by Callum Petch
Fun Fact: this film has been out in America for over a year. No, really. It got its American release on February 13th of 2013. It’s been on Netflix Instant over there for a good while, too. I was told this by an American friend of mine over Twitter whilst I killed time waiting for it to start. Naturally, that info bode well for what I was going to see. Yet, I held out some hope. Rainmaker Entertainment, the people responsible for the film, aren’t exactly first-timers. They made the first ever all-CG cartoon TV series in the form of Re-Boot, they’ve been pumping out Direct-To-DVD Barbie films since 2001, they made that one Dire Straits video that everyone remembers as well as something called Tony Hawk in Boom Boom Sabotage (which, yes, I have seen before… it’s not good), and they’re going to give us big screen versions of Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper in the near future! Past experience is past experience and I was hoping for a good film.
Escape From Planet Earth is not a good film. Think of every single bad trait of your stereotypically bad kids’ animated film. Chances are it shows up here at least three times. Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs? Sledgehammer-subtle moralising message? Fart jokes? Toilet humour? Jokes specifically for parents that typically involve gay panic or implied rape as punchlines? Pop culture references in place of actual jokes? Obnoxious product placement? An unfunny catchphrase repeated ad nauseam in an effort to make it the next cultural phenomenon because if you say it enough times then kids will eventually start saying it too? (It’s “Scorch me, baby” in case you’re wondering.) Bored celebrities turning in paycheque collecting performances? Really cheap animation? They’re all here and all accounted for and result in one of the most singularly boring bad movies I have had the displeasure of sitting through in quite some time.
Our story, which proceeds at light speed because this film is barely 90 minutes with credits, revolves around two alien brothers. Scorch (Brendan Fraser) is the younger brother and he’s a heroic manly man who’s kinda dumb and also a jerk but he’s got big muscles and a love for danger and action; Gary (Rob Corddry) is the older brother and he’s more cautious and detail-oriented, a bit of a doormat and the head of Mission Control, ergo he’s supposed to be in command of his brother. They don’t get along. After yet another argument about their opposing viewpoints on life, Gary quits and Scorch has to take on his next mission alone: a recon mission to The Dark Planet, otherwise known as Earth, where he is promptly captured by the military, led by General James T Shanker (William Shatner and, yes, that is the supposedly clever joke). Feeling partly responsible, Gary heads off on a rescue mission, where both he and Scorch may just learn a thing or two about a thing or two, whilst his wife Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker) and son try and uncover the conspiracy back home. Because there’s also a conspiracy, involving the head of the alien planet’s space program (voiced by Jessica Alba). And there’s also two comic relief human characters (voiced by Chris Parnell and Steve Zahn). And Gary is almost immediately captured by the military, too, and thrown into Area 51 where he meets four other aliens. And there’s also some little green…
You get the point. This movie is overstuffed and the fact that it runs the credits at about minute 80 of 89 means that everything is glossed over with the bare minimum of effort and detail. Gary is the only slightly developed character here and that’s purely because he’s the lead. Otherwise, there are no real characters in this movie and that makes it hard to care about what happens to all of them. This goes double for the central brother dynamic between Scorch and Gary because Scorch is kind of an irredeemable asshat. He’s pompous, hot-headed, a dick to Gary, reckless and only seems loving of Gary when it’s time for the finale to kick in because “brothers may sometimes just be total dicks” is not the kind of message we’re supposed to be sending kids home with. If he were at least entertaining to watch then I’d be OK with this, but he isn’t because he’s just not funny and, therefore, what should have been the emotional core of the film rings hollow.
On that note: the animation and the character designs. To be blunt, I have not seen an animated film that looks this ugly since… well, probably since Tony Hawk in Boom Boom Sabotage. The character designs are friggin’ awful. I initially entertained the possibility that the designers were purposefully going for off-putting designs for the aliens, they’d contrast well with the humans and deliver aliens that look like actual aliens for once, but nope. The humans then enter and they’re just as boxy, lifeless and Madame Tussauds-y as the aliens. It’s like somebody tried to surgically blend the styles of early DreamWorks and very early Pixar (as in, Tin Toy-era Pixar) and ended up with the ugly monstrosities you see before you.
And then there’s the actual animation itself. $40 million may not seem like a lot to make a CG animated movie with (Disney and Pixar flicks haven’t had budgets below $150 million since 2010, for example) except that I question where most of that money went. This is very limited animation. Cameras are often static, facial expressions number about five, several scenes and sequences seem to have a maximum of four items moving at most at one time, and I don’t think that anyone ever blinks. Like, I don’t think anyone just naturally blinks during conversation. It doesn’t feel like the work of veterans who have been in the industry for upwards of 20 years, it feels like the assessed project of a first year animator. The Lego Movie cost merely $20 million more and look at that compared to this! Tinker Bell and The Pirate Fairy (which I previously reviewed here) likely cost pittance (less than $10 mil) and that looks better than this! Maker, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls was animated in Flash and that looks better than this!
