It’s that post-Oscars doldrums time of year, when week after week, there’s nothing new in your local cinemas that’s particularly tempting. But Easter vacation invariably brings some family-friendly releases, and occasionally an outstanding animated film will premiere to coincide with that school break instead of summer, Thanksgiving or Christmas. I wouldn’t go so far as to call DreamWorks Animation’s latest effort, Tim Johnson’s Home, outstanding. But it’s better than a lot of other critics seem to be giving it credit for, and a solid choice if you want to take the kids to the movies anytime soon.
On the most obvious level, Home is a frenetic, eye-popping friendship/adventure tale with a moral or two and just enough peril to keep kindergartners rapt without giving them nightmares. Though there are the obligatory jokes that fly over the littl’uns’ heads to keep parents intermittently amused – such as having the seventh-grade protagonist’s nickname, Tip (Rihanna), be short for Gratuity – it isn’t excessively knowing or snarky. But if you think about it enough afterwards, there’s more to this story than immediately meets the eye. In fact, it can easily be read as a lesson in the evils of colonialism and cultural imperialism.
The title Home is a bit misleading, suggesting that this tale of a young Earthling befriended by a cute, bumbling alien is just a cartoon retread of E.T. The movie’s advertising tagline, “Culture Shock,” is a far better fit. The premise is a takeover of the Earth by a not-very-threatening-looking race of rubbery-bodied, many-legged little creatures called Boovs who change color like mood rings. Like most dystopian sci-fi cultures, they prize absolute conformity and practical utility over critical thinking and creativity, so runaway Earth girl Tip’s accidental sidekick Oh (Jim Parsons) is a social outcast among the Boovs because he is impulsive, disorganized and makes a lot of mistakes. Parents of kids who have ADHD and/or get bullied need look no further than this for a message.
But there’s more. The Boovs rationalize their invasion with the premise that humans are benighted and don’t know what’s good for them. Upon arrival, they put every aspect of Earth culture and technology to a quick and shallow test; anything that they don’t deem immediately useful gets vacuumed up into floating rubbish piles powered by antigravity devices. Bicycles are among the first to go, since they don’t stand upright on the first try. Soon they are joined by the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and mountains of priceless artworks. Particularly since the Boovs choose Australia as the site for their internment camps for Earth’s human population, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see in them the smug, clueless European colonizers of our planet’s “uncivilized” places, who don’t even bother to ask the indigenous people why they value what they value. And because the Boovs are depicted as candy-colored buffoons rather than wicked masters and exploiters, the lesson goes down easy and palatable instead of heavy-handed and didactic.
The other virtue on which the Boovs pride themselves is their talent for running away from danger. They are obliged to invade planet after planet because an alien race called Gorgs has been pursuing them relentlessly ever since the Boovs’ leader, Captain Smek (Steve Martin), swiped a precious artifact – an unexceptional-looking rock mounted on the end of a scepter – from the scary-looking Gorg commander while losing his nerve and fleeing what was supposed to be a peace conference. The scepter with the rock has become Smek’s badge of office, the Shusher, used to smite any Boov who questions his authority on the head.
As Smek repeatedly uses one human artifact after another inappropriately, like wearing a backyard barbecue as a crown, even little kids will quickly catch onto the point that this authoritarian figure bungles things way more than poor Oh ever did. “My mother told me that making mistakes is what makes us human,” Tip reassures her new friend halfway through their quest – in a flying car fueled by slushie machines, courtesy of Oh’s tinkering – to reunite mother and daughter. Grownups who have read Ender’s Game or seen the Star Trek episode about the Horta should be able to figure out before the end that Smek is utterly wrong about the intentions of the Gorgs as well. It all fits in nicely with the movie’s overall message about multicultural understanding and not ostracizing, fearing or devaluing people for being the Other.
If parents want to use this movie to prod their kids into thinking deeply about such matters, there are plenty of ways available to illustrate the lesson. Or you can just hunker down for a wild ride, laugh at Oh’s awkward syntax and enjoy Tip’s feisty girl-power personality and the bouncy, Rihanna-heavy score. Like a thoughtfully filled Easter basket, Home is not too sweet, not too sour, colorful, energetic and fun.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.