Heavens above: Planetarium is accused of dumbing down

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The Independent Online

It may have prompted a supernova of outrage among serious astronomers, but with a cast of 45 bug-eyed aliens and the very latest in computer-animated wizardry, a visit to the London Planetarium will never be the same again.

The attraction has unveiled its new show, The Wonderful World of Stars, which from tomorrow will replace the old-style educational drift through the solar system which has been the staple offering for generations.

Created by Aardman Animations, the Oscar-winning studio behind the Wallace and Gromit films, the eight-minute cartoon is designed to stem the decline in audiences at the landmark green dome in Baker Street, now renamed the Stardome. But the decision to pull the plug on the old star projection show, which has been playing at the site in varying forms for the last 50 years, has provoked anger among Britain's stargazers. The Tussauds Group, owner of the adjoining Madame Tussauds waxworks museum, Alton Towers, the London Eye and museums around the world, was accused of dumbing down and exploiting the modern obsession with celebrity.

Patrick Moore dismissed the new show as "utter bosh". He said: "London is now the only major city in the world that does not have a planetarium." A new 120-seater planetarium at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich will not open until next year.

The British Astronomical Association accused Tussauds of sacrificing a vital educational resource in the name of commerce.

The film's producer, Jason Fletcher-Bartholomew, said the film presented him with considerable technical challenges. Employing computer-generated imagery (CGI), animators had to take into account the unique 360-degree dome on which the finished product would be projected. To overcome the problem the team had to use five cameras to create some 40 minutes of animation.

"The concept is that aliens from outer space go to see their favourite movie at an Earth drive-in. After watching a parade of stars they conclude that they are not ready to visit yet," he said.

But the aliens, overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing icons such as Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Audrey Hepburn, fly down to Earth and land on the famous dome. The actor Martin Jarvis provides the voice of the lead character, Professor Humbert Trellis, who labours under the, perhaps understandable, misapprehension that the Earth is populated by famous people alone.

According to Mr Fletcher-Bartholomew, test audiences have reacted positively. Madame Tussauds' marketing director, Nicky Marsh, said she was "delighted" with the new film, saying it was time to move on to fit in with the company's "core experience".

"Although the planetarium show was enjoyed enormously in its day, it became clear that Stardome would need to undergo a transformation to make it a holistic part of the total Madame Tussauds offer," she said.

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