Hey “Home,” E.T. called — he wants his huggable-alien concept back. Introduced in the film’s opening seconds, when he bumps that little boy with the fishing rod from the DreamWorks Animation logo, over-eager alien invader Oh represents Jeffrey Katzenberg’s best hope at harnessing some of his old pal Steven Spielberg’s intergalactic buddy-movie mojo. Unimaginative and downright predictable by grownup standards, but bursting with elements sure to appeal to younger auds — including cutesy character design, quotable alien catchphrases and solid musical/vocal contributions from Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, who add a dose of diversity to the human cast — DWA’s lone 2015 feature release should manage to squeak past the $100 million mark during a relatively competition-free spring, while reinforcing the studio’s recent standing as the Pepsi of the animation world: It’s potable, but a distant second to the real thing.
Still smarting from the dual blows of a “How to Train Your Dragon 2” Oscar loss and the closure of its Northern California-based PDI division, the publicly traded DWA desperately needs a hit right now, and “Home” is more of a bunt, one that hardly seems enough to satisfy investors until “Kung Fu Panda 3” opens this time next year. From a creative standpoint, this is the studio’s least exciting feature yet — hardly its worst, execution-wise, but entirely lacking in the risk-taking spirit that has spawned such successful franchises as “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Dragon.”
As if in direct contradiction with its own pro-individuality message, “Home” hews close to formula by defaulting to the studio’s favorite lesson: that misfits aren’t losers, but merely those who haven’t managed to figure out how or where they belong — a by-now-threadbare moral recycled one too many times since DWA’s first computer-generated toon, “Antz.” As it happens, “Home” was also helmed by Tim Johnson (who co-directed “Antz” with Eric Darnell), who takes a similar approach to Adam Rex’s kid-lit novel “The True Meaning of Smekday,” in which an oddball alien (voiced by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons) befriends a lonely girl, Tip (Rihanna), while the rest of the world freaks out around them.
Whereas Rex’s irreverent book comes loaded with pop-culture references, the adaptation (penned by “Epic” scribes Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, who got their start in TV) actually tones down that kind of humor — for which DWA often gets dinged by critics — in favor of more situation- and character-dependent gags. It’s a welcome change, although “Smekday” devotees will surely appreciate the fact that they managed to convince Lopez to lend her voice to the film, considering she was the butt of one of the book’s best jokes, in which the character now called “Oh” was known as “J.Lo.”
Oh is the lone individual among his race of conformist aliens, the Boov, who dutifully follow the teachings of a goofy leader named Smek (Steve Martin). Naturally cautious, the Boov are “the best species at running away,” which has served them well in an ongoing battle with their most dangerous rivals, the Gorg, and now leads them to target Earth as the next planet to colonize — except it’s already inhabited. Rather than give kids nightmares about extraterrestrial threats, “Home” presents the most benign alien invasion one could imagine, in which these adorable outer-space intruders float in on soap bubble-like pods, slurping up all the humans via giant vacuum tubes, and relocating them to amusement park-style communities in Australia. (By contrast, the more menacing but far-from-scary Gorg arrive in sharp, dark vessels, destroying everything in their way.)
Though socially quite primitive, the Boov have innovated a few nifty tools that seem to defy gravity, creating floating clusters of useless human artifacts — bicycles, toilets, etc. — and levitating islands from the planet’s more scenic landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. They can also jerry-rig cars to fly. But they’re not that interesting as a species, at least not compared with “Despicable Me’s” Minions or “Toy Story’s” three-eyed aliens. With motormouth Oh doing most of the talking, the Boov communicate using a weird form of pidgin English that lacks Yoda’s charming reverse syntax, more closely resembling the way Jar Jar Binks butchered the language. Given that kids seem to have a higher tolerance than adults for funny voices and facile wordplay, they may well be amused by Parsons’ grating performance.
After inadvertently sending the Boov’s new coordinates to the Gorg mothership, Oh goes on the run, stumbling upon the lone human overlooked during the mass relocation, 12-year-old Tip, along with her pet cat, Pig. At first, the young girl rebuffs Oh, seeing as how his species was responsible for kidnapping her mother (Lopez). But “Home” relies on a hefty suspension of human logic, one in which the understandably wary Tip inexplicably warms to Oh (though she insists that he call her by her given name, Gratuity Tucci), while the rest of mankind adapt to their relocated status without fuss.
Though the film tends to spell out every little development as clearly as possible, just to be sure international audiences don’t miss a beat, it empowers viewers’ intuition in at least one critical way: Purple by default, the Boov change colors according to their emotions, giving kids a chance to interpret their mood-ring-like reactions on the fly — and the crew one more tool to work with when animating the characters. And while the script plays out in obvious fashion, Johnson has clearly encouraged a level of improvisation and experimentation in the performances, whether that means allowing Parsons to riff in Oh’s odd language or giving the animators room to loosen up their characters. This is the first CG toon — DreamWorks, Pixar or otherwise — in which the human rigging doesn’t force them to move like stiff-shouldered robots. The Boov are even more flexible, possibly even invertebrate, which comes in especially handy when Oh learns to dance (to Stargate’s “Dancing in the Dark,” featuring Rihanna).
The pop star actually did double duty on the film, also helping to shape its soundtrack by contributing several songs and advising on the pic’s overall groove — a word which, as her character helpfully observes, happens to rhyme with “Boov.” Where Parsons’ perf is a love-it-or-leave-it ordeal, Rihanna’s comes as a pleasant surprise, especially after “Battleship.” Alternately vulnerable and strong, she supplies just the right degree of independence to Tip’s personality. Though both she and Lopez have been accused of lightening their skin and pushing their sexuality in their music careers, their animated counterparts seem empowered by their big hips and brown complexions (not unlike the Hawaiian gals in Disney’s offbeat alien toon “Lilo & Stitch”), setting a positive example through their appearance and actions — whereas Oh’s consistently reckless behavior ought to come with a warning: Don’t try this at home.