The Earthling Invasion

Spain’s Ilion Animation Studios and Sony Pictures deliver a flip on the classic alien flick with Planet 51.

Whether it’s Will Smith sucker punching an extraterrestrial pilot or Elliott feeding E.T. Reese’s Pieces, moviegoers have long been familiar with the concept of alien invaders’hostile or peaceful. This November, Planet 51 seeks to turn the classic genre on its head.

Inspired by the sci-fi B-movie classics of the ’50s, the CG animated Planet 51 follows human astronaut Captain Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who accidentally crash lands on an unknown world inhabited by green space beings living in white-picket-fence suburban paradise, whose only fear is the threat of alien space freaks’unfortunately, our astronaut appears to be just that. Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Seann William Scott, Gary Oldman and John Cleese round out the cast.

‘The theme is very original,’ says director Jorge Blanco, who crafted the film together with Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez at Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios, ‘Nobody has ever used the idea of an ‘inverse alien invasion’ where humans are the aliens in an animated movie.’

The fairly ambitious (by independent standards) 60 million dollar production came from somewhat unlikely beginnings: videogame craft house Pyro Studios, where Blanco, Abad and Martinez met working on Commandos 2. When Pyro CEO Ignacio P’rez Dolset told them about his plan to start an animation studio, they jumped at the idea.

After eight months of brainstorming a launch project, the idea of a ‘reverse X-Files‘ plot formed, and the quartet set about solidifying it into Planet 51, with the enterprising Dolset serving as producer. The team drew on 1950s America, sci-fi and Disney classics to develop the flick’s retro-modern look, says Blanco, and looked to directors Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Hayao Miyazaki for inspiration.

Despite the challenges of funding, the newborn studio persevered, going so far as to build their CG pipeline from scratch. ‘We have developed our own tools, from a render farm to our own animation systems,’ Blanco explains, crediting the success of these projects to Planet‘s resourceful technical director, Gonzalo Rueda.

Ilion’s efforts were rewarded in 2008, when Sony Pictures announced it would pick up the PG flick for distribution in the U.S. under its TriStar label. The powerhouse studio signed on Johnson and the rest of the English-language talent and announced the addition of producers Guy Collins (Cracks, Highlander: The Source), Peter Graves (Terminator Salvation) and Michael Ryan.

‘Since the very beginning of the project, we could think of nothing but releasing in the U.S.,’ Blanco marvels, ‘Now that it’s done, it’s like a dream come true!’

In an interesting and appropriately space age turn of events, Planet 51 reached further even than Ilion’s hardworking crew could have dreamed when a copy of the film was sent into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery‘NASA’s oldest orbiter in service today. The film blasted off on the shuttle’s August 2009 mission in anticipation of its Earth-bound release this fall.

According to a report from Reuters, the shuttle is toting the flick at 17,500 miles per hour to orbit the Earth every 90 minutes’the film’s exact runtime’so audiences can get a kick out of the fact that the very intergalactic adventure they enjoy at premiere time is making it’s own amazing journey as they watch. Planet 51‘s ‘mission’ was made possible by partner HandMade Films, a production and distribution house based out of London, U.K.

In a statement about the event, producer Collins said, ‘Planet 51 is a fun film for all the family and one of its strong messages, particularly for children, is to not be afraid of the unknown. That is what NASA has been showing the world for 50 years and I hope that our film will encourage children to increase their understanding of the Universe and NASA’s work.”

Ilion’s native Spain has been flickering on the animation industry’s radar more and more in recent years’from 2004′s Goya winning El Cid: The Legend to last year’s Antonio Banderas-backed CG outing The Missing Lynx‘but so far has failed to offer a runaway hit in the often monopolized U.S. market. However, foreign-built projects from Europe and Asia have seen increasing box office and critical success (notably Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville).

Perhaps this bright, funny family offering will have the right blend of familiarity and ingenuity to win over American theater-goers and put the Iberian peninsula firmly on the map at last.

With such a varied success rate of foreign animated features at the U.S. box office, it will be interesting to see how this very American-influenced yet decidedly independent, international film fares in theaters (and with the intrepid folk aboard the Discovery). Blanco is rightly proud of the effort’yet cautiously optimistic. ‘Planet 51 has everything that is needed for a big studio film. We just have to wait and see the audience’s response ‘ hopefully it’s a good one.’

He adds, humbly, ‘We have done our best.’

Sony’s TriStar blasted off with Planet 51 on November 20. To learn more, visit www.planet51.com.