There’s a low-key, innate satisfaction to watching a story throw out setups and provide resolutions, akin to the satisfaction of slotting pieces into place in a jigsaw puzzle. A sophisticated story disguises this process; a simple one keeps the pieces big and the connections obvious so it doesn’t lose anyone along the way. The latter description covers Weinstein Company’s Escape From Planet Earth, a mild-mannered CGI animated film that consists largely of broad conflicts, broadly resolved. It’s unchallenging fun for a younger crowd, but adults might feel like they’re staring down a colorful 24-piece board puzzle, trying to figure out how such a simple activity could be drawn out over 90 minutes.
The main story concerns two blue-skinned, noseless, three-fingered alien brothers from planet Baab, a largely featureless society that seemingly exists to rescue other aliens in distress. The younger brother, Scorch (Brendan Fraser), is a smug, stylish astronaut hero who happily rockets into danger during his work hours, and racks up sponsorships from cereals and sodas in his off hours. The older brother, Gary (Rob Corddry) is the unappreciated brains of the outfit, doing all the complicated logistics work in Mission Control, and enduring endless soft abuse about how he’s just a fussy button-pusher whose opinions don’t matter. Even Gary’s sweet wife, Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker), and their hyper kid, Kip, don’t seem to fully value him, especially given Kip’s ambition to be just like Scorch someday. Then Scorch’s boss (Jessica Alba) dispatches him to Earth—a.k.a. “the Dark Planet” from which no alien has ever returned—and he’s promptly captured by a scheming general (William Shatner) and whisked off to Area 51 to become a cog in a sinister plot, alongside other comic-relief/exposition aliens voiced by Jane Lynch, George Lopez, and Craig Robinson. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Joseph Campbell and the narrative framework of the hero’s journey to see where this is all going: Gary is going to have to leave his control-freak comfort zone, head to Earth, rescue his brother, earn his son’s respect, and finally impress Scorch.
Escape From Planet Earth’s major issue is that there’s nothing complicated about this process. Everyone states their problems loudly and clearly, and the solutions come via heavily underlined callbacks and shouted emotions. Everyone, including the villain, gets their motives out in the open in a quick line or two, so viewers can recognize what needs to happen next. It’s marshmallow filmmaking: soft and sweet, but samey and without much substance. One typical gag: The general’s faceless, radiation-suited human minions are named after other familiar filmmakers. (“James! Cameron! Grab the alien!”) Another: The alien voiced by Lopez is a three-eyed slug/salamander thing that gets stringy slime on everything he touches, and yet he likes to hug people. Still another: Three aliens with generic Beatle voices end the film by saying, “Let’s never break up, guys.” There’s nothing particularly offensive or mishandled about Escape From Planet Earth, but nothing about it is exceptional, either, from the serviceable animation to the docile humor to the perfectly acceptable sequences where Gary does exactly what the setup explained he needed to do. Seeing setups become resolutions is vaguely satisfying, but seeing things click into place in a clever, unexpected, or emotionally powerful way is much more involving. Escape From Planet Earth never aspires to anything so difficult.