Why Planet 51 may be the best sci-fi toon yet

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

The upcoming 3-D animated movie Planet 51 turns alien invasion movies on their head: On Planet 51, the peaceful lives of an alien society are interrupted by the arrival of a human astronaut (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). The animated family film also features the voices of Justin Long and Jessica Biel.

We spoke with the cast at a press conference last week in Los Angeles, and they gave us six reasons Planet 51 stands out from the other animated movies. It opens tomorrow.

NASA approves. Endorsements don't get much bigger than that. Johnson, who plays the human astronaut, got to meet with NASA for his own research. "The studio has partnered up with NASA, so I had an opportunity to meet a couple individuals from NASA, who love the movie and love the message," Johnson said. "For me, it was just an honor to talk with the individuals from NASA, who are always cutting-edge and who are responsible for so much. To put it in perspective, we made a great animated movie, and they were happy with the character that we made of the astronaut."

Biel is one hot E.T. Neera may only be a 16-year-old alien teen, but it's easy to see why Lem (Long) pines for her. Biel brought her sultry sex appeal to her voice and mannerisms, which the animators then put in Neera. "It was just about trying to create a 16-year-old girl who thinks she has this confidence and this sexy 'I am a woman' attitude and, at the same time, is really still trying to figure it out with boys and is still trying to see how far she wants to push the envelope with authority and what people tell her to do," Biel said. "I think I was just trying to create that person that I felt like I was when I was 16, which was confident but insecure, and pushing the envelope, but still feeling like she was a little kid, and thinking she was this strong, independent, sexy woman, but still not 100 percent there yet."

'50s retro is back in the best way. The society of Planet 51 seems to be living in what was our '50s. They've got the doo-wop, the pastels, the malt shops and the comic books. "Because it is set in an idyllic society that is also kind of repressed, since it mirrors our 1950s, it brings up a lot of issues that we dealt with and are still kind of dealing with," Long said. "Like paranoia in people who are a little bit different and judging people too quickly and harshly. In that sense, it's timely. There's a little lesson embedded underneath all the cute, fun, green stuff."

They may be aliens, but they're just like us. At its heart, Planet 51 is still a universal story, pun very much intended. The teenagers on Planet 51 still get nervous around girls and still have big dreams, whether it's exploring the galaxy or saving their own planet. "I had a very similar experience in high school," Long said. "I was just not as smart, though, sadly. Lem is a lot brighter than me." Biel added, "I related to Neera because, when I was 16, I was pushing it, on every angle, with my parents and the world. I thought I had it going on. I had a little bit more of a bad attitude as a 16-year-old. She's way more of a positive, charitable person than I was as a 16-year-old, but the risk thing, the independence and the confidence with Lem, I related to a lot."

It has sci-fi homages. Listen sharply to the dialogue in Planet 51 and you'll hear some familiar phrases: "You're my only hope," "Hasta la vista, baby."

It marks the debut of a new animation studio. Planet 51 is the first feature film by Spanish animation studio Ilion, which aims to compete with Pixar and DreamWorks. "We were all shown early stages of the animation and, even at that time, the animation was gorgeous," Johnson said. "It was really beautiful, and you couple that with the fact that those guys are so incredibly passionate about this project. They've been with this project since 2002, so it's been a long labor of love and a passion project for them."