I may be the only critic who had really positive things to say about Pixar’s Cars and Cars 2, so the fact that I also really enjoyed Disney’s Planes could mean I have a soft spot for talking vehicles with big eyes on their windshields, or that deep down I have the critical tastes of a 9-year-old boy. Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Cars was a nice embodiment of its own theme that the journey is more important than the destination, and I thought Cars 2 bettered many of its predecessors from Pixar because it knew exactly what it wanted to be and nailed that on the nose. While I don’t have a comparable high-concept summary for Planes, I can say that it’s an enjoyable, well-crafted underdog story marked by some really outstanding flight sequences. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Like Cars, the plot synopsis for Planes gives away exactly where the story is going to end up. Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) is a crop dusting plane with dreams of entering the Wings Around the Globe competition, where the finest racing planes from around the world prove their mettle in a rally race that circumnavigates the globe. No prizes for guessing who’s the underdog who beats the odds (and his fear of heights), or that the arrogant and obnoxious Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) becomes Dusty’s major rival while the elegant Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) becomes Dusty’s (mostly platonic) love interest and the clownish El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) becomes the comedic sidekick. As I like to say, there are “Where Are We Going?” movies and there are “How Are We Getting There?” movies. Planes falls decidedly in the latter category. It doesn’t have the high-concept linkage between theme and execution of Cars; if anything, it’s the opposite because Planes is about “being more than what you’re built for” while the movie does nothing except exactly what it’s built for. But I find it charming enough and enjoyable enough not to hold the predictability of the film against it.
Like the Cars movies, the racing sequences are easily the best thing about Planes. I am intrigued at how every sequence has a distinct, palpable sense of character, from Dusty’s qualifying run to each individual leg of the race. The qualifying run has a sense of speed and power, mostly by planting the camera on or near the racers themselves as they hurtle through giant pylons in a time trial. It’s a powerful contrast to the beautiful, joyous flight Dusty and Ishani take through India to the Taj Mahal, or the hair-raising excitement as Dusty talks a blinded fellow racer through obstacles to a safe landing. The exhilarating joy of flight comes through in each of these scenes, and I would say any of them can easily stand next to the best of Hayao Miyazaki’s joyous airborne scenes, which is the highest praise I can give to any animated flying sequence. While Miyazaki’s different flight sequences carry very different resonances, I think only Porco Rosso manages the same trick of giving different flying scenes their own sense of character within the same movie.
I also enjoyed the vocal performances in Planes. It’s hard to describe Dane Cook’s everyman performance without using words like “grounded” or “down-to-earth,” which sound wrong for a plane character, but I thought his “real guy” take on Dusty made the character more credible in the end. I also enjoyed Brad Garrett playing to type as Dusty’s slightly thick friend Chug the fuel truck, and absolutely loved Teri Hatcher as the spunky grease monkey Dottie. The only word I can find for the character design and Priyanka Chopra’s performance as Ishani is “sexy,” which somehow feels like the wrong word to use about a character in a Disney film as innocent as this one (especially considering that she’s an airplane), but it’s really the best one that fits. And while he borders on a cartoonish ethnic stereotype, I thought Carlos Alazraqui was often hilarious as El Chupacabra.
The worst criticism I find I can level against Planes is that it tries to do a bit too much in the running time it has. The main racing plot (and the Dusty/Ripslinger rivalry) is the only one that’s handled with any real depth, since the Dusty/Ishani relationship is only throwaway moments until it’s mostly wrapped up in one scene. There are sub-plots involving a secret held by Skipper (Stacey Keach), the WWII veteran plane who serves as Dusty’s trainer, and a sub-plot involving El Chupacabra’s pursuit of the Canadian plane Rochelle (an extremely underused Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Planes runs through its plot points like planes in a qualifying run: it’s a dash to hit each checkpoint before ripping off to the next one, and once you’ve seen the course done a few times, it’ll take an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad execution to really grab your attention. You’ve seen these plots before in numerous films, animated or not, and Planes‘s execution is solid but relatively unremarkable. On the other hand, Planes doesn’t have a cynical bone in its airframe and these plots will be new to a lot of the target audience. They could do a whole lot worse than getting exposed to them through this movie. I must also express some pleasant surprise at the intensity in the scene revealing Skipper’s secret, which doesn’t sugar-coat much and underscores that war leaves scars.
It goes without saying that video and audio quality on the Blu-ray of Planes is outstanding. Expect the sub-woofer to get a workout with the low rumbles of engines (especially when Dusty encounters a pair of naval fighter jets who are also amusing voiceover cameos). The Blu-ray also packs a solid batch of bonus features, the best of which is “Klay’s Flight Plan,” which chronicles the personal connection director Klay Hall made to the movie. The 20-minute feature shows several of the real-life planes that inspired designs in the movie, as well as which close relative inspired a character. There are several deleted scenes, one of which (“Franz’s Song”) was cut early in production but which was rendered and colored anyway because Hall and the crew thought it was entertaining enough to see finished. They’re right, but they were also right to cut it from the finished film. The other deleted scenes are really alternate versions. The “Meet the Racers” promotional clips for Dusty, Ripslinger, El Chupacabra, and Ishani are also included; I find Ishani’s Bollywood music video to be unduly entertaining. Finally, a “top 10 flyers” feature has sports reporter Colin Cowherd running through a list of the top names in aviation history, which isn’t as educational as I’d have liked because the history is too sound-bite oriented to be really valuable. Admittedly, I didn’t expect to see the seedier sides of Charles Lindbergh or Howard Hughes in a bonus feature of a kids’ film, but failing to even mention the disappearance of Amelia Earhart seems a bit much. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD (with a smaller set of special features) and a digital copy (which is not Ultraviolet, and thus actually works).
I won’t say that Planes is amazing, groundbreaking, or truly great cinema, but it is a solid, enjoyable movie that stands up to repeat viewings and is definitely not the blatant, clichéd cash grab that many assume it to be sight-unseen. It is likable, endearing cinematic comfort food with some killer aerobatic choreography, and I found it surprisingly satisfying.