Monday, March 4, 2013

The Cinema File #128: "Escape From Planet Earth" Review

2012 was a banner year for animated movies. Out of my top ten favorite movies of the year, five were animated (Paranorman, Pirates: Band of Misfits, Rise Of The Guardians, Wreck It Ralph, and The Dark Knight Returns). This probably says as much about my tastes as anything else, but still shows the wide variety of great animated fair to choose from of late. I just got out of the first big animated feature of 2013, and while there's a lot of charm and a great visual style on display, I can only hope that the state of animated film in the coming year doesn't turn out to be as middling as represented in Escape From Planet Earth.

The story follows two alien brothers who travel the galaxy performing heroics, one out in the field and the other in mission control, until the older brother finds himself on our world, dubbed "The Dark Planet," where he is captured by the government. His brother and extended family proceed to try and rescue him, only to be captured themselves and imprisoned in Area 51. The first act of this movie displayed a lot of potential, with a solid twenty minutes or so of relatively funny and endearing moments introducing us to our main characters before they get to the place spoiled by the title. The problem is that once they get to Earth, all of the previously established good will evaporates as we're introduced to a cadre of new alien characters who lack the appeal of those we already know, and everything just becomes instantly less interesting.

The conceit of various aliens from all different worlds, each with their own personalities, abilities, and cultural eccentricities locked up together in a jail puts a lot riding on the strength of the ensemble cast, and despite some very talented people behind this motley crew, I just couldn't invest emotionally in their plight. The two brothers who I'd spent enough time learning to like just barely kept me through, but so much of the second act is spent highlighting the wackiness of these new characters who aren't altogether all that amusing or distinctive. Part of the problem is that the movie starts in the middle of what we're told is a series of exciting space adventures on many alien world's, and once we're stuck in a cold dark government prison for a long stretch, I can't help but miss the prospect of seeing that story instead, watching characters I actually like exploring interesting environments and escaping by the skin of their teeth.

William Shatner shows up as an evil general exploiting the aliens for their technology, and while as a fan I'm biased, I felt he was a highlight, though it seemed strange to make him such a singular villain. Even though he works for the military, its implied that the operation to pass off alien technology as his own is an entirely personal endeavor, as if the Military Industrial Complex would have no interest in this project and have just left it to this one guy who has proceeded to make millions of dollars with government resources. And just when I'm grappling with that implausibility, a twist reveals that he is in collusion with another alien we've been introduced to already, and without spoiling it, the way its presented is just one step too far towards goofy in relation to the tone of the rest of the movie. The titular escape is exciting enough, but by that point I just can't bring myself to care all that much.

Escape From Planet Earth isn't the best animated movie in recent memory, but it's far from the worst. I certainly enjoyed it more than Brave or Frankenweenie, two films representing my animated bottom from 2012. I'd say its close to Despicable Me or Bolt in terms of entertainment value, perfectly watchable, but nothing to write home about. It suffers only from coming out so soon after so many pitch perfect CGI features that I'm forced to view it in comparison, even though I imagine most people will find it generally inoffensive if not somewhat enjoyable, and most kids will certainly engage with the style and energy. If you need a nice movie for the family, or if your standards for animation are as low as mine, its worth a watch, otherwise, you probably don't have to bother with it.
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