These are boom times for mainstream, family-friendly animation; over the last year or so, audiences have been treated to smart and visually compelling films like "ParaNorman," "Frankenweenie," "Wreck-It Ralph," "The Secret World of Arrietty" and "A Cat in Paris," to name just a few. Even the generic "Madagascar" series mustered up a smart script and some visual pizzazz for its third entry.
Alas, even in the era of Pixar and Studio Ghibli and Laika, there are still thoroughly forgettable movies, designed to smoothly course through young viewers' nervous systems with 90 minutes' worth of uninteresting characters, rote stories and the occasional shiny object. Which brings us to "Escape from Planet Earth."
To call this sci-fi adventure awful would be to credit it with more personality than it has. The production is competent, the voice cast is talented, but there's absolutely nothing to it. It's a bowl of warm water into which no one has bothered to place a bouillon cube. The kids in the theater with me never mustered a single laugh or gasp of excitement. It's plenty o' nuttin'.
The all-too-familiar story takes place on the planet Baab, where intergalactic hero Scorch Supernova (voiced by Brendan Fraser) gets all the glory for his derring-do, even though the brains of the operation is Scorch's soft-spoken older brother Gary (Rob Corddry), who runs things back at Mission Control. Following another of Scorch's successful jaunts, space agency boss Lena (Jessica Alba) wants to send the star astronaut on a rescue mission to "the Dark Planet," also known as Earth.
Gary objects, since hundreds of beings from various planets have ventured there, never to return, but the vain Scorch ignores his brother's warnings. Gary quits, and without his guidance, Scorch is quickly captured by General Shanker (William Shatner). Gary soon follows in a rescue pod, crash-landing at the general's secret base at Area 51, while Gary's wife Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker) and son Kip (Jonathan Morgan Heit) uncover a conspiracy at home.
Nothing else that happens will feel remotely surprising: Not the comic alien sidekicks (voiced by Jane Lynch, Craig Robinson and George Lopez), not Gary and Scorch's eventual understanding of each other's strengths and the power of teamwork, not Kip's newly-found respect for the dad he shrugged off as dull and cowardly, not the last-minute cliffhanger and foiling of the villain's diabolical plans.
If anything does stand out, it's the truly shameless product placement for 7-Eleven. Not only is there a store adjacent to Area 51 and thus prominently featured in several key sequences, there's an entire scene devoted to Gary befriending the shop's two employees (Steve Zahn and Chris Parnell) over a Slurpee that's the same shade of blue as Gary. "He likes it," exclaims one clerk, and his partner replies, "Of course he likes it! Where's your brand loyalty?"
It's bland loyalty that keeps "Escape from Planet Earth" gravity-bound. This movie is a black hole of entertainment, from which no joy can escape.