Put aside, for the moment that Disney’s Planes is pretty close to a beat-for-beat remake of Cars – only with planes. Set aside the ads that say ‘set in the world above Cars’ that want you to think this is a Pixar movie. Then, finally, forget that the movie was originally set to be a direct to video release (as was Toy Story 2). After dispensing with all that baggage, you may just find that it’s a decently entertaining movie.
In essence, the story boils down to this: cropduster Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) wants to be a racer – but he’s afraid of heights. He persuades his friends – Dottie (Teri Hatcher), a brilliant mechanic, and Chug (Brad Garrett), a not quite southern fried, less rusty version of Tow Mater – to help him and earns the respect of Skip (Stacey Keach), a WWII veteran who may no longer be able to fly, but not only agrees to train him, he does an excellent job.
Dusty fails to qualify for the big around-the-world race he wants to enter, but a disqualification (illegal fuel additive), gets him in. At the starting point in New York City, Dusty meets most of the important competition: the haughty British Bulldog (John Cleese), the sultry Indian Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), the exuberant El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), sexy French-Canadian Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the defending three-time champion, Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith).
Despite a poor start, Dusty’s innate decency earns him respect – which comes back to him when the champ plays dirty. Circumstances also alter his perception of his trainer, leading to a need for redemption in a classic case of the teacher learning from the student scenario.
There’s even a little romance as El Chupacabra becomes smitten with the seemingly impervious Rochelle and Dusty establishes a bond with Ishani – but of course, neither relationship runs smoothly.
Because there are so many international competitors, Planes sketches in most of them with a bit too much stereotyping (El Chupacabra, for example, is a short, stubby guy – and Bulldog is a bit of a snob). But the film gives them a chance to develop ever so slightly beyond those types – especially when Dusty finds himself on the verge of having to quit the race.
Ripslinger is a kind of aerial ugly American, willing to do anything (legal or not) to win and is more than a bit of a glory hound. Despite Smith’s efforts, he never rises above being uncomfortable at best, and loathsome most of the time.
The story has a few messages kids can take to heart – like achieving things you might not be built for (cropduster/racer, remember?), and not giving up in striving for your dreams – but they are probably a bit too unsubtle for most adults. Still, the main characters are well enough written that they will make Planes a relatively painful experience for parents – and there are even a few laughs just for them (like Brent Mustangburger being transplanted from Cars 2; and the reason for so many tractors in India).
Unlike a Pixar movie, though, once you get past the detail on the main characters and the immediate, important parts of the background, things get pretty fuzzy. That might not matter to kids, but for adults who have come to expect cool details in the backgrounds (like in Pixar’s movies), it will detract a bit. Still, there are some breathtaking moments – as when Ishani takes Dusty to see the Taj Mahal.
Given the lack of buzz about Disney’s Planes, I was prepared for it to be nothing more than Cars, but with Planes. Though it is that, it’s also a decent bit of entertainment. I found myself laughing more than I expected and I left the theater without having finished my drink (always a good sign…).
Final Grade: B-
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios