One of the biggest (and, some would say, cruelest) ironies in the esteemed career of Pixar involves the continued, phenomenal success of Cars. For a company built on a foundation of technical innovation and rich storytelling, the fact that one of the company’s weaker, more kid-friendly products has proved to be their most commercially viable is an expected, though still somewhat tragic notion.
A decent film that raked in a good chunk at the box office and billions more in merchandising, Cars resulted in not only the worst entry in Pixar’s filmography (Cars 2) but also a subsequent mini-media empire onto itself, with toys, TV shorts and video games to boot.
Planes stands as a continuation of the Cars brand. This time around, however, the film was made under the auspices of the DisneyToon Studios rather than Pixar. The result is a technically proficient but ultimately soulless exercise in corporate marketing disguised as an inspirational animated sports movie.
As with the first two Cars films, Planes is set in a world populated exclusively by anthropomorphic transportation vehicles. The story centers on a crop-duster plane named—what else—Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) who dreams of escaping his monotonous lifestyle and becoming a professional racer. Though dissuaded by his friends and colleagues, Dusty decides to try out for the annual Wings Around the World race and, surprisingly, makes the cut. After receiving some intense training by grizzled former navy warplane named Skipper Riley (voiced by Stacy Keach), Dusty sets off on a race that will take him around the world. Ridiculed by his fellow racers and nursing a paralyzing fear of heights, Dusty nevertheless powers through, determined to prove his worth.
Originally conceived as a straight-to-DVD release, the final, theatrical version of Planes still retains elements of its origins. Saddled with a formulaic amateur-takes-on-the-big-times plotline, the film looks and feels like something produced on the cheap for a quick cash-in. Throw in the usual archetypal characters—the wide-eyed dreamer, the curmudgeon mentor with the shady past, the evil, one-note antagonist—and you have a film that feels like it was designed more to sell toys rather than tell an actual compelling story.
Aside from its generic nature, also bogging the film down is its reliance on cheap humor. Whereas a healthy dose of lowbrow jokes can be welcome spice in any film, Planes leans on its jokes like a crutch, including several instances of blatant scatological humor. Moreover, being that the film is structured as a race around the globe, it relishes in depicting every nationality as an absurd and (excuse the pun) cartoonish caricature. While a select few prove mildly entertaining (John Cleese as a pompous British plane is a fun, if not entirely creative, choice), many more lean a bit too much towards the “offensive” side. Chief among them is a Mexican plane named El Chupacabra (voiced by Reno 911’s Carlos Alazraqui) who dresses in luchador attire and seems to be channeling the Antonio Banderas-voiced bee from the Nasonex commercials.
Despite its numerous flaws, however, Planes is not completely devoid of charm. Some of the flying sequences, though somewhat truncated, manage to inspire some actual thrills. Likewise, several of the voice performances, in particular Brad Garrett as Dusty’s enthusiastic, if clueless sidekick Chug and Stacy Keach as the grumpy, yet haunted Skipper, are effective enough. This, however, makes it all the more frustrating when these characters are sidelined in the film’s latter half.
Offering a final evaluation of the film, one is tempted to rely upon the familiar refrain of “it’s a film for kids” or “kids will enjoy it.” Yet, in a world where Pixar has raised the bar of what American animated films can achieve and other studios have stepped up their game with the likes of How to Train Your Dragon, the Kung Fu Panda series and last year’s fantastic Disney production, Wreck It Ralph, making a mediocre, by-the-numbers film that panders to childish sensibilities just simply won’t cut it anymore.
Director: Klay Hall
Writers Jeffrey M. Howard
Starring: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2013