Based on the first in a series of YA books by Bruce Coville, Aliens Ate My Homework is a middle-of-the-road DTV movie experience which demonstrates one of the biggest challenges of adapting kids' books into movies. A good kids' book -- a category I'd personally say includes not just the Aliens series, but Coville's work in general -- captures the imagination in a way that doesn't really translate to film simply because a film does the heavy lifting when it comes to realizing the world and the characters. Admittedly, I haven't read the Rod Allbright books since they were age-appropriate more than 20 years ago, but at the time the entire series felt like a grand adventure that this slightly meandering, low-stakes, low-budget movie can't replicate.
Memories are hazy, but at a glance, Homework recalls things I remember from the book: Rod's disappearing dad, the volcano science project, Grakker's interchangeable personality modules, and Billy Becker's backstory all ring some distant bells. However, the meat of the book -- Rod's character arc or emotional journey aside from the alien adventure -- seems to have been lost in translation. On film, Aliens' story only consists of an extremely basic MacGuffin hunt for the device that will re-enlarge the aliens' shrunken spaceship Ferkel. Watching the special features, I was reminded that Rod's honesty is a key point in the book, which the movie mentions a couple of times but never turns into a real character trait (rendering the scene that gives the book and film its title anticlimactic). Rod seems to struggle with his own intelligence, the disappearance of his dad, and being bullied, but none of them really make an impression, and shallowly including all of those details plus Rod's honesty and the alien story just makes the movie feel scatterbrained.
Complicating things is Rod's cousin Elspeth McMasters (Lauren McNamara), who shows up in the second book but has been introduced ahead of schedule. If there are plans to make the entire Rod Allbright series into movies, it makes sense to get her in right away, and a co-lead helps make the movie equally accessible for boys and girls. However, her presence splits the amount of screen time to develop even one character in half, and Elspeth comes off as just as underdeveloped herself. Rod's self-confidence issues and Elspeth's bossiness and know-it-all attitude are a good pairing, but it merely amounts to banter because neither trait is rooted in anything substantial or developed. Both young performers give pleasant performances (and handle a single serious conversation about divorce with enough conviction to wish the movie had more meat on it), but they're mostly there to deliver exposition as screenwriters Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens focus on the plot.
Director Sean McNamara and his crew put in some impressive effort to create a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids feel with Grakker, Pong, and the other aliens on oversized sets with massive props of glue sticks and pencils (although little details, like the shapeless backpack interior, the repetition of limited sets, or the inexplicable presence of a doll's head -- why would Rod have one? -- hurt the illusion). The mixture of practical and computer effects is awkward, with the practical mostly having a goofy charm (even if one of the book's more haunting revelations is anticlimactic in live-action) and the CGI merely looking cheap. The design of the aliens is also strange, borrowing a bit from the series' original illustrations by Coville's wife Katharine, but with an excess of additional business cluttering the look of each character and making the costumes and makeup seem clunkier. The script also gets in the way of spectacle, with sequences such as Grakker trying to sneak out of Billy's possession back to Rod's backback coming off like the movie spinning its wheels in the absence of character. These issues culminate in a half-baked finale that has Rod's mom and school faculty inexplicably cheering what ought to look like bullying, and everyone ignoring an entire character disappearing.
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