Planet 51 isn't trying to be the next 2001. Like most movies of the same ilk, the new Sony-distributed film, about an astronaut (voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) who lands on an alien homeworld, continues the trend of family-friendly sci-fi aiming for laughs rather than adventure.
Historically, sci-fi adventure films have failed to gain traction at the box office, and nailing down exactly what works and doesn't work is a puzzle. Science-fiction aimed at adults is often cerebral, philosophical and even existential (examples range from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker all the way through to Blade Runner and The Matrix ) and frequently set in dark or dystopian futures. Obviously, there's no checklist or formula for good science-fiction, but most of the well-known animated science-fiction films (like Akira, Heavy Metal and Ghost in the Shell ) suggest that the heady, moody atmosphere is part of the draw. The remainder of family movies looking to conquer the genre is mostly comprised of epic adventure films in the vein of Star Wars and Star Trek (like the 2009 American release of Battle for Terra ), but surprisingly, they also come and go with little fanfare.
"I think it's a combination of effective marketing and just general quality," says movie critic and SciFi Wire freelance writer Todd Gilchrist. "The studios that are able to make their movies successes have positioned them at good times in the year against other movies they're not strongly competing with in terms of their audiences. At the same time, the [box office successes] have all been of a higher quality in terms of their execution—they've all found a way to reach broader audiences, meaning both adults and kids, offering entertainment that resonates a little more strongly than some of the films that have failed."
As for whether audiences might just prefer their space battles in live-action, Gilchrist suggests it goes both ways. "I think it's hit or miss. You look at the Spy Kids movies and they've obviously been huge successes, but even among Robert Rodriguez' movies, not all of his kid-friendly adventures have worked; Sharkboy and Lavagirl, for example." And Gilchrist believes that even the relative silliness of a film like Planet 51 is not necessarily a sign that a film couldn't as well put together—albeit about much simpler topics—as the classics. "I think it comes down to the completeness of a filmmaker's vision -- not just a lark or random concept but something that is consistently and cohesively put together to explore a theme or idea, or at the very least has a sense of what it wants to be about," he says. "[But] pure entertainment counts for a lot, actually."
Here's a look at some notable animated sci-fi films, both good and bad:
Titan A.E. (2000)
In the 1980's, Don Bluth was responsible for a string of popular animated films, including An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven and The Land Before Time (a series still popular today, having released the thirteenth chapter direct to DVD in 2007). Following the success of Bluth's film Anastasia in 1997, 20th Century Fox greenlit Titan A.E., with the voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore in the lead roles. The film opened to a few rave reviews (most notably from Roger Ebert) and even garnered an Annie nomination for Best Animated film. Alas, Bluth's fears about the studio's family-oriented marketing turned out to be well-founded when the $75 million film only grossed $36.7 million at the domestic box office, forced the closure of Fox Animation Studios, and essentially sent the director into retirement.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002)
In the span of two years, during a time when their traditional animation department was struggling, Disney released not one, but two science-fiction adventure flops in a row. Both Atlantis and Treasure Planet ditched the musical genre that the studio used for most of its animated films, and tried to rebrand their image as more friendly to young boys who were disinterested in classic fairy tale adaptations. The two projects both boasted shockingly high price-tags—$120 million for the former and $140 million for the latter—and neither broke $100 million at the domestic box office ( Atlantis earned $84 million and Treasure Planet barely scraped together a measly $38.1 million). "I think the late '90s and early '00s Disney movies just lost their sense of energy and adventure," says Gilchrist. Still, every cloud has a silver lining: the two failures set the stage for the studio to rejuvenate its live-action film production and allowed Pixar to lead the company into a new chapter of animation history.
Speaking of Pixar, the studio stepped up to the plate almost six years later with their own futuristic offering, and on paper, it must have seemed like a tough sell. Would kids care about the almost-wordless romance between a lonely, obsolete garbage-compactor bot and a cutting-edge plant-scanning pod in a future where humans had abandoned Earth? Would adults? Would anyone? The answer was yes: the element of effervescent comedy—a Pixar staple—was more than enough to keep audiences afloat through a surprisingly sharp criticism of human laziness and rampant consumerism, lifting the movie to a massive $223.8 million domestic gross. And like all of Pixar's movies, the core elements would work regardless of the science-fiction elements; only a touching float through space with the aid of a fire extinguisher is inextricable from its setting.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Having already exhausted the possibilities of the live-action Star Wars franchise, George Lucas took things in a new direction with this feature-film kickoff to an all-new animated series. It marked a handful of firsts for the franchise: it was the first animated entry in the series, it was the first chapter not to be released by 20th Century Fox, it was the first film without the classic scrolling text intro or Frank Oz as the voice of Yoda, and it was the first Star Wars film not to open at number one. In fact, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is the lowest-grossing movie in the series, earning only $35.1 million at the domestic box office and scoring a mass of scathing reviews, suggesting that audiences had little interest in anything less than the genuine article. "I think it was primarily viewed and executed as a television property," adds Gilchrist. "I think George Lucas' cinematic legacy is really going to be supported primarily by longtime and older fans, whereas kids have sort of an overload of those kinds of stories, and again, can see them on the small screen."
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
In 2008, DreamWorks announced their decision to produce their new sci-fi comedy Monsters vs. Aliens in full stereoscopic 3D (for use on RealD and IMAX 3D setups), which added a massive $14 million to the film's budget. However, thanks to a star-studded cast filled with popular comedy stars (including the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen and The Office star Rainn Wilson), the film started DreamWorks' 2009 off on the right foot, earning $198.2 million in the United States. A couple of months later, Nickelodeon ordered up a Monsters vs. Aliens TV show pilot, suggesting that further adventures (on both the big and small screen) may be right around the corner.
Astro Boy (2009)
Just a few weeks back, Summit Entertainment added its own competitor to the sci-fi animation race with
Astro Boy, a long-gestating, computer-generated American adaptation of the famous Japanese comic book and traditionally-animated cartoon series, but not even a McDonald's tie-in or the film's star-studded cast (including Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron, Kristen Bell and Samuel L. Jackson) was enough for the flick to get a foothold at the box office, earning only $17.9 million in the US to date. "I think that movie didn't know what it wanted to be, and I think kids can pick up on that," Gilchrist says. "Especially in the context of its much darker themes, one of which essentially being "if you don't do what your parents want, they might disown you"...[kids] either had nothing to connect with or actively didn't like its ideas."