“Planet 51” takes off like a rocket with its glitzy and alien look, but it never achieves orbit because of a sputtering plot and lackluster performances.
The film looks at what it would be like for a planet of Sea Monkey-looking inhabitants, who seem to be stuck in the 1950s, getting a close encounter of the Earthly kind. Their isolated world of backyard barbecues, comic book reading and walking their mechanical dogs is sent into turmoil.
Visiting astronaut Cap. Charles “Chuck” Baker is a narcissist voiced with false bravado by “Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His right stuff is a great smile and a big ego. Baker touches down into the life of geeky Lem (Justin Long), who just wants to find the nerve to ask his neighbor, Neera (Jessica Biel), to go on a date. Instead, Lem’s pressed into being a hero.
The spherical design of everything on “Planet 51” is interesting — for a few moments. But it’s not interesting enough to distract from the movie’s failings, especially compared with other recent animated offerings.
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“Planet 51” doesn’t have the heart or smart writing of “Wall-E.” It is light years away from being as visually stimulating as “9.” And it never reaches the continuous comedy heights of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
Even the voice casting for “Planet 51” never gets off the ground. Johnson’s Baker comes up short compared with the solid work of Tim Allen for Buzz Lightyear in the “Toy Story” movies. Biel’s voice is not unique enough to make her casting as Neera a plus. Only when the talent has a distinct voice, like Reese Witherspoon in “Monsters vs. Aliens,” does it make sense to pick a celebrity for the vocal job.
It’s hard to figure out the audience for “Planet 51.” It has the cute look of a Disney Channel preschool show, but the script by Joe Stillman reflects his background of writing for “King of the Hill” and “Beavis and Butt-head.” He doesn’t hesitate to make jokes about bodily functions or body parts to try to get a laugh.
As an animated film, “Planet 51” is little more than average. As a theatrical release? Houston, we have a problem.