see?

Well, the first couple of scenes are a little scary. Aliens are shown vaporizing the green men of Planet 51. But we quickly learn that it’s just a movie on a screen. Shots are fired at Astronaut Baker throughout the film, though he’s never hit. Some of the green men shoot at each other near the end of the film and then suffer a mild electric shock.

In other words, it’s a very clean film. All of the violence and action is animated in a humorous way. Of the hundreds of children around me in the theater, only one cried during the movie, and that one was an infant. All the toddlers and other children seemed to enjoy every bit of the movie. A little girl next to me kept leaning over to her mother to say, “I liked that part!”

IMDb: Planet 51
Wikipedia: Planet 51
Rating: PG
(for mild sci-fi violence and some suggestive humor)
Length: 91 min. (1:31)
Director: Jorge Blanco
Genre: sci-fi / adventure / comedy / family
My Rating: 9 of 10
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese

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