Pixar are responsible for all poor computer animated films since Toy Story. Pretty bold claim but stay with me. Before Toy Story, animated films were predominantly hand drawn or at least presented in the traditional animated style. They would usually employ specific voice actors to play the characters except for particularly notable exceptions (Aladdin and Mulan being two films that spring to mind). In fact it was only when I watched the Lion King’s 3D re-release at the cinema that I realised Matthew Broderick played adult Simba.
The use of the traditional technique for animated films meant we got a lot of films starring human characters. The films would be retellings of fairytales or in some cases bible stories. Only in a few occasions did we have a film that was practically, entirely, animal led and had them trying to journey from one place to another.
Then Pixar released Toy Story. The computer animation itself meant that this film was going to be noticed but then they hired two heavy-weight actors, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. The fact that Tom Hanks was on board meant that the film was going to be noticed further. This film was going to attract audiences because it had a new look, great voice talent and was about toys, which was the child appeal element covered too. Then it went and actually told a story that was good, appealed to both adults and children on completely different levels and was pretty much a perfect family film if there ever was one!
That is when the imitators arrived. Since Pixar hit it big we have had a deluge of computer animated films of varying quality that pretty much hit the same key criteria. Use a computer to make it. Get film stars to voice the characters. Make sure the story is about animals trying to get somewhere. So for every Finding Nemo, the Incredibles, Shrek, How to Train your Dragon (all brilliant, all dodging that criteria) we got Over the Hedge, Open Season and Animals United to name a small few.
This brings me to Planet 51. When I first saw the trailer for Planet 51, I was intrigued by the premise. An astronaut lands on an alien planet which is living as a developed community. We are watching him land on the planet from the perspective of the aliens. From our point of view and the inhabitants of this planet, the astronaut is the alien! How would the planet react? How would the astronaut react knowing he was, in fact, the invader? If this film was done well it could be clever, funny and appeal to both adults and children. Instead it took its very good premise and fell into the normal, tired, animated kids film cliché’s that all the imitators of Pixar seem to fall into.
First of all they overcomplicated the story. They could have kept it simple, maybe the astronaut was seen as a hostile invader, with only one “alien” believing him and the two tried to get him to escape while the planet hunted them down (in comical fashion of course), maybe having him save the planet somehow and clear his reputation. This could have filled an hour and half with hiding him becoming more and more difficult while some sort of threat began to slowly loom to an exciting climax.
Instead, they added every single cliché they could. An unnecessary and wholly pointless love interest. A “cute” dog type character which ultimately saved the heroes in ways that made no sense. A goofy, comically “stupid” character that again served no real purpose. A bad guy with a confused agenda and a whole host of missed opportunities. The film starts well, developing each character, even the pointless ones, and then begins to cram as much pointless misdirection and questing into the middle and end of the film as possible.
The voice actors they choose also jarred with me. Justin Long was fine as the main character. It was the other three stars that were chosen to voice characters. Jessica Biel was completely underused. Gary Oldman cruised along as the villain, again, hugely underused. The most disappointing though, was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I had previously made a pretty big case for any film starring Dwayne Johnson to be good because he is in it. This film hurts that claim. Really hurts it.
All I can think is they animated the film, with a white, goofy astronaut, and then made up a wish list of cool actors to star in the film. They got Dwayne Johnson and then realised he didn’t fit. They then proceeded to make him act with a higher voice to fit the character, destroying any actual acting he could have done. I still stand by what I said in my Faster review about The Rock. It just doesn’t count if the film is animated!
Overall, this had loads of potential and just ended up being a wasted opportunity. Pixar are still the leaders in how to do an animated film and while they are still churning out success after success, we will always have studios making this sort of cliché. This could have been so much better if they had taken the time to try to be different.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)