“Planet 51” plays like it was written by a team of marketers. It is ripe with all the stuff adults think kids love. Cuddly aliens? Check. Slapstick humor? Check. A cute robot that kind of looks like WALL-E but not really? Check. Silly adult characters? Check. The only thing missing is a good story.
Set on an alien world where it rains rocks and the 1950s are in full bloom—imagine a high tech “Happy Days” and you get the idea of the look of the film—the story doesn’t really take flight until dimwitted astronaut Charles T. Barker (voice of The Rock) lands, thinking he is on an uninhabited planet. His plan is to plant an American flag, knock around some golf balls and return home a national hero. Instead he discovers a planet full of “sea monkeys dancing to the oldies.” Most of the green-skinned inhabitants of the planet don’t quite know what to make of him either. The only knowledge they have of life from other planets comes from their sci fi movies. They believe he’s a “humaniac” with two sets of teeth that has arrived on their planet to harvest their organs and turn the citizens of Planet 51 into zombies. Barker becomes Public Alien Number One, the most wanted extraterrestrial on the planet. Then he meets Lem (voice of Justin Long), a friendly young Planet 51 astronomer, who may be his only chance to get back to his ship before the autopilot kicks in and returns to Earth without him.
“Planet 51” is aimed directly at ten-and-under crowd, who should enjoy the silly jokes and the colorful pictures, but parents beware, there’s not much here for you. There is the odd throw-a-way line intended for the adults in the audience—a suppository joke and a “What the duck!” double entendre—which may raise a giggle but seem a little out of place when butted up against the kid friendly humor that makes up most of the movie.
The underlying message of tolerance, however, is a good one. It teaches kids that no matter how different we may be there is almost always some middle ground. As I say, good message, I just wish it were wrapped up in a better movie.
This is turning into a banner year for family friendly aliens. Recently, Reese Witherspoon and a team of misfit monsters successfully saved our planet from a gang of G-rated extraterrestrials in Monsters vs Aliens and in Race to Witch Mountain a cab driver learned that not all space invaders are “little green people with antennas.”
Later this year the cute and cuddly animated aliens of Planet 51 will be invaded by an astronaut from Earth and in this weekend’s Aliens in the Attic a group of kids protects their vacation home from creatures from outer space.
E.T.s in kids’ entertainment are nothing new. The futuristic animated utopia of the Jetsons, featuring aliens galore, originally ran on Saturday morning television in the early ’60s, but has since been spun off into comics, games, a short-lived 1980s TV series, television movies and a 1990 feature film imaginatively called Jetsons: The Movie.
Around the same time The Jetsons were on the small screen, a movie The Monster Times called “the worst science fiction flick ever, bar none” was entering theatres. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, released in 1964, is a no-budget wonder which ping-pongs from so-bad-it’s-good right back to bad again. Cinematically it may be the biggest Christmas turkey ever, but its crazy story, about Martians kidnapping Santa so their little green kids can get some presents just like human children, is a guilty pleasure.
The ’70s and ’80s were a particularly fertile time for kiddie “take me to your leader” movies. Of course there were the original three Star Wars movies, E.T. (and the shameless E.T. rip-off Mac and Me) but looking past Lucas and Spielberg reveals other, not as well-known alien movies for the rugrats.
Invaders from Mars, from Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, sees a teenage hero (actress Karen Black’s real life son Hunter Carson) enlist the help of a school nurse (played by his mother) and the Marines to prevent aliens from assuming human form and taking over his hometown.
Finally, also worth a look is Explorers, a 1985 kid’s flick starring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix as BFFs whose dream of intergalactic travel comes true when they build a homemade spaceship, complete with a Tilt-a-Whirl cockpit. It was the feature film debut for both Hawke and Phoenix and while it isn’t groundbreaking sci-fi, it’s a fun film for the whole family.