Home-movieDreamworks Animation has a reputation as a lesser lesser lesser (lesser) competitor to Pixar, but the studio has produced some perfectly fine work (the Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon series, for instance). And yet it’s still a surprise when they turn out something good. Such as it is with Home, which looked terribly unpromising from all of its promotional materials, but is in fact a quite sweet, well-made piece of work.

Jim Parsons voices Oh, a member of the Boov — a cowardly, diminutive race of aliens who have been on the interstellar run ever since their home planet was destroyed by the intimidating Gorg. The Boov believe they’ve found the perfect new planet, and taking care of the minor problem of its current inhabitants (humans) is relatively easy. All of them are shipped off to Australia, while the Boov settle into the new digs. Like 90 percent of kid movie protagonists, Oh has trouble fitting in, his propensity for individuality and clumsiness alienating (heh) him from the collectivistic, efficiency-minded Boov. After accidentally signaling Earth’s location to the Gorg, Oh goes on the run and falls in with Gratuity “Tip” Tucci (Rihanna), a human teenager who evaded abduction and resettlement. Together, the unlikely pair set out to fix Oh’s mistake and find Tip’s mother, Lucy (Jennifer Lopez).

For all that it otherwise appeared to be a completely standard blockbuster cartoon, Home stood out for being the first feature-length CG film to feature a girl of color as a protagonist (though the posters did their best to focus on Oh and not her). That it took 20 years for this to happen is embarrassing for Hollywood, but Home can be lauded not just for being a first, but for being a good first. Tip isn’t used to deliver any wince-worthy stereotype-based humor. Indeed, the script does just the opposite, incorporating Rihanna’s real-life background into aspects of her character. She is, as the parlance goes, a “strong female character.” She’s smart, clever, funny, driven, and sympathetic, and all in ways that feel organic and not pandering.

The other half of the film’s lead duo is, of course, Parsons as Oh, who goes through a more typical family film hero journey. And in keeping with that, he seems designed as a toyetic, cuddly breakout character, making him a less real-feeling entity than Tip. Everything about his is maximized cuteness, from his look to his speech. The Boov talk in their own off-kilter dialect. It’s understandable but has flipped around grammar, a half-understood version of English that presumably comes from them learning it secondhand and sounds sort of like Lolcat speech. I can easily imagine that this will grate on some viewers, but after an adjustment, I kind of went with it. It’s the source of some amusing malapropisms, and any kind of dialogue is preferable to the pop-culture-reference-laden fare Dreamworks is widely derided for.

Home isn’t necessarily great, but it has a level of thoughtfulness that raises it above typically disposable kid fare. The designs incorporate circles and squares and triangles in interesting ways, and sometimes even space as well. One standout scene features Tip and Oh talking while sitting on a car hovering over a calm ocean at night, the stars shining bright above them and reflected below them as well. The sense of scale emphasizes how alone they both feel. It’s basic visual storytelling, but it works. There’s also an anti-colonialist/imperialist fable to be found in the Boov, who mean well but are drastically overstepping their boundaries in interfering with another race. Each story beat progresses logically from the one previous, and adds up to create a coherent, satisfying arc for the characters. It’s weird to lend praise what should be givens, but that’s the state of blockbuster and family filmmaking right now. But Home is a nice movie that you can take your kids to without feeling embarrassed.