It’s back to the 1950’s with its telltale alien invasion science fiction matinees. There’s Doo Wop coming out of the radio. The cars have tail fins and plenty of color and chrome. That’s right. This is 1950’s Americana. Well … almost. You see, the alien invaders are humaniacs. They turn the helpless population into mind-controlled zombies, and they eat brains for breakfast. Those sure are the classic cars, all right. But they’re rounded, and instead of wheels they ride on a cushion of air. And then there’s the “people”. They’re green. They have tentacles for hair. And they have only 4 fingers and toes on each hand or foot. Can anyone say, “Give me a high four”?
Meet Lem (Long). He’s your typical 1950’s teen. His biggest worry is how will he impress Neera (Biel), the girl of his dreams? He holds down a job proudly at the local museum and planetarium, where he teaches that the universe is nearly 500 miles across, containing 1000 stars. Wow! He doesn’t have time for the fantastic movies and comics that depict humaniac invasions. His friend Skiff (Scott), on the other hand, reads and watches them all. He’s quite well versed in the topic of alien invasion. He’s convinced that “they” are coming, if they’re not already here, that is. For these innocent and peaceful folks, the nightmare scenario that they’ve feared their entire lives is about to come true. An alien has invaded!
Enter Captain Charles Baker (Johnson). The NASA astronaut has just landed on the “uninhabited” Planet 51. He takes that one small step and prepares to plant Ol’ Glory … right in the middle of a suburban back yard. Needless to say, his arrival is startling to both Baker and the native population. Baker runs screaming away… causing Godzilla- style panic at every turn. When Baker meets Lem, both of their worldviews have been shattered. Now Lem and Skiff have to get Baker back to his lander before his mother ship departs for Earth in 36 hours, whether he’s on board or not. If Baker misses his window, he’s stuck on Planet 51 forever. It won’t be easy with the population in a panic and the determined General Grawl (Oldman) and alien scientist Professor Kipple (Cleese) after him. Of course, we already suspect that there are lessons to be learned along the way. Pesky notions like tolerance, self confidence, and fear worm their way into the story.
What a great idea and execution this whole thing is. We’ve seen a lot of the “humans are bad” invasion ideas most notably found in Avatar. But we’ve never seen the concept of the peaceful alien being considered an invader from the opposite direction. Here we are the visitors who come in peace, only to strike panic and fear, bringing out the military and dissection-happy scientists. The concept came from a committee, of sorts. While Joe Stillman gets credit for writing the film, we’re told on the features that there were several folks who came up with the basic concept. It totally blows my mind that no one has thought of this film before. It’s brilliant, simply brilliant.
But, the folks at Ilion in Spain didn’t just settle for a brilliant idea. They brought together the most talented team of computer animators this side of Pixar. You won’t be able to tell that this film was made in a small studio with little in the way of major release credits to their name. This stuff is first-rate all the way. They didn’t stop there. They went out and got a couple of “name” talents to lend their voices to the project. We’re talking Dwayne “drop the rock” Johnson, Gary Oldman, Jessica Biel, John Cleese, and even Mr. “I’m a Mac” himself Justin Long. That might have been enough right there. But Ilion didn’t stop there. They packed on a healthy budget of $70 million and went first class all the way. It was a significant risk. The computer animated feature is getting to be a crowded field these days, and our expectations are getting pretty high. Add to that the distribution network of a small system, and the chance of recovering that much cash was a gamble at best. It paid off, but not by much. The film grossed $40 million in the States and another $60 million worldwide. Let’s hope that the Blu-ray and DVD releases pad that profit enough to encourage future risks of this nature, not only from Ilion, but other small ventures with the guts to put it all out there.
The film has a splendid style to it. Planet 51 is populated with interesting little green creatures. They are relatively short and have tentacles that my wife remarked looked like bananas coming out of their heads. They speak English and are living pretty much in our 1950’s down to the car styles and the red panic days of hiding under your desk at school. The movements are so fluid and natural that it won’t take you long at all to accept their existence and view them as the retro people they are. Did I mention that it rains rocks here?
