Family Filmgoer: Reviews of 'Planet 51,' 'Christmas Carol' with kids in mind

In "Planet 51," Neera, left, and Lem inhabit a world that resembles 1950s America. An astronaut's arrival jolts the rubbery populace.
In "Planet 51," Neera, left, and Lem inhabit a world that resembles 1950s America. An astronaut's arrival jolts the rubbery populace. (Ilion Animation)
By Jane Horwitz
Friday, November 20, 2009

Planet 51 (PG, 90 minutes). This computer-animated feature about an American astronaut landing on a distant planet doesn't seem to know who its audience should be. Most of the jokes are geared to adults and are a little tasteless, yet the story itself seems aimed at kids. The animation doesn't look all that slick, and there are dull spots during which kids may fidget. The round, rubbery, greenish folks of Planet 51, though they don't look human, seem to live in the United States in the 1950s and speak English. When astronaut Chuck Baker (voice of Dwayne Johnson) pilots his lander onto Planet 51 and walks around in his spacesuit, both he and they freak out. There are crude gags about using corks as protection against alien "probes." Chuck is helped by Planet 51 teenager Lem (Justin Long), who wants to impress his crush, Neera (Jessica Biel). The kids soon realize that Chuck means no harm. But Planet 51's General Grawl (Gary Oldman) is determined to capture and dissect him. The film's rather complicated premise, its reliance on crude humor and its slow spots make it iffy for kids younger than 10. The child characters and their pets are cute, as is Chuck's doglike robotic helper. Too bad the script and story aren't as clever.

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"Disney's A Christmas Carol" (PG). Although it sticks pretty closely to the plot and dialogue of Dickens's classic fable, this film is mostly a showcase for actor Jim Carrey and for advances in computer animation. It is too frightening and humorless for kids younger than 10, some of whom may need lobby breaks during spookier scenes. Director-screenwriter Robert Zemeckis uses the same technology he used in "The Polar Express" (PG, 2004). Scrooge (voiced by Carrey, who also plays younger versions of Scrooge and the three spirits who visit him) is so stooped, gnarled and angry, kids may be scared by close-ups of his arthritic hands. All the visitations are quite chilling, starting with Marley's ghost (Gary Oldman). Happier moments are overshadowed by the film's overall dourness. There are many scary, spooky, nightmarish scenes, vertiginous flying with the spirits, and a shot of a 19th-century Londoner taking snuff.


"The Blind Side." One might want to dismiss this uplifting tale as just a phony feel-good story in which an inner-city African American teen is given a bright future by idealistic white people, but in this case the story happens to be true. "The Blind Side" is thoroughly involving, even if director John Lee Hancock lays it on a little thick. But the people he's portraying are larger than life, and their story ought to hold most teens rapt. Based on Michael Lewis's book "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," the movie chronicles how a wealthy Memphis decorator, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), took in a homeless teenager. Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) joined the Tuohy family, went to college on a football scholarship and today plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (country singer Tim McGraw) become Michael's legal guardians. They get him a tutor (Kathy Bates) and groom him for football and college. There is mildly crude language, racial slurs, brief nonlethal violence, drinking, drug references, a car crash and a briefly implied marital sexual situation.

"2012." All those folks with signs warning "the end is near" were right, it turns out, in this overlong, fake-looking but surprisingly fun thriller. The last half-hour degenerates into silliness, but before that it's cool to watch the White House scientific adviser (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the president of the United States (Danny Glover) and his hard-bitten chief of staff (Oliver Platt) agonize over what to do when they realize that quakes and tsunamis will shortly wipe out civilization. Meanwhile, writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) takes his children (Liam James and Morgan Lily) to Yellowstone. Jackson learns the government has built huge arks to rescue a few hundred thousand and tries to get his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), his kids and even his ex's boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy) onto one of them. The film shows people falling to their deaths as buildings collapse, being swept away by waves and suffering bloody but nongraphic injuries. There is rare profanity and drinking.


"Pirate Radio." American high-schoolers 17 and older will be surprised to learn that England, the land of the Beatles, allowed almost no rock or pop music on state-owned BBC radio in the mid-1960s. So off the coast of England pirate stations broadcast from boats until the British government shut them down. "Pirate Radio" is a bit of nostalgia about that era and a loving nod to its great music. It is not for kids younger than 17 because of implied sexual situations, near-nudity, drug use, drinking and strong profanity. The crackerjack cast under writer-director Richard Curtis ("Love, Actually," R, 2003) includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as the station's one American deejay, Rhys Ifans as his chief rival on the air, Bill Nighy as the owner of the rattletrap ship, January Jones as a groupie, Tom Sturridge as a shy teenager sent by his mum (Emma Thompson) to work on the boat, and Kenneth Branagh as the comically malevolent cabinet minister bent on shutting them down. There is a scary disaster at sea.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Never less than riveting, but not for kids younger than 17, this raw, graphic and upsetting story of an abused teenage girl is tough to watch. Yet director Lee Daniels and his fantastic cast tell a gritty and finally uplifting tale that has much to say. Claireece "Precious" Jones (gifted Gabourey Sidibe) is obese and failing in school. She has one baby with Down syndrome, whom her grandmother raises, and she is pregnant again -- both pregnancies the result of rape by her biological father, whom we glimpse only in graphic flashbacks as he violates her. Her negligent, resentful mother (the amazing Mo'Nique) abuses her. Precious takes a counselor's advice and enrolls in an alternative school. She's sullen and angry, escaping into overeating and fantasies, but a teacher (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carey) eventually reach her. There is strong profanity, drug use and drinking.

Horwitz is a freelance reviewer.

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