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Reading Planet 51

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By Karen Millerwriter. Karen runs a website ( aimed at encouraging young film-makers

There’s an alien invasion happening in a cinema near you this autumn. Karen Miller suggests a galaxy of ways to bring the new animated film, Planet 51, into your literacy lesson.


Planet 51 is a great, new animated feature film. The movie is a clever twist on an alien invasion film and takes children to a fantasy world that looks like ours but is inhabited by green-skinned beings! The ‘alien invasion’ arrives in the form of astronaut Captain Chuck Baker who crashes down onto Planet 51 during a family barbecue.

Planet 51 has fantastic child-appeal and will no doubt be a big hit in the cinemas: but it could also be a big hit in the classroom and has lots of educational potential. Learning how to ‘read’ a moving image text by understanding how visual images carry meaning enables children to develop comprehension skills and an understanding of story structure. The following activities, linked to units from the Primary Framework, will also help develop children’s understanding of the influence of genre on narrative, setting and character.

Identifying genre

Begin by drawing on the children’s knowledge of films by sharing initial ideas about what might happen in a film called Planet 51. Introduce them to the setting of Planet 51 using the images on the poster The Surprising Summer Barbecue, and challenge them to identify any features that illustrate the genre of the film.

Now load the interactive Through the keyhole activity onto your whiteboard, and move the keyhole around to reveal different sections of the street scene. Ask the children to describe the setting and work out what genre the film is (sci-fi/fantasy). What clues can we get from the colour and lighting used? What mood/atmosphere does this create? What sorts of things might happen here?

The following Planet 51 resources are available to subscribers:

Movie Trailer Poster – The Surprising Summer Barbecue Through the keyhole interactive resource Film synopsis Script extract Planet 51 movie poster Earth vs. The Flying Saucers – 1950s movie poster Planet 51 characters Character study activity sheet

Characters and storylines

Encourage the children to describe the characters and storylines of some films set in space that they are familiar with – such as Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Display the downloadable image of the Planet 51 characters. Ask different groups to focus on one of the following character(s):

  • General Grawl and soldier
  • Lem, Eckle and Neera
  • Rover and Skiff
  • Chuck
  • Professor Kipple

Encourage the children to consider the features of each of their characters to decide whether they will be heroes or villains and what their mission might be in the film. They can note ideas down on the downloadable Character study activity sheet.

Bring the class together to watch the Planet 51 trailer and read the synopsis. Did they make any correct deductions about the characters and storyline?

Can you create atmosphere?

Stories with familiar settings

Watch the trailer with the children again and pause it at 00.42. Ask them to identify how the colour and lighting create a feeling of foreboding in this shot. Watch this sequence again and challenge the children to identify changes in the music, the tone of the voice-over, and the camera angles (use of low close-ups) to evoke the change of atmosphere.

Ask the class to imagine that they are making their own version of Planet 51, set in their school. Suggest that they are going to begin by filming a sequence where the astronaut has landed in their playground and is walking towards their classroom. Discuss what you could do to change the atmosphere in your classroom, using resources like musical instruments and the window blinds, to let the audience know that ‘something very strange is coming’ down the corridor. Practise executing this.

When you have transformed the atmosphere in your classroom successfully, encourage the children to take on the role of a character in your film and, using all of their senses, to describe how the atmosphere in the classroom changed the day the astronaut came to visit.

Beware of the aliens!

Persuasion texts

Show the children the Earth vs. The Flying Saucers movie poster. Study its written and visual features. How does this poster make you feel? Would you like to see this film? Encourage the children to explain their reasoning.

Remind the children of the concept behind Planet 51 – ie, that it is an alien invasion film like Earth vs. Flying Saucers but it has a funny twist: it is the human character that is the alien!

Now look at the movie poster for Planet 51. How does this poster make you feel? How are the two movie posters different? How are the film-makers presenting the subject of an alien invasion in each film?

Watch the Planet 51 trailer and support the children to identify how the soundtrack, sound effects, voice-over and moving images are used to persuade children to see the film. Does it succeed?