Riding into theaters on the coattails of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the CGI-animated feature Planet 51 begins with two high school sweethearts in ’50s getups swooning and smooching on lover’s lane when a space ship overtakes their town. Soon it’s revealed that these two teenage hornballs aren’t really human (what with the green flesh and all), and that the scene is actually part of a recent alien-invasion blockbuster being projected in a movie theater as other similar-looking creatures scream and howl in horrifying amazement. When a child is removed from the theater and pushed to the street, we learn Planet 51 is stuck in a ’50s state of Blue Velvet Americana, only with hovering cars and, oddly, hamburgers. The story takes flight when a seemingly homosexual, narcissistic astronaut from Earth, Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson), crash lands in the middle of town, taking refuge with a recently hired assistant curator of the local neighborhood planetarium, Lem (Justin Long)—trying to elude capture from a blood-thirsty, maniacal general, voiced by Gary Oldman.
Planet 51 is all homage. The filmmakers tip their hat to every alien-themed film in the books, especially Alien (acid-urinating alien pups) and E.T. (the overplayed flying bicycle-moon sequence). There are few, if harmless, touches of light satire, mainly the annoying, peace-loving hippie who protests everything as well as the humorous nods to the small-town look of the ’50s. But the film fails at creating characters with credible emotional textures, a task easily, and vividly, demonstrated by Pixar time and time again. Not until the end do we see a vulnerable Chuck confessing his inadequacies as an astronaut, but the moment is, as they say, too little, too late; Chuck’s trivial admission feels like it was added as a last-ditch effort to fully round out a character that would otherwise come off as a bumbling, self-loving fool. Lacking the crackling energy of Meatballs, Planet 51 never soars to the boundless heights, and skies, its animation so fantastically illustrates.