Friday, February 22, 2013

It's Cool to be Blue

There's no plainer way to put it: 2012 was one of the best all-time years for animated films. It wasn't just the tremendous, unique contributions from the "Big Three" animated studios of Pixar (Brave), Disney (Wreck-It Ralph and Frankenweenie) and Dreamworks (Rise of the Guardians and Madagascar 3) that did it either, but also slew of third party and independent animators who put forth not just some of the best animated motion pictures in years, but also some of the best MOVIES of 2012, from Studio Gibli's The Secret World of Arrietty to LAIKA's ParaNorman. With this level of quality dominating last year's features, it's kind of disappointing to look at what 2013 has to offer. Monsters University? Epic? The Croods? Turbo? Frozen? The only animated flick I'm really looking forward to this year is Despicable Me 2, and to be fair that's just because I can't get enough of Gru's Minions (nor should anyone with a funny bone, as this trailer shows). Sure, any of these titles could turn out awesome and change my mind, but last year I was both eagerly anticipating and pleasantly surprised by most of the animated film released, and I just don't get the same feeling from this year's batch of entries, and they're going to have to earn my appreciation.

Scorch Supernova in repose...
That was certainly true for first entry Escape from Planet Earth, the freshman feature release from Canadian animation studio Rainmaker Entertainment. In it, we're introduced to Scorch Supernova (Brendan Fraser) and his brother Gary (Rob Corddry). Scorch is a widely-respected intergalactic hero, as well known for his magnetic charisma as his is for his reckless manner and ability to succeed where nobody else can. Gary, meanwhile, is his brother's brainy overseer at Mission Control, often trying to mitigate the trouble Scorch's methods always seem to attract. When Scorch accepts a mission to "The Dark Planet", from where no mission has never returned, he does so against the wishes of Gary, who quits in disgust at the lack of respect he has received from Scorch and others. But when Scorch is captured on the mission, it is up to Gary to become the hero and rescue his brother from the evil planet known as Earth.

Gary learns the evils of the Big Gulp.
Escape from Planet Earth succeeds in more places than you might expect from a fledgling animation studio. Despite perhaps not crafting their animation with the same level of quality as the big boys, the whole of the artwork - and especially the 3D - are very, VERY good. There were a few moments that didn't quite match up to the rest of the picture, but they happened so infrequently and at the very beginning, so that you'd barely remember them when all is said and done. And despite their relative cliches, the characters are fun enough and with motivations that are easy for kids to comprehend. Gary Supernova especially is nicely voiced by Corddry, who puts forth his second good performance this month (though not nearly as good as Warm Bodies) as a blue-collar (pun intended?) guy pushed to perform the extraordinary. Playing opposite him is the highly effective Fraser, who might have discovered a potential for career resurgence in voice acting with the macho, confident swagger he brings to the screen. Other strong (or at least amusing) performances belong to Craig Robinson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ricky Gervais and Jane Lynch (although nothing she ever does will top Lynch's Wreck-It Ralph role), but it's William Shatner hamming it up as an evil military leader that steals the show. Director/screenwriter Cal Brunker shows a real connection with his actors, unexpected from the rookie (he's typically been an art department guy), and he also has a talent for the wry quip and a propensity for the in-joke. For instance, one of my favorite bits featured human guards attempting to wrangle one of the story's aliens. One character's exclamation? "James! Cameron! Get the Alien!"

Okay... it's just like driving an interspace car...
But while Escape From Planet Earth manages to outstrip its meager origins, it doesn't necessarily make it an animated flick worth your time. Those dialogue gags don't happen often enough to be anything more than clever moments in a script practically bereft of them. The story is also an amalgam of cliched story and characters, from rambunctious kids to sibling rivalry to the rake gag, suitable perhaps for kids but not really all that engaging for their parents. There's also not really any one scene-stealer like Madagascar's Penguins to whom you could really see yourself getting attached... I mean, there IS Scorch, but his antics aren't nearly so inspired as to be entertaining on their own. And while most of the cast is quite good, the lone low score goes to Jessica Alba, whose lack of personality is on full display in a role that really shouldn't have been all that difficult to handle.

I think they actually stuck Fraser's eyes in there...
It's clever on occasion, the acting is pretty good and the artwork is VERY fun to look at. Those are the essential bullet points for what to expect from Escape From Planet Earth. It's a good first feature effort from Rainmaker, whose biggest success to this point was arguably the TV show Beast Wars: Transformers, and this successful release certainly sets the stage for them to form a lucrative movie business for the future. But what might make this movie the MOST appealing is that there is NOTHING else to take your kids to in the theaters right now. If you have the hankering to go to the movies, this isn't a bad family pick, even if the coming months will offer a few more (and hopefully better) options. Still, Escape From Planet Earth manages to top out as the #6 movie of 2013, not a bad start for the animated genre this year. I don't expect anything in the same vein of Wreck-It Ralph or ParaNorman when it comes to this year's titles, but hopefully this won't be the best thing the animated genre has to offer us for the near future.

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