That $40 million, then, more than likely went to the ‘all-star’ voice cast and I really hope that those involved found some way to get the majority of it back from them. Brendan Fraser is the only one who at least attempts to put on a voice. Unfortunately, that voice is Brendan Fraser trying a Patrick Warburton impersonation and it’s pretty damn not-good. But at least he tries throughout, which is more than I can say for Jessica Alba, who gives off the impression that she mumbled the lines in her sleep. Sofia Vergara is near-impossible to understand because she plays up her accent way too much. Ricky Gervais (oh yeah, Ricky Gervais is in this as a sarcastic British computer named James Bing because of course he is) is on auto-pilot. And then there’s Rob Corddry who maintains a sub-“Patton Oswalt in Ratatouille” voice the entire way through but seems to be eternally waiting for his cheque to clear. Then, halfway through, it apparently does and he proceeds to give line readings like he’s ordering a pizza.
(In fact, sidebar before we move on: why do all animated feature films insist on getting expensive celebrities to voice in their films? I assume it’s because marketing love to trumpet the names as a selling point in order to get more reluctant parents into the cinema, because kids will apparently show up to anything shiny and loud enough. Counterpoint: when has this ever worked? When was the last time any parents were persuaded to take their kids to a crappy looking animated flick on the promise of Brendan Fraser? Professional voice actors, ones like Tom Kenny or John DiMaggio or Tara Strong or Troy Baker or Grey DeLisle-Griffin or I could go on all day here folks, do this stuff for a living! Most of the time, you want a good voice acting performance out of an untrained celebrity, you need excellent direction. Professional voice actors could likely get you a sensational performance from that excellent direction. And, if you’re talking business-wise, they’re often cheaper, too, which lets you pump the money you were going to use to hire Sarah Jessica Parker back into the production. So cut it out with the often-dreadful celebrities! Sidebar over!)
So far we’ve established that there’s a lack of heart, a lack of characters, poor pacing, ugly characters, by-the-numbers plot and lifeless animation in Escape From Planet Earth, but the fun doesn’t stop there! Nope, because now we hit the jokes, which are lazy and unfunny. Hey, guess what, everyone! Did you know that humanity are the real monstrous aliens? And that aliens invented the internet and cell phones and social networking because we’re too dumb to do so otherwise? Oh, hold my aching sides because, movie, you just blew my mind with laughter at those genius gags(!) There’s also a bunch of physical comedy that lands with a thud because, again, the animation running this show is god-awful.
What’s worst of all, though, is that there are some genuinely funny gags here. The order to destroy Halley’s Comet is accompanied with an instruction to prepare a condolence card for Halley’s family, in one of those kind of purposefully silly gags that I, and likely only I, find amusing. There’s a short sequence that parodies 50s-style American instructional films and a bit where the gang find the camouflaged spaceship in a trailer park by yelling out “TORNADO ALERT” and seeing which door doesn’t immediately lock itself. These should be funny, and would be funny, but the sheer dull unfunny-ness of the rest of the film crush the potential ‘laughing loudly’ reactions stone dead. Most of these 89 minutes contain extended jabs taken at Simon Cowell, Slurpee brain freeze jokes, food fights, aliens with dreadful Beatles impersonations for voices, and moments where the faceless goons will shout things like “James! Cameron is down!” and you’re supposed to laugh because they referenced James Cameron. They do that last joke at least six separate times during the film, by the by, and it gets more embarrassingly cringe-worthy each time.
Look, you could make a good movie out of Escape From Planet Earth. Hell, I get the feeling that the makers of this film were spurred into action by having watched the nearly-equally dismal Planet 51, which has a rather similar general premise, and collectively going, “We could do better than that!” Turns out they couldn’t. Escape From Planet Earth is a collective hodgepodge of everything that is wrong with kids’ animation today in as dull a package as one can make. I’d get angry, if you’re a regular follower of me you’ll know that I am quite passionate about animation and the quality of animated products, but I can’t muster up the energy to do so. It’s just so safe and committee-designed, like every design or casting or creative decision had to go through fourteen different executives to ensure its maximum level of profitability. There’s no life here, no effort, no love and if nobody involved could be bothered to be passionate about their work, then why I should I get passionate in tearing it to shreds? It’s a bad film, but I really don’t care because it’s too dull to make a big fuss about.
For what it’s worth, none of the kids in my screening seemed to enjoy it. They weren’t even restless, they were just bored. There were no laughs, no gasps of amazement or any of the reactions that accompanied my screenings of The Lego Movie or Frozen or Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Just the sounds of silence. And, despite every word I have written over the past 11 paragraphs, that may be the most damning criticism of all.