When Armin Sonntag has an encounter with a nasty alien as a child, he grows up devoting his life to trying to convince the rest of the world that life really does exist in outer space. Unfortunately, he does this at the expense of his half-orphaned son Luis. By the age of twelve, Luis even has to bake his own birthday cake – poor lad.
This is the feature debut of Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, the German twins who won an Oscar for their 1989 short Balance. That too was concerned extraterrestrial existence but demonstrated, with the aid of arresting stop-motion models, that dialogue is not needed for the telling of a captivating story. Three decades later, a dialogue-heavy Luis and the Aliens does little to sway that argument.
Perhaps botched in translation – this is a German-led, panEuropean production – the film is weighed down with risible dialogue and dodgy stock characters. A Latino housemaid is insensitivity voiced by Irish actress Aileen Mythen, there’s a ropey Indian ice-cream seller and mute tubby kid, subservient to her cool-girl friend, whilst the film’s teen characters are written with voices that suggests the Lauenstein’s have never met an adolescent in their lives – who actually says ‘wackio’?
More winning is the film’s peppy animated style – computer formed but resembling a cross between Illumination and Laika – which combines well with Martin Lingnau and Ingmar Süberkrüb’s upbeat score to establish a cheery ambience for younger audiences. This is a bright and breezy, wide-eyed affair. One nightmare sequence and an overwrought conclusion may prove too much for more sensitive tots but the film’s visuals make for pleasing enough fare. For adults, the charm wears thin pretty fast.
It doesn’t help that the plot resembles little more than an amalgamation of other films. Passing by Earth on a cosmic caravan cruiser, a trio of aliens – loud, indistinguishable and designed with little imagination – tune into an American shopping channel and become obsessed with the idea of owning a limited edition massage chair: ‘it goes all the way up to eleven!’ Flying down to the planet to get one, the trio wind up in the back garden of Luis’ house.
In the meantime, as wild misadventures ensue, Luis is being threatened with life in the Sunny Days Home for Neglected Children by a vampiric social worker – visualise Sue Perkins on a high – summoned by his concerned school principal. Over the course of just under ninety minutes. Luis must repair his raggedy relationship with his father and prove that he’s not being neglected. Can his new alien friends help? Maybe they could teach the school bully a lesson along the way too?
Occasional flashes of wit – an alien infomercial describes Earth as one third water, one third land and one third high sugar corn syrup – help make this passable but whether that’s enough depends largely on the patience of its target audience. It won’t cut the mustard for parents, that’s for sure.