Planet 51 is dominated by round designs. Everything is round, from the buildings to the cars. Even the books have a rounded corner on them. Look carefully and you will see literally hundreds of references to sci-fi films and literature. It makes for a ton of repeat viewings, because you simply can’t spot them all in one sitting. It’s obvious that this team has a passion for the genre and took the time and effort to create this internal scavenger hunt. It’s smart. And it’s the difference here between a strong rent recommendation and a strong buy recommendation. Some of the homages include a dog that looks very much like a Gieger Alien creature who pees acid. There’s a reference to a Lost In Space episode as Baker runs around like a robot chanting “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” And while this truly is a fantastical world, there is an element of realism here that makes it all so easy to believe.
The voice talent is all cast to perfection here. Dwayne Johnson is almost unrecognizable here. He adjusted the pitch of his voice somewhat, and the character doesn’t really have any resemblance to the actor. Oldman has always been a deliciously perfect villain both in live action and animation. Here he literally steals the show as General Grawl, who intends to bring in Baker no matter what the cost. Skiff is a great comic relief character who, for some unknown reason, reminds me of Shaggy from Scooby Doo. In my opinion, John Cleese is severely underused as the alien scientist here. Just when he appears to be starting to roll, he gets cut short. I suspect his time with the production might have been limited and they took what they could get. Then there’s Baker’s sidekick. It’s a land rover named … well … Rover. It’s part Wall-E and part Snoopy.
It was even more appropriate that I ended up watching this film on St. Patrick’s Day, of all days. I’ve really honored the Irish this week with The Boondock Saints II and Planet 51. I need to get back to my Italian roots now. Godfather anyone?
Planet 51 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. Of course I’ve come to have very high expectations when viewing a high definition that comes from a purely digital source. Go ahead and have high expectations. You will not be disappointed here. This picture is absolutely amazing. The surfaces display great textures. You can see subtle nice touches such as aging or dirt and even scratches on the surfaces. The colors are bright and powerful. Expect excellent black levels that give you an almost infinite level of shadow definition. Sharpness is so high that you need to keep small children away from the screen for fear they will cut themselves. The film has an almost three dimensional quality to it that gives the structures more substance than I generally find in animation. The print is pristine. I would expect no less from such a digital source, but I couldn’t expect more.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio is not as aggressive as you might imagine. It is rather dynamic and has a fullness to it without ever being overbearing. There are tons of 50’s tunes and original songs often in the background. The mix is excellent. Dialog is always crisp and clean. You won’t get a lot of action out of your sub, and I was slightly disappointed in the bottom at times. I will say that the sound editors did a good job of creating a sense of space. I said it wasn’t an aggressive mix, but it was a carefully designed one. It’s often even more important on an animated picture that sound add a push of reality to what you see on the screen. Someone at Ilion understands this perfectly, and the sound effects often do a wonderful job of “selling” what you see on the screen. The two work in perfect symbiotic rhythm here.
All of the features appear to be in HD.
Extended Scenes: (2:50) There are 3 extended scenes with a handy play all option. What is impressive is that these scenes are fully animated pieces.
The World Of Planet 51: (2:54) This is a music montage tour of the sets of the film.
Life On Planet 51: (12:04) This is the typical making of feature. Cast and crew offer mostly synopsis sound bites and character profiles. There are way too many clips from a film we just got done watching. The best parts are the recording sessions for the voice cast. You can tell they’re having a great time.
The Voice Stars Of Planet 51: (3:18) This is really just an extension of the previous feature.
Planet 51 Music Montage: (2:11) Clips of the film set to music.
Animation Progression Reels: (15:33) There are three scenes here presented in a quad screen that shows various stages of production from storyboard through previz.
Planet 51 Game
One of the great things about the computer animated feature field is that the technology is getting to the point where we’re going to start seeing smaller studios putting out product. Planet 51 is an example of that come fully to life. This was done by the folks at Ilion in Madrid, Spain. But, don’t think for a minute that we’re talking sub par animation or a skimpy story. The truth is this is one of the best computer animated features I’ve seen in a while. It rivals the Pixar scene, in my humble opinion. It’s the first feature by director Joe Stillman. Most of the writers have little or no experience in writing a feature film. You would think that all of this inexperience would be evident in some aspect of this movie from its production values to its story. If there’s a flaw, I haven’t been able to find it. Don’t you worry now. If there is one, I’ll certainly discover it eventually, because this is a movie I plan on watching again and again. What’s not to love? “Sea monkeys dancing to the oldies.”