“Planes” is a downmarket cousin of Pixar’s visually stunning “Cars” franchise. The production values, storyline and voice talent are slightly degraded from the original product, but “Planes” manages to be a worthy knockoff.
Originally slated as a DVD-only product, Disney executives opted to give “Planes” a theatrical release. It’s a DisneyToon production. The studio shares a corporate parent with Pixar, and the airplanes have the exaggerated curves and Technicolor sheen associated with its sibling’s animation technique. While “Planes” falls short on the emotional lift and visual wonder of the best Pixar movies, it delivers a good-enough approximation.
The story is set in the “Cars” universe. When they’re not racing each other, it turns out, the animated cars are suckers for competitive aviation. The pull is especially strong in the isolated farming community of Propwash Junction, where Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) toils as a crop duster.
“I’ve flown thousands of miles, and I’ve never been anywhere,” Dusty laments. He dreams of joining the racing elite in a round-the-world derby. Despite a few built-in mechanical drawbacks, his passion, skill and a bit of luck manage to win him a place in the elite contest.
Dusty’s got another problem — he’s afraid of heights. Despite expert (and cantankerous) coaching from World War II veteran Navy fighter Skipper (Stacy Keach), his fear forces him to fly close to the ground. This hinders him on a few legs of the rally, which takes Dusty from New York to Europe, to India, across the Pacific to Mexico, and back to the United States.
Dusty races alongside planes from around the world. His chief antagonist is the reigning champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), who with the help of two his toadies cheats his way into first place. Dusty is befriened by Mexican plane El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), who uses racing mostly as a way to exercise his turboprop libido — making moves on the lady competitors. El Chupacabra is bent on wooing the frigid French-Canadian Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who is rather cool to her would-be seducer’s technique. John Cleese voices Bulldog, a U.K. flier who affects a stiff upper lip, but is apt to break out in tears in a very un-British way.
The film’s crude Epcot internationalism is disappointing, but not a dealbreaker. The romantic subplots and a brief but vivid war flashback, are probably what gives “Planes” its PG rating. I’ve seen darker G-rated movies, and there’s really nothing here that might get in the way of young viewers enjoying the film.
The values of “Cars” come through in “Planes.” Winning is important, but not as important as helping out your friends, forgiving weakness in others, and acknowledging the contributions of your supporters.
Though “Planes” has its heart in the right place, it’s not preachy or maudlin. The screenplay is studded with tart one-liners and humorous asides designed to keep parents interested.
While aduits will probably find a few smiles in “Planes,” the movie should really win over its target audience of young school-age children.