There’s a scene in this movie, Disney’s Planes, in which a group of international superstar propeller-driven racing planes come together for a massive race round the world. One of the planes is from Mexico, wears a luchador mask and calls himself El Chupacabra. We watch as he spies a sultry, well-painted, French-speaking plane. She’s Rochelle, the rally champion from Canada. He falls in love and must serenade her with a mariachi version of The Miracles’ 1976 hit “Love Machine.” Heavy emphasis on the “chhhh” sound in “machine.” As you might imagine, this wins her interest and they fall head over heels for each other, a love that involves lipstick marks on his wings and pet names between them such as “Chalupa” and “Chimichanga.” In a movie so haphazard with its horrible stereotype-driven character creation, this is actually one of the less offensive moments. And that’s pretty bad.
Because as we discover within 30-seconds of Planes, this is the laziest brand of kid’s film: the kind created by a bunch of marketing executives in a 90th floor boardroom. It’s sad to see it pillaging the strong, if flawed brand built by Pixar’s Cars.
It’s most sad to see John Lasseter‘s name attached to such a film. As anyone who saw Cars 2 can attest, someone should have told Lasseter to give this franchise up a long time ago. But the marketing potential and toy revenue is a hard thing to fight against, so we’re here in 2013 with an extension on Pixar’s most lunchbox-friendly property. Except this time there’s no Pixar name to be found. Not even as Planes opens and we are treated to a “From Above the World of Cars” logo, the Pixar element of the iconic red Cars shield is noticeably absent. The distance between the two, both in practice and spirit is palpable even to the less-fervid Pixar fan.
The story, from Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue scribe Jeffrey M. Howard, is as basic cable as they come. Comedian Dane Cook voices Dusty Crophopper, a simple crop-dusting plane from the midwest who dreams of becoming a great racing plane. Everyone tells him that he can’t be a racing plane, as he was meant to be a crop-duster. Of course, with this kind of motivation, support from his characteristically simple refuel truck buddy (voiced by Brad Garrett) and the help of a sage old war plane (Stacy Keach), Dusty is going to not only become a racing plane, but become one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of the Wings Around the Globe championship!
I’m sure you can figure out the rest.
Along the way we’re treated to some clean, smoothly animated flying sequences that trade speed for detail. Which might make for an exciting ride if we didn’t have to slog through lazy clouds of exposition and a monsoon of poorly constructed, stereotypically drawn characters. The British plane is posh and rude with repressed emotions. The Asian cars have eyes that open a little less vertically than the others. The Mexican plane is large and loud and a hopeless romantic bordering on sexual predator. This is funny! Or it’s not funny. I guess that’s for the audience to decide, as the film never really finds solid ground on the matter. Luckily, it does have a character named Leadbottom, a dirty old crop-duster voiced by Cedric the Entertainer, to take the Larry the Cable Guy role and deliver smell-related humor. The kids are going to go wild for that one.
There a few fun surprises that might otherwise be missed in the overwhelming misery of Planes’ fleecing of the underdog formula. Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards show up to voice a couple of fighter jets, Top Gun-style. John Cleese gives that repressed emotional Brit-plane his patented wit. And legendary commentator Brent Musburger shows up to reprise his role as Brent Mustangburger from Cars 2 — still the best character name pun that franchise could come up with.
It’s easy to pick on a movie that aspires to be simple. It’s a movie meant to be silly and fun for kids ages 3 to 8. A diversion for frustrated parents who want their kids to grow up and believe that they can achieve their dreams, just like Dusty. But that doesn’t excuse laziness on the part of the creative team, especially not when we’re talking about Disney Animation and a theatrical release. Budgetary restrictions and marketing interests are excuses in their direct-to-DVD work, like the previous collaboration between Planes‘ director Hall and writer Howard, the Tinker Bell movies. But when we’re talking about a big-budget animated film that could very well earn Oscar credentials by default because of the Disney title card that runs in front of it, we have every right to expect something with a bit of nuance, or wit, or thought beyond “what great stereotypes can we turn into toys?”
No, this is what you get when you take Pixar’s least innovative franchise and dilute it. Press notes and filmmaker interviews would have us believe that the spirit of Pixar exists in Planes. That staying true to the characters and the integrity of the story was front-of-mind throughout its creation. But having seen the turbulent final result, I don’t buy it. Kids might buy it. And then parents will buy the toys. But then again, that seems like the entire point of the exercise.
The Upside: The animation is smooth and colorful, a solid effort from up-and-comer Prana Animation Studios (the primary animation company), who you’ll note is the India-based company that bailed out Rhythm & Hues.
The Downside: Seemingly structured by a marketing team, filled in with lazy characters and lazier sprays of exposition.
On the Side: The main antagonist is a racing plane named Ripslinger, is voiced by Roger Craig Smith, who has the uncanny ability to sound in one moment like Nathan Fillion and in another like Aaron Eckhart, all the while being neither.