This Friday, Disney’s PLANES wings into theaters with a familiar but family-friendly tale told in the clouds above the world of CARS and with similar results. This underdog story of a cropduster yearning to compete in a globe-spanning air race is accessibly simple for young viewers to latch onto while the aerobatic visuals occasionally lift PLANES above being a mere remake with vehicular substitution. Likewise the film’s theme of being true to who you are to realize your full potential are equally familiar from before, though DisneyToon animators do a good job giving the various racing, fighting and functional aircraft their own personalities — even if their national identities are rather clichéd. PLANES got an upgrade from direct-to-DVD release and its plot simplicity shows the difference from Disney/Pixar first class efforts, even if director Klay Hall‘s lofty visual style makes good use of its aerial settings in a way CARS never could.
Dusty Crophopper, voiced by Dane Cook, is tired of fertilizing the same fields again and again, longing to become a full-throttle air racer and see the world beyond the borders of bucolic Propwash Junction (think CARS’ Radiator Springs but with farmland). Encouraged by his goofy fuel truck friend Chug (Brad Garrett) and crew mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher), Dusty seeks advice on his racing dreams from the veteran wings in Propwash Junction, a World War II veteran Navy Corsair fighter plane called Skipper (well-cast Stacy Keach). If this hero/sidekick/mentor scenario sounds familiar to the Lightning McQueen/Mater/Doc triangle from CARS, you’re right as PLANES follows that hit formula closely but at altitude off the tarmac. Ironically, or perhaps oddly, Dusty exhibits a fear of heights during his race training, as anything above 1000 feet gives him vertigo. Why would a plane, even a low-flying cropduster, ever be afraid of heights? We can only guess with some incredulity, but every hero needs a plot complication to overcome and Jeffrey M. Howard‘s script obliges with pleasure.
Against all odds — meaning with relative story ease — Dusty qualifies at tryouts for the Wings Around the World rally only to become a mocked outcast among the racing circuit regulars. Dismissing Dusty as a plane not built for racing, three-time champion speed plane Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) soon proves he will do anything to win another rally, aided by his two henchplanes Ned and Zed (both voiced by talented comedian Gabriel Iglesias). As Dusty displays good sportsmanship even at the cost of his rally ranking, some of the other winged contestants warm up to this underdog while others like the stuffy British Bulldog (an underutilized John Cleese) mistake his kindness for weakness.
Fellow underdog El Chupacabra — Mexico’s “indoor racing champion,” telenovela star and recording artist — buddies up to Dusty for their mutual racing benefit, bolstering the cropduster’s confidence as he slowly earns his place among the competitors. Dusty returns the favor by helping El Chu (gregariously voiced by Carlos Alazraqui) woo the French Canadian twin-prop Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) in the comedic highlight of the film — a soulful Mariachi rendition of The Miracle’s 1976 Motown hit “Love Machine” — that comes close to being PLANES’ showstopper. Though in a way, this musical interlude may also help El Chu win over the hearts of movie audiences as well, leaving our comparatively bland hero Dusty in the dust personality-wise.
El Chu isn’t the only propeller-head turned by romance as Dusty has eyes for the exotic and alluring Ishani (smoothly voiced by Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra). The pair take a flight of fancy over the landscapes of South Asia which includes a swooping pass over a lake causing a flock of origami cranes to scatter in across the water in a dazzling sequence. Several such moments exist in PLANES, alas the film almost always tends to take momentary breaks from the racing rally plot to include them. This may make adult viewers wish the film aimed so artistically high more often to reach its visual potential, but grownups aren’t really PLANES’ target demographic after all. Parents will appreciate such lofty interludes, even if they are too far between, while their kids snicker and giggle at the broader sight gags and verbal humor. On that note, it’s a bit surprising that with director Hall’s decade of animated TV comedy experience (“The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill”) that PLANES isn’t uproariously funnier than it is, especially since the film has several tame passages that could use a few lifting belly laughs.
The finale of the worldwide rally is quite predictable, interweaving and connecting all the main character backstories as our hero overcomes his fear to seize one last chance at air racing glory. PLANES exists less for the prize and more for the journey that Dusty takes on his winged way to self-discovery — along with the in-progress merchandising of these high-flying characters that could nearly be poured from the same molds pumping out CARS toys and merchandise for the past few years. It’s no coincidence at all that Disney Imagineers recently patented a new ride vehicle system that will undoubtedly simulate the PLANES aerobatic racing experience for some future theme park attraction based on the film — and the already-announced sequel tagged after the end credits.
PLANES will land in theaters as a harmless, familiar and, yes, enjoyable animated diversion for late summer box office doldrums. It misses the heights of Disney*Pixar storytelling magic, but then again so did MONSTERS UNIVERSITY in our opinion. Technically the DisneyToon Studio artists are just as imaginative and talented, it’s simply that PLANES’ budget (not originally intended for theatrical release) can’t match up to the grander Pixar productions. Then again, kids won’t care a bit about that and will find themselves well entertained by the film, if not quite so enthralled as some titles in Disney’s library.
Reviewed at a 3D presentation, the effect was crisp and clear (always with a little loss of brightness and color saturation) but hardly vital to the story, so go the extra mile at your viewing discretion. PLANES is more from a tried-and-true animation formula, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a project never meant to make audiences soar with its originality. FilmEdge gives PLANES a level-flight 2.5 stars out of 5.