Escape from Planet Earth
When I was young, Saturday morning cartoons were dominated by Hanna-Barbera, with some space dutifully carved out to revere Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and other classic shorts. Over the years, other studios came and went, and there was a surge from Walt Disney, but the biggest change was the return of Warner Bros. Animation with Tiny Toon Adventures, followed by the deceptively sophisticated Animaniacs in the early 1990s.
But in the mid-’90s, while I was in high school, there was another change: the improving quality and falling price of computer-generated animation led to the appearance of CG-animated television cartoons, starting with ReBoot in 1994. In 1996 we saw the return of the Transformers franchise in the form of Beast Wars, and the last time I was up that early on a Saturday this sort of thing seems to have taken over the ecosystem, at least where you can still find it. Saturday morning cartoons seem to have died out since the CG era, but that’s another rant entirely.
Anyway, one of the major players in this shift was Mainframe Entertainment, now Rainmaker Entertainment. In addition to series like these, they’re also behind a huge amount of direct-to-video kids’ movies, including a staggering amount of Barbie content produced for Mattel. And now they’ve decided to step up into the theatrical ring with Escape from Planet Earth. I didn’t expect it to be in nearly the same ballpark as Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, but landing in the company of mediocre Blue Sky Studios or Sony Pictures Animation fare like Ice Age: Continental Drift or Hotel Transylvania doesn’t exactly feel like they’re sprinting out of the gate. Still, I guess you’ve gotta start somewhere.
The story isn’t exactly pushing any envelopes. Gary (Rob Corddry) feels upstaged by his brother, Scorch (Brendan Fraser), because he does the unglamorous support work on Scorch’s interplanetary rescue missions for the planet Baab, universally mocked for just pushing buttons on the computer (Ricky Gervais) while his brother saves the day. There’s the kid, Kip (Jonathan Morgan Heit), who idolizes his uncle over his father, and the genially-supportive wife, Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker), just as expected.
But then Scorch is sent off on a mission to the “Dark Planet” (Earth), from which no alien has returned. And with good reason: a U.S. general (William Shatner) captures them all and forces them to produce all of our modern technology. After Scorch is taken, Gary follows and is thrown into Area 51 along with the sluggish Thurman (George Lopez), mousey Doc (Craig Robinson), and giant crustacean Io (Jane Lynch). Of course he’s eventually going to Baab-up and lead a daring escape from, well, you know.
There is absolutely nothing here to hook an audience that doesn’t already want to be hooked. The story is ancient and little effort is made to modify the basics beyond cutting out any reciprocal change on Scorch’s part; evidently it really is the case that the nerds sitting back home thinking and planning are dispensable next to those who take grandiose and reckless public action.
There are plenty of winking references towards the parents, but they’re all over the map and only a third of them really land. The recreation of Bérénice Bejo’s jacket pantomime from The Artist was a nice touch, but for the most part the gags either fell flat or felt forced. It’s as if the writers know that Pixar and Dreamworks get praise for these sort of references, but have no real understanding of what makes it actually funny when those studios do it.
So Rainmaker isn’t exactly off to a great start here, but all is not lost. After all, Blue Sky made the pretty-okay Robots, and Sony came up with the unexpectedly great Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They might do better next time, or they might go back to churning out Barbie videos.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it’s sort of on the edge, but I’m going to come down on the fail side.