What we saw when we previewed footage from Planet 51

SCI FI Wire screened some early footage from the animated Planet 51 during a visit to Ilion Studios in Madrid last month and got a good look at the film's unique designs, characters and sense of humor.

The film is described as being E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in reverse. An astronaut from Earth crash-lands on an alien planet and needs the help of a friend to get back home. But that's just the beginning. Astronaut Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) didn't just land on any planet. He landed on Planet 51, which is exactly like America in the 1950s, ... except the planet's residents aren't human. They go to the drive-in, they dress in '50s styles and, like America in the '50s, they fear nothing more than an alien invasion. When Chuck lands, their worst fears are realized, and he must rely on Planet 51 resident Lem (Justin Long) to help him return to his own world.

The project has been in development for seven years and is set to be released on Nov. 20. It's the first animated film from Ilion. The script was written by Joe Stillman (Shrek, Shrek 2) and directed by first-timer Jorge Blanco.

Johnson voices Baker, the astronaut and the 37th sexiest man in the United States, who's working to break into the top 10 by impressing everyone with his discovery of a new planet.

In the footage we previewed, Baker takes his first step on Planet 51 in a style reminiscent of the first moon landing, but he looks around to discover that this is no uninhabited space rock. He's wandered into a suburban neighborhood, complete with backyard barbecues, '50s-style cars and stunned green residents.

Baker runs off and hides in the local astronomical observatory, where he bumps into the young Lem. As they develop a friendship (and Lem explains that Chuck is actually the alien here), Lem must help Chuck avoid the military force that has been sent to hunt him down. The film is being released in the 40th-anniversary year of the first moon landing, though we were assured that this was not actually a marketing ploy.

Planet 51 is an alien's version of 1950s America, complete with a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, old-style gas stations (for flying-saucer-like cars) and a soundtrack that includes "Be Bop a Lula" and "Twistin' the Night Away."

We asked production designer Julian Romero about the difficulties of designing of the film. "To find a consistent idea," he said. "To start to find the kind of pattern or basic concept that is going to be repeated all along the design and thinking about what we have in mind about the alien culture ... the main thing for me was the crop circles in the fields; that was quite a good idea to start with design. ... And the flying saucer is the other thing. ... We used it to design the houses. What they used to visit us a long time ago, it was their home."

The animated film also features sly homages to classic sci-fi films, such as Alien (the "dogs" in this film resemble the title xenomorphs). One of the pets is a Mars Rover. There is even a nod to E.T., complete with music from the film.

"W're trying to take what we know about aliens in different films and make small jokes as much as we can, because people would recognize it and laugh about it," Romero says.

Romero says the film's creators worked hard to create the feel of the 1950s, including Planet 51 versions of classic American B movies.

Layout supervisor Charlie Ramos told SCI FI Wire that the movie is heavily influenced by such movies as Aliens, Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. "I think it's because they're so fun and wacky, and they also bring back a lot of memories for people," he said of those movies' enduring appeal. "I remember watching them. ... Jason and the Argonauts and things like that, ... those movies, the technology wasn't there, but the fantasy, it really kind of awoke something in you. It's because you didn't need all that stuff back then to get energized and excited."

Though Planet 51 is designed as a family film, the footage we saw was entertaining for adults. The voice cast is stellar. In addition to Johnson and Long, the film stars Jessica Biel as Lem's love interest, Neera; Gary Oldman as Gen. Growl, the military man leading the hunt for Chuck; and John Cleese as the wise Professor Kipple. The animation was done in Madrid, and the voice-over work was done in Los Angeles.

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