The inhabitants of Planet 51 live in fear of alien invasion. Their paranoia is realized when an astronaut arrives from Earth. Befriended by a young resident, he has to avoid capture in order to recover his spaceship and try to return home.

3
A bland homage to better films.

Planet 51 is a family-oriented animation made by a Madrid-based digital entertainment company called Ilion in conjunction with Britain’s Handmade Films, best known for the Monty Python movies.

Interesting, that, because watching it you’d never suspect for a second that it was anything less than full-blown, California number-plated vehicle forged in the foundries of Hollywood entertainment industry. Using American voice talents including Jessica Biel and Dwayne 'The Rock’ Johnson, and scripted by Shrek writer Joe Stillman, it looks and feels as American as a Chevrolet with fins. This is certainly one interpretation of globalism – folks from Spain and the UK get to play being Americans and get away with it.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I knew nothing of the above while viewing the film and didn’t doubt for a second that I was viewing a full-blown Hollywood studio production (the film was released in the US by Sony Pictures). The technical standard of the 3D animation is consistently impressive, up there with the best achieved by Pixar and DreamWorks, the leaders in the field, even if it falls some way short in creative inspiration.

Objects look so three-dimensional I felt as though I could reach out to the screen and touch them. Colours are vivid without being too dazzling. Even better, this is the old, 1990s idea of '3D" animation, that is, 2D characters that have been rendered in a computer as opposed to being hand-drawn – not the new 'digital 3D" that requires the donning of special glasses and frequent ducking to avoid implements thrown towards the audience. (Not that this didn’t stop a confused member of the cinema staff handing me a pair of 3D goggles on my way into the screening – true!)

The story is set on a planet that strangely resembles a US suburb of the 1950s with two obvious exceptions – the inhabitants are friendly green monsters, and when it rains, small rocks and not raindrops fall from the sky. In all other respects this is a vision of pure Fifties Americana. The teenage hero, Lem (as in Lunar Excursion Module and Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem), is a teen who lectures at the local Observatory - shades of Rebel Without a Cause (one of many movie references apparently throw in for parents to spot).

Lem’s overarching dramatic problem is unrequited love. He can never quite bring himself to ask out the girl of his dreams, so to his chagrin she starts dating a 1960s-style protest singer. Lem’s more immediate problems occur when an American astronaut named Chuck (Johnson) lands on the planet by mistake and he finds himself hiding the unwelcome stranger from the army.

For this he’s branded an alien-lover (the humans are 'aliens", and the aliens are humans, get it?) by the townsfolk and the military, whose fear of outsiders has been influenced by the popularity of B movies about space monsters at the local cinema. The pair must escape, or an evil scientist in league with the army (John Cleese) will remove their brains. Cue restless action.

While lively enough, the film’s storyline unfortunately suffers from over-familiarity. The B-grade monsters scenario was used more effectively this year in DreamWorks's Monsters vs. Aliens, which also featured a mad scientist – a much funnier one, voiced by another Brit, Hugh Laurie). Planet 51’s attempt to create a lovable character out of a tractor-wheeled module (a sidekick of Chuck’s astronaut) is so obviously indebted to WALL-E that Pixar should sue.

In addition Lem makes for a rather insipid hero who is also visually a little hard to tell apart from the other townsfolk, and the film’s message about learning not to fear difference is spelled out with a quite nauseating literalness. While Planet 51 is certainly diverting, its overly frantic attempts at humour, pointless homages to other films and lack of charm mean it falls some way short. It’s not terrible but neither is it memorable.