The ethos of Disney’s newest animated feature Planes can be summed up in the advertisements before the film even begins, in which the movie’s characters are used to promote Target and American Airlines. And to further hone the point, an American airliner also appears in the film itself (the main character even makes a point of mentioning its “great paint job”). Much like its Pixar-produced predecessor, 2006’s Cars–or, more accurately, that film’s 2011 sequel–it’s all about product placement, marketing, and the prospect of selling hundreds upon thousands of toys and merchandise to the parents of young children who will no doubt be clamoring for their very own Dusty Crophopper plane. In the face of all that potential profit, what does “art” or “story” have to do with any of it?
Very little, as it turns out. Planes tells the overly familiar tale of Dusty (Dane Cook, doing his best Owen Wilson impersonation here), a crop duster with big dreams of racing around the world. His friend Chug (Brad Garrett) encourages his dreams and tries to help him improve his speed, while old-timer and military veteran Skipper (Stacy Keach) looks on in disapproval. When Dusty manages to qualify for the race, he faces ridicule from the other racers, including Brit Bulldog (John Cleese) and the jealous three-time winner of the event, Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). Skipper comes to the rescue and trains Dusty, teaching him how to maneuver while flying low to the ground in deference to his fear of heights (seriously). But with so many forces against him, including his own physical limitations, can the underdog pull it all together and win the big race?
The better question is, “Can the audience wake up from its Planes-induced coma in time to even care about the predictable ending?”
Look, we’ve seen this before. It’s Cars all over again–fitting, since the films take place in the same sans-human world (the Cars characters even make a brief appearance watching Dusty’s race on television). The broadly-drawn, highly stereotypical characters are essentially clones of one another: there’s the scrappy hero (Lightning McQueen/Dusty), the gruff, older mentor (Doc Hudson/Skipper), the goofy sidekick (Tow Mater/Chug), the egotistical rival (Chick/Ripslinger). With the exception of the ending, the plot points mirror one another: some of the action takes place in a remote town filled with off-the-wall characters (Radiator Springs/Propwash Junction); the mentor initially resents the upstart young hero before facing his own past to guide his training; the hero saves a competitor in distress (McQueen pushes The King over the finish line; Dusty safely guides a blinded Bulldog to the ground); the hero falls behind early in the race only to be perked up and inspired to win through the intervention of the mentor. I could go on, but I’ll save you the aggravation.
While Pixar films tend to include several “wink-wink” moments for adult fans, Planes generally lacks any deeper level of commentary for more mature viewers, with a couple of exceptions. There’s a brief, self-aware moment acknowledging the inevitable marketing blitz associated with the film in which Chug claims to have sold so much Dusty memorabilia that the Propwash Junction gang can travel to a race checkpoint in Mexico. The absurd influence of viral videos is touched upon (much as it was in last month’s DreamWorks release Turbo) with an Auto-Tuned song drawing attention to the cropdusting phenom. There’s a strange segue mid-film when Skipper recalls the demise of his squadron of fellow fighter planes in World War II–a grim moment that deviates from the otherwise insipid tone of the remainder of the movie. And the film gives a cute nod to fans of Top Gun (1986) with two of that film’s stars, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards, voicing top-notch Navy aircrafts (a cinematic link that is underscored by their character poster). But these adult-friendly moments are few and far between, as the movie spends most of its time blandly pandering to its core audience.
The best thing I can say about Planes is that it is inoffensively tame. There’s nothing new here–no originality, no freshness brought to these tired animated tropes. The visuals are nothing spectacular, lacking the decided crispness of the typical Pixar output. The cheaper budget shows, even in 3-D. But that in itself might be excusable, if the plot just wasn’t so damnably boring. Planes may be touted as emerging “from the world of Cars,” but it sorely lacks the engaging story, genuine good humor, and pure heart of the earlier film. Even a cameo from Pixar’s “good luck charm,” John Ratzenberger, ultimately can’t save this sub-par DisneyToon product from wallowing in its own banality.