"Escape From Planet Earth" — an animated adventure that's more down-to-earth than earth-shattering — builds a family-friendly sci-fi constellation out of fresh chuckles and recycled parts, a number of them from Planet Pixar. Feel-good but not cloying, zippy but not frenetic, and refreshingly free of snark, the default setting for a lot of kids' fare these days, the feature takes a pleasingly retro-futuristic stance on matters of décor and attitude.
Fueling the ride is an outstanding voice cast that includes Rob Corddry, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara and, in irresistibly hammy villain mode, William Shatner. Ricky Gervais is on hand, too, as a flippant descendant of HAL 9000. For grown-ups with little ones, it's a painless entertainment with a fair share of laughs. The film slipped into theaters Thursday, without advance screenings for press, in both 2-D and 3-D versions; the extra dimension is serviceable but hardly crucial.
Directed by storyboard artist-turned-helmer Callan Brunker from a screenplay he co-wrote with Bob Barlen, the movie takes a while to hit its stride. At the core is a classic case of brotherly love posing as sibling rivalry.
On Planet Baab, where blue-skinned people have expressive eyes, two high achievers are bent on out-achieving each other: astronaut Scorch Supernova (Fraser), a fearless self-promoter with more than a touch of Buzz Lightyear in his action-hero makeup, and his older but smaller brother, Mission Control engineer Gary (Corddry), who's married to a former test pilot (Parker). Gary's son — a cutie of a hero in his own right voiced by Jonathan Morgan Heit — idolizes Scorch but will, of course, learn that his geeky dad is just as cool.
The brothers' conflict moves to the Dark Planet, a place otherwise known as Earth, after their spiteful boss (Jessica Alba) concocts a seemingly doomed mission. The filmmakers use the terrestrial setting — specifically, the American desert — for glancing commentary on human folly amid the pop-culture nostalgia. A couple of scenes at a 7-Eleven transcend product placement, using retail iconography for giggles, while two goofballs (Steve Zahn and Chris Parnell) make friendly contact with the visitors.
Less friendly are the Supernovas' encounters at Area 51, the movie's most innovative ploy. In keeping with the military base's legendary status among conspiracy theorists, it serves as HQ for Shatner's evil general, a megalomaniac who has incarcerated the smartest geeks in the universe. As three of the alien geniuses, George Lopez, Jane Lynch and a scene-stealing Craig Robinson make the prison-movie setup shine.
It never discovers new worlds, but "Escape From Planet Earth" is, in its genial way, escape enough.
MPAA rating: PG for action and some mild humor
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release