People above a certain age don’t seem to like the Cars franchise very much. Perhaps it’s because the first Cars was, for many of us, the first indication that the geniuses at Pixar, for all their artistic accomplishments, were also part of a money-making enterprise; they seemed perfectly content creating a movie that merely entertained millions of kids and sold merchandise by the metric ton. (That said, the less said about Cars 2 — which even my 4-year-old refuses to watch — the better.) Planes was produced not by Pixar, but by the folks at DisneyToon Studios, the folks who for years have been gamely churning out direct-to-video sequels of classic Disney films like Bambi II and Cinderella II: Dreams Come True. So as soon as you see the “World of Cars” logo at the beginning, you can practically smell the corporate synergy.
Ironically enough, the plot of Planes feels less like Cars and more like the recent Turbo. This time, instead of a snail that participates in the Indy 500, we’ve got a crop-duster that participates in a renowned, round-the-world circuit race. For help in this endeavor, our hero, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), enlists a ragtag ground crew, including a feisty forklift voiced by Teri Hatcher and a gently growly fuel truck voiced by Brad Garrett. Of course, there’s also a surly veteran who is initially resistant to helping our hero but gradually comes around, WWII fighter jet Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach), who can no longer fly due to his traumatic wartime experiences as part of a squad named the Jolly Wrenches. Dusty is ambitious, and he’s a good flyer, but he’s also — get this — afraid of heights. His hope is to win the race by staying relatively close to the ground. Can he do it? And will he be able to defeat the high-tech, showboating longtime champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith)? Take one wild guess.
Kids will probably enjoy Planes, because, well, it’s called Planes, and it’s got lots of planes, and it doesn’t beat around the bush getting to the planes doing their plane thing, flying and banking and swooping. And the international nature of the race allows for some decent variation in locales along the way. One appealing, brief sequence in the Himalayas has Dusty flying through a tunnel in an attempt to stay close to the ground, running into a train, and winding up in a Buddhist monastery. Another scene involves a nod to the famous romantic plane ride from Out of Africa, and this time, the elegant flocks of flamingos taking flight are themselves tiny little baby planes. Anyway, planes. Planes, planes, planes.
Aesthetically, the problem with Planes (and to some extent with the Cars films) is that vehicles, being inorganic, limit the visual range of the film, in terms of both design and movement. Eventually, a world full of planes just gets boring, no matter how many times they soar and spin and swoosh. After a while, it feels about as interesting as a movie called Phones, in which everybody’s a phone. Or Boxes. Or Light Bulbs. When, later on, Dusty gets stuck in a cyclone in the middle of the Pacific, you can feel your eyes getting excited at the sight of waves — gloriously un-angular and undulating and unpredictable. (I’d happily watch a movie called Waves.)
But on just about every other level other than visuals, Planes is dry, dry, dry. There’s no verbal wit, no standout vocal performances. (We don’t expect much from Dane Cook, but some of the other actors, like Keach and John Cleese, who voices a British contender in the race, have potential.) The film was reportedly developed to be another straight-to-video ‘toon until the honchos at Disney liked the footage so much that they decided to turn it into a theatrical feature. That doesn’t always bode ill: The remarkable Toy Story 2 also started out the same way. But in going from the small screen to the big, Planes doesn’t appear to have gotten the requisite injection of wit, imagination, or energy. It’s not terrible, but it still feels like a waste.