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Escape from Planet Earth – Movie Review

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Escape from Planet Earth – Movie Review By: Stefan Ellison

Rating: D (Very Bad)

I believe we are in a current golden age of animation, where almost all of the animated features that come out manage to hit the mark. Now, more than in past decades, filmmakers like Rich Moore and Chris Sanders are continually trying to push the artform. This makes the appearance of a poorly done animated film all the more disappointing. Escape from Planet Earth is the first major feature film from Vancouver-based Rainmaker Entertainment, who jumped onto the scene with the first computer-generated animated series ReBoot. While their animation quality has improved since that era, their story-telling skills and attempt at comedy have not. In the midst of a production that has been fraught with bitter firings and lawsuits, the final result is a bad attempt at entering the market dominated by the Pixar and DreamWorks heavyweights.

The first problem with Escape from Planet Earth is its piecing together of clichés. The screenplay (credited to Bob Barlen and director Cal Brunker) lacks any creativity or originality and its attempts at being clever come across as silly. An example of this is found in the subplot where aliens at Area 51 reveal that they are responsible for some of the world’s biggest technological innovations. The film uses this as an excuse to namedrop Google and Apple, forgetting that simply making a reference does not constitute a joke. One not-so-subtle reference to Pixar is so poorly constructed, it is uncertain whether the filmmakers are attempting to poke fun at or pay tribute to the computer animation giant. The only remotely humourous bit in the screenplay is a knock at televised “doctors” and their lack of credentials. This joke works, not only because it doesn’t feel done before like everything else in the screenplay, but because they do not beat you over the head to try and make the audience laugh.

The popular-culture references are the biggest jokes that land with a thud, causing more groans than even half-grins. In the first minute, one character does a take on James Bonds’ signature introductory line and it makes one wonder whether Barlen and Brunker simply settled on their first draft. One tired running gag has the Area 51 guards given the names of famous film directors. In a move probably approved by the film’s distributor, the main musical theme from The Artist randomly starts playing at one point, likely because The Weinstein Company paid the bills on this film. That is the caliber of humour to be found in Escape from Planet Earth.

Story-wise, the film does little to make us care about the characters or even inject them with full personalities. Gary is a dull lead and his dimwitted brother Scorch is like they took out what made the deluded Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story so fun. Most of the characters are practically superfluous in the grand scheme of things. Gary’s son is given the most clichéd dialogue you can give to a child protagonist with his subplot being the most dull and time-wasting in the whole film. When I’m aching to return to the Area 51 scenes, there’s a problem. The villains lack little motivation, with one’s revelation coming a mile away and comes off more odd than humourous. This unimaginative set of characters is not helped by the lazy casting choices. It is expected that celebrities make up the core ensemble in an animated feature these days, but this is a rare case, where not a single performance actually resembles interest in the material they’re reading. The worst of the lot are Sarah Jessica Parker and Jessica Alba, who could have switched roles in the middle of the film and I would not have noticed. When talented and professionally trained voice actors like Billy West and Tara Strong are being neglected major roles in Hollywood animated features, casting two generic-sounding actresses in Escape from Planet Earth makes one sympathise with them even more. Ricky Gervais is probably the most wasted voice in this, playing a computer and literally phoning it in.

To Rainmaker’s credit, their crew of animators do a decent job in making this a colourful world and for a forty-million dollar budget, the rendering and movement is solid. There is some strong elastic acting from the animation and the set design is probably the most creative element found in Escape from Planet Earth. The character design is not as strong, ranging from generic for the lead aliens to flat-out ugly on the humans. However, the only distracting element to be found in the animation is in the poorly placed product placement. In addition to a 7-Eleven convenience store playing a pivotal role in a few scenes, the appearance of Pop-Chips in those moments also distracts. Product placement is not normally seen in animated features, but when companies do throw some in there, it is very obvious. Wreck-It Ralph succeeded in making their products part of the film’s humour, while Escape from Planet Earth simply makes one not want to enter a 7-Eleven ever again. The audio aspects of the film don’t improve matters much, as a dull and cloying score tries to bring sympathy to a story that has little heart underneath the surface.

For a film that has been in production since 2006, Escape from Planet Earth ended up with a very unremarkable and clichéd story. While Disney and Pixar continue to re-invent and push the artform, this film is like a time machine to back when everybody was trying to copy the old Shrek formula of spouting out cultural references and throwing pop tunes on the soundtrack. The filmmakers even revert back to the tired ending with all of the characters dancing to a chart-topping hit. It always pains me to give a negative review to an animated film, considering all of the hard work and man-hours that animators and artists put into these productions. Rainmaker Entertainment has some serious potential down the road, as not every studio gets a good feature film right off the bat. However, they need to put more thought into their joke telling abilities and attempt characters who most of the audience will remember down the road. While they were never my cup of tea, many people have nostalgic memories of ReBoot and Beast Wars. I don’t see Escape from Planet Earth having the same impact on today’s youth.

By: Stefan Ellison

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