Low-flying Disney underdog saga has a too-familiar feel
Starring the voices of Dane Cook, Stacy Keach & Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Directed by Klay Hall
PG, 91 min.
Released Aug. 9, 2013
Disney’s new yarn about a little underdog airplane with big dreams feels at times like the studio just strapped on some wings another movie.
That movie would be Cars.
In fact, one of the producers is digital-animation guru-exec John Lasseter, who directed both Cars and its sequel, and Toy Story and its sequel, for Pixar. (Disney purchased Pixar in 2006; Lasseter now heads the creative divisions of both merged companies). And Planes even reveals, on a placard, before the opening scene comes into view that we’re in “The World of Cars,” a bustling alt-universe where people don’t exist, but mechanized vehicles have personalities, ambitions, “facial” features, and the voices of Hollywood stars.
In this case, we have the spunky, propeller-driven crop duster, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), whose day-to-day job spreading mulch is enlivened by his aspirations to compete in an airplane race around the world.
Dusty is prepped for the contest by Skipper (Stacy Keach), a crusty U.S. Navy WWII fighter; Chug, an airstrip fuel truck (Brad Garret); and Dottie (Teri Hatcher), a detail-obsessed forklift. Dusty has a big problem, though: He’s afraid of heights.
Once he’s cleared for take-off with the big boys of international air racing, our little crop duster meets up with even more colorful characters. El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), Mexico’s greatest aerial racer, provides many of the movie’s best comedic moments, including an amusing reworking of the ’70s disco hit “Love Machine.”
Bulldog (John Cleese) is a British plane that has trouble keeping the traditional English stiff upper lip when he gets emotional. Julia Louis-Dreyfus provides the voice of a sleek Canadian competitor, Rochelle, a bit of an inside joke for Seinfeld fans. During a segment that recalls a scene from Top Gun, you’ll hear two actors from that ’80s classic, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards, as the fighter jets.
Dusty runs into trouble when the race’s cocky star flier, Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), panicked at the prospect of losing to the rival “farm boy” airplane “built for seed, not speed,” resorts to dirty tricks.
Like most Disney flicks, Planes has both humor and heart. But this project, done not by the company’s legendary film division but instead by its DisneyToons (video) department, feels somewhat like it started out with only half hopes of becoming a “real” Disney movie. (It was originally planned as a direct-to-DVD release, but later deemed good enough for theaters.)
There’s just something about “Planes” that never quite, well, takes wing. For all its scenes in the air, so much of it seems to be back on the ground—and the highway. When the airplanes are about to take off to begin their big race, the grandstands are packed with little automobiles, cheering wildly for their propeller-nosed cousins. The storyline of an international marathon race follows the setup of Cars 2.
And one recurring character, Dusty’s biggest fan, is a German car that literally morphs into an airplane by sliding a pair of wings onto its hood.
Thanks again for the reminder, Mr. Lasseter. Yes, you made Cars and Cars 2. And now you’ve made Planes…by putting some wings onto some cars. We get it.
Even more importantly, I suspect you hope the “it” that people who see Planes get are loads of spin-off merchandise: plane-themed toys, trinkets, apparel, and who-knows-what else. Those things will likely be just as important as the box office to the bottom line of this little movie that sputters as it tries to soar above its own been-there, done-that, toy-story roots.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine