More is Less

In many bad movies, there’s a tendency to throw everything at the viewer and hope that by some miracle something will work. It won’t and here are some reasons why.

At one end of the animated movie scale you have Pixar films. On the other end, you have everyone else. Disney is the only one who can produce decent animated films on a regular basis and Dreamworks is hit and miss as well. However if you watch the animated film “Planet 51,” you’ll see what not to do.

The basic idea behind “Planet 51” is that an astronaut lands on a planet filled with green aliens who live in a 50s setting from Earth. The astronaut finds himself stranded on Planet 51 and has to get back to his space capsule so he can get back to Earth. The premise is decent and amusing; it’s the execution that falls painfully flat.

The first mistake is that “Planet 51” relies on outside references for its gags. The huge problem with outside references is that if you don’t know what they’re referencing, you miss the gag entirely. Secondly, most outside references simply aren’t that funny, much like someone telling you an inside joke about your co-workers that nobody outside of your company could possibly understand.

The variety of outside references ranges from “Grease,” “Alien” “The Right Stuff,” and “E.T.” By constantly throwing outside references into the story, the movie detracts from the story itself.

A second big problem is the lack of focus. The hero wants to get to know a pretty girl but doesn’t have the courage to do so. The astronaut wants to prove he’s smart enough to control his own space capsule. The astronaut’s robotic probe wants to collect rocks. The evil alien general wants to kill the astronaut.

Notice that nobody has a similar goal? With so many different goals, you don’t feel like you’re watching one movie but several movies at the same time. As a result, it’s hard to keep track of all the stories and soon you cease to care about anyone.

A third problem is that nobody’s story goes into much depth. Scenes are short, nonsensical, and then over before the next scene arrives. Nowhere do you get much of a sense that anyone’s progressing closer to their goals because it’s just one episode of action after another.

Compare this to “Star Wars” where Luke and Hans have a clear goal of rescuing Princess Leia and getting back to their ship, or in “Die Hard” where the terrorists have a goal of breaking open the safe while Bruce Willis has a goal of picking off as many terrorists as possible while staying alive.

“Planet 51” is basically a muddled mess that took a good idea and threw in too many ideas until we no longer care about any of them. The goal is to stick to one basic idea, create variations of that one idea, and thus your various subplots support each other rather than distract from each other. It’s a difference between unity and focus and a scatterbrained approach. Keep your story focused by sticking to one clear and distinct story.

Here’s what “Planet 51” does right. There’s a clear villain, there’s a deadline, and the hero has an emotional goal of getting the courage to ask a girl out for a date. Then the rest of the story gets messy and sinks the film as a whole.

Look at the difference between “E.T.” and “Planet 51.” Both are about aliens stranded on another planet, but one told a compelling story while the other tried to tell as many stories as possible and wound up failing as a result.

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