Just as one one might wonder why it is that extraterrestrial life hasn’t been discovered yet, you’d think the existence of a solid 3D-animated film about a loveable alien is something we could confirm by the year 2015. From E.T. to Lilo & Stitch, the slam-dunk appeal of adorable interlopers from space has proven itself time and time again, but cracking this particular old chestnut in the age of 3D has only bred the likes of Planet 51 and Escape From Planet Earth. (Monsters vs. Aliens fails this test on account of siding squarely with the Monsters). Safely designed to minimize any potentially alienating elements, Home, the newest effort from DreamWorks Animation, does not mark an end to the search for a higher form of animated entertainment.
Adapted from Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book The True Meaning of Smekday, Home follows the comfortable “mismatched buddies on a road trip” formula. That it’s a plotty-snatcher isn’t the worst crime a kid’s movie can commit, as plenty of adult entertainment can work a familiar framework into a great time. What is frustrating, though, is that even when targeting viewers little older than those literally born yesterday, Home shows very little faith in its audience.
Hexapedal star Oh (The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) and the rest of his interstellar race, called Boov, are introduced as a species of friendly squatters, moving from planet to planet to avoid a nasty bunch of aliens known as the Gorg. Setting up shop on Earth (while resigning the human population to a reservation/theme park version of Australia), the outgoing Oh is the black sheep of an obedient society of scaredy-cats. Hardly the brightest star in the constellation, Oh’s bumbling makes him a wanted fugitive on the newly Boov-controlled Earth, after accidentally sending a creation-spanning “reply all” email that reveals the Boov’s latest hideout. Bare in mind, I’m not using an analogy here: the inciting incident of Home is literally a “reply all” message where “all” encompasses the known universe.
Oh and the Boov, though squishy and tenticular in shape, are really a hyper-advanced species of camel, creatures designed to fit many purposes all at once. With a natural purple complexion that shifts color with humors, the mood ring skin of the Boov is designed to drill into younger viewers the emotion of the scene that deliberate dialogue and aggressive soundtracking don’t already cover. The Boov’s undulating bodies and bubble-shaped vehicles offer more tot-friendly coding, as they counterpoint the spiny, metallic Gorg (Soft=good, sharp=bad). As is studio standard, eyes come in one size only: saucer plate.
With a speech pattern that sounds modelled on a grammar Nazi’s dissertation on hanging prepositions after it’s circled the globe through Google Translate, Oh’s garbled dialogue is meant to appeal to little ones simply for being gibberish (hence, a joke with proper sentence structure is always “one for the parents”). Parsons’ droning affectation, though technically up to snuff for what’s required for the role, grows grating over a length that exceeds the standard 22-minute TV episode by a factor of four.
At least he’s been properly cast; vocal duties for Oh’s unwilling partner in escape, Tip, fall to Rihanna (Battleship). It’s a classic example of DreamWorks emphasizing star power over vocal talent: Tip may be a spunky 7th grader, but Rihanna’s characteristic rasp makes it sound as though we’re missing all the scenes of Tip smoking two packs a day. The heavy use of Rihanna’s own music in Home only adds to the feeling that bankability is directing the film far more than any willingness to innovate.
The broadly colourful palette of Home does little to dissuade you from viewing the film as a lesser effort from the studio, as the simplistic design of the Boov and heavy use of close-ups force bland character faces into yours at all times. The paint-by-numbers story moves from chase, to plot beat, to comic relief at an expected clip, but it’s the telling of it that practically encourages a cynical eye. Comfortably wacky for 70 minutes, Home’s home stretch builds emotional moments out of manipulative lighting, music, and scenarios, rather than convincing characters or writing.
While it’s always easy to fall back on the old saw of “it’s for kids,” the animation renaissance of the last decade has provided plenty of young-skewing films that aim much higher, and achieve far greater than Home. That many of those offerings have come from the same studio that made Home makes its low aspirations all the more disappointing. Even for a confectioner distraction, Home’s inability to trust the savvy of its target audience is often astounding. “I wonder what they call cats in French? I know: chat!” Tip says at one point, pronouncing the word like a suffix to “chit.” In my audience, a girl no more than five years old indignantly blurted out, “It’s sh-at!” She wasn’t having any of it. Kids deserve entertainment that respects their intelligence, and there’s not a whole lot of either to be found in Home.
Home marks a throwback to the hyperactive, pop culture-fixated DreamWorks of old, where star power alone pushes straight-to-VOD material into theatres.