Did you like Cars? Do you like anthropomorphic vehicles with personalities, hopes, and dreams? Do you like to see them race, cutting out the middle man of having a human driver? Then, theoretically, you’ll like Disney’s Planes, provided you don’t mind formula, predictability, and stereotypical stock characters. As we are constantly reminded, this movie is “From the world above Cars”, while simultaneously not falling under the Pixar banner. Instead, Planes was produced by Disney Toon Studios, better known for its direct to video movies rather than the big budget theatrical ones. In their attempt to set their sights higher with Planes, they are careful to stay close to the ground, taking several pages from the Pixar book without really adding anything new.
That’s not to say Planes is basically Cars in the air. The protagonist, cropduster Dusty Crophopper, played by Dane Cook, wants nothing more than to race in the Wings of the World competition, an aerial race around the world. His only problem is that he’s a low-flying cropduster with a fear of heights. Despite not being taken seriously, Dusty’s gumption and can-do attitude manage to get him qualified for the race. Dusty’s instantly likeable and has an eye-catching design.
Racing against Dusty is a colorful band of stereotypical planes, including the stiff upper-lipped British plane Bulldog (John Cleese) and the suave Mexican lover El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui). The non-racially offensive designated bad guy role is filled by American Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). I have to give the movie points for having two female planes in the race, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Priyanka Chopra. Rounding out the cast is Teri Hatcher and Brad Garrett as Dusty’s support vehicles back home and Stacy Keach as Skipper, the unable to fly mentor figure with a mysterious (and surprisingly grisly) backstory. With an impressive cast made of mostly comedians, the jokes are hits more often than not. There’s even some adult humor, as Dusty’s sprayer becomes a substitute for certain human anatomy.
While the plot may be predictable, there’s no denying that the visuals are impressive. The bulk of the movie boasts such locales as New York, the Himalayas, and even the Pacific Ocean. In addition, various plane maneuvers treat us to some really cool shots. Credit goes to the research put into this film, not just in terms of airplanes but also naval facts as well. Some of the time jumps are strange, however, and it would’ve been nice to see more of the world as Dusty travels it. The movie does have a lot of heart, though, which is essential for this kind of story. Dusty isn’t trying to win the race because he wants the glory, he just wants to prove that he can be more than what he was built for. His humility shows well, as he admires and even helps the planes he races against.
There’s nothing that stands out as glaringly wrong with this movie, but at the same time, nothing stands out as being special, either. You don’t get more than what you can glean from watching the previews. There’s a scene where the villain and his cronies talk about all the attention on Dusty, and it gets a little meta, as they discuss other underdog movies. Planes hits all the right notes you’d expect of a movie in that genre and doesn’t really stand out from them. Sure, like Cars, this movie is unique in that it takes place in a world populated by living vehicles, and the designs are cutesy and the very definition of toyetic, but the more this world is explored, the more questions it raises. New York City exists, but how can there be a city full of tall skyscrapers in a world of cars and planes without humans? And why would there be?
Planes is an enjoyable movie and delivers on what it promises. Oddly enough, Dusty becomes a metaphor for the movie itself. He’s a low-flying crop duster, and this was a low-flying movie. Having to compete against so many other animated movies this year, some even quite similar in premise (hello Turbo), Planes set its sights and flies that path to the finish. It’s not ambitious, but maybe that’s because the movie just wants to get the Planes series off the ground. There are already plans for Dusty Crophopper to return in a sequel called Planes: Fire and Rescue, so one can only wonder if the Planes franchise will ultimately soar or crash and burn.