New studio has no new ideas

2010-01-11 00:00

IN recent memory, the only animated offering other than Pixar or Dreamworks, has been Surf’s Up by Sony Pictures. So it was with an eager sense of anticipation that I took my seat to watch Planet 51 from a company that is new to South African audiences: ­Ilion Animation Studios, based in Madrid in the U.S.

What the company achieves in technical ability on the visual front in this film is negated by the insipid script. Call it attention deficit disorder, but surely there is space for new, surprising story lines in 2010 other than the borrowed ideas of every family-friendly alien film since E.T.?

The gist is clear five minutes into the film: Planet 51 is the story of a humanised alien society, and how it is invaded by a human. That’s where the novelty ends, and where the gags go from bad to worse. Surprisingly, Joe Stillman (who wrote the witty and endearing Shrek and Shrek 2) is credited as a co-writer. One can only assume that the initial plan got mucked up by some unintuitive committee when it came to the screenplay.

That human in the story is the doofus Captain Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who — even as a stereotype — is irritating). Chuck is an astronaut who is an insult to everyone who ever braved and ventured to outer space, including the chimps. His presence messes with the aspirations of up and coming space academic Lem (Justin Long), who is hoping to make progress on the romantic front with Neera (Jessica Biel), but ends up avoiding the beady eye of the army general (Gary Oldman, surprisingly) and the sadistic agenda of the monocle-sporting professor (John Cleese).

Understandably, there are some kind of satirical critiques on the human preoccupation with life forms “out there”, and the paranoia of those life forms being “hostile”.

But ultimately, the film comes across as notable for its rip-offs of WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Alien, The Terminator and Grease, which makes it feel like a soulless exercise in kiddie entertainment. It’s a shame, because in looks it equates right up there with the best that Pixar and Dreamworks have to offer, but the moral of the story is that, well … there has to be a story, rather than a formulaic plot subsidised by reference jokes. ***

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