A high concept gets low execution in "Planet 51," a lame-brained toon that even kids will recognize as an insipid goof on sci-fi conventions. Any number of things have and could still be done with the idea of picturing a space-voyaging Earthling as a scary alien from the point of view of another planet's inhabitants, but there's nothing funny, provocative or involving about what "Shrek" co-writer Joe Stillman and the team from Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios do with the notion here. Sony release will serve as family-aud holiday season filler until bigger titles arrive.
One can only speculate that too many cooks were part of the problem, as this meager effort credits three directors, four idea men and 13 executive producers. It isn't even that the central concept is bad: An American astronaut arrives on a planet he believes is uninhabited, only to find a civilization startlingly similar to '50s small-town Middle America, right down to the paranoia about imminent alien invasion.
The problem doesn't lie in the reversal of the cliche, but in the fact that the picture trades in nothing but them. The astronaut, Capt. Charles "Chuck" Baker (voice by Dwayne Johnson), is a red-headed, red-blooded he-man, while the locals, beginning with lowly planetarium worker Lem (Justin Long), are mostly dweeby types who resemble "Shrek"-green humans who make up in moppy hair and forehead antennae what they lack in noses. Chuck and Lem initially freak each other out before the latter helps protect the former from zealous know-nothings, led by imperious Gen. Grawl (Gary Oldman) and so-smart-he's-crazy Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who can't wait to separate Chuck from his brain for scientific purposes.
Beginning with the way Chuck and Lem blithely toss off as a curious coincidence the fact that they happen to speak the same language, their utter lack of curiosity about each other and their respective worlds is ridiculous; even "Jimmy Neutron," which "Planet 51" rather resembles in its look and setting, took a greater interest in the society it depicts than this does.
Instead, the picture devotes itself to tiresomely repetitive scenes of frenzied jeopardy, accompanied by music that shifts gears every 15 seconds to underline whatever response is desired and larded with refs to famous antecedents ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "2001," "Star Wars," "E.T.," "Alien," et al.) and an innocuous putative romance between Lem and neighbor Neera (Jessica Biel).
Pic quickly grows aggravating because it's clear there's no imagination in play, only the recycling of familiar motifs and the attempted generation of Pavlovian responses based on expected character behavior and generic action. But it might have been worse: Its defects could have been magnified by 3D.