New-Release Tuesday: Planet 51

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

What a hoot!

Planet 51, as anyone who has heard about the film before already knows, is a flip-the-tables animated sci-fi tale of an American astronaut who lands on an—ahem—“alien” planet… which just happens to be occupied.  As a consequence, Captain Charles T. Baker finds himself to be the feared, dreaded, and misunderstood alien on a planet populated by, well, little green denizens of an American Graffiti-esque alternate reality.

The protagonist is Lem, a young aspiring Marty McFly-esque astronomer who, until meeting Baker, believes the wisdom du jour that the Universe is five hundred miles long.  Once Lem is convinced that aliens can be harmless (if dotty)—and that they indeed exist!—he is thwarted in his efforts to return Baker to his spacecraft by a fearful E.T.-esque military presence more intent on study than understanding.

What’s really delightful about Planet 51 is the way in which all of the obvious nostalgia and science fiction references get thrown into an olla podrida, or Spanish Mulligan stew, which blends all those tasty flavors in a way that feels like something entirely fresh.  It feels to me, in fact, the way that the Cars franchise has always been trying to feel.  Which is to say that young children, for whom the nostalgia kick will be completely meaningless, won’t miss a thing by not picking up on all the references—and adults for whom nostalgia holds no attraction won’t get bogged down in the least.  The touch is so light as to be sprightly.

The film is also no heavy-indictment of human (or even American) ethnocentrism.  Yes, the tables are flipped—but unlike AvatarPlanet 51 does not idealize (or idolize) its inhabitants.  They are, in fact, so much like a former version of ourselves that it’s easy (and reasonable) to (re-)learn the lessons they do: that fear of the unknown cuts us off from enriching experiences, that we are not the center of the Universe, that we only see as through a glass darkly.

Planet 51 is the work of Madrid’s ILION Animation Studios—which may well account for the freshness of their work.  The film was the inaugural production of the studio, a spinoff of Pyro, a computer games manufacturer.  This is all the more remarkable as the film in no way feels inspired by (or aimed at leveraging) the games market.  Too bad we can’t say the same for many of our mega-budget Hollywood films.

I really look forward to more from ILION.  They have clearly been inspired by the best that the field of animation has to offer—Pixar, Aardman, even Big Idea—and put their own unique stamp on things. Amazing that it has taken almost ten years for their follow-up American release, Wonder Park, to make it to the big screen.

I know: it’s European.  But really… that’s okay!  Most of us used to be, too.

Planet 51 is now included with Netflix. You can also stream at YouTube or Amazon for a small fee.