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REVIEW: Disney's "Planes"

by Charles Solomon
August 8, 2013 6:00 PM
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The characters and plot in Planes are so familiar, it feels like Disney went directly to Planes 2 or 3, without bothering to pause at a first movie. It’s yet another underdog-coming-from-behind story with elements of Cars, Cars 2, Despicable Me and Turbo.

Dusty (voice by Dane Cook) is just a regular crop duster in the flyspeck Midwestern town of Propwash Junction. But he dreams of competing in a big international race (obviously modeled on the World Grand Prix in Cars 2), even though he lacks the requisite mechanical structure and is afraid of flying higher than 1,000 feet. When he declares in the film’s opening minutes, "I am more than just a crop duster," the rest of the story is a foregone conclusion. 

As Dusty trains for the qualifying race, he’s aided by perky forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and dim fuel tanker Chug (Brad Garrett), and coached by WW II vet Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach). When he enters the big race, Dusty encounters his hero, champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), who’s out to win at any price.  Although he’s initially scorned as a hayseed, Dusty’s dedication and nice guy persona win him the friendship of an assortment of effortfully colorful planes from various countries: El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Bulldog (John Cleese) and Ishani (Priyanka Chopra).

Planes feels very familiar, probably because audiences have seen everything in it before, usually done better. Chug is Mater from Cars, without that character's sometimes grating charm; Skipper is Doc Hudson without Paul Newman’s vocal presence; Propwash Junction is Radiator Springs without the visual imagination. The little forklift-assistants have been turned into the Minions from the Despicable Me franchise. Better animated versions of the cheering crowds at the race stadiums appear in both Cars films and Turbo.

In the few places where Planes tries to veer from the well-beaten track (or runway), it gets very odd. In a surprisingly dark flashback, Skipper describes a traumatic event during the War when he and his newly trained squadron encountered "the enemy fleet." In World War II, the enemy near Wake Island was the Imperial Japanese Navy, but no mention is made of that fact, presumably to avoid offending potential Japanese viewers.

Although Disney studiously avoids mentioning it in the press materials, publicity campaign and web site, Planes was animated in India, for considerably less than a regular Disney feature. It shows. John Lasseter and his Pixar crew worked hard to make believable characters out of the automobiles in Cars, using attitudes, expressions, body language and timing to create believable human emotions in the vehicles.

Director Klay Hall's crew simply can't match that admittedly high standard. The filmmakers try to cover it up with dialogue, but the result is very talky and uninteresting visually. Too often, the other characters in a shot freeze while one natters. It takes more than putting eyes in a windshield to turn a plane or a car into a credible character.

Ten years ago - or even five - Planes would have been a direct-to-video release. With DVD and Blu-ray sales falling, it gets a  theatrical release.

Planes ultimately poses more interesting and significant business questions than aesthetic ones. If audiences accept the lower quality animation, will it precipitate a string of low-budget CG features from India? Will budgets be cut on the animated films from Disney and Pixar? Will those films be shipped overseas? And will the profits from the toy planes compensate for the damage to the reputation for top-quality animated films that Disney has worked to rebuild in recent years

And will it compromise Pixar's unequalled reputation for producing the highest quality animation? Although it’s not a Pixar film, Planes is designed to look like one and includes a title card that declares its link to the world of Cars.

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  • George | January 24, 2014 12:45 AMReply

    I was unaware that this was not a Pixar film. The marketing IS misleading. This matters little to the primary audience of course. Splitting hairs here, because Pixar = Disney. The Disney CG films of late have been great. The differentiator between the two should be characters and storylines. But Planes under the Disney label makes me wonder if Pixar as a brand will eventually be phased out. As for this film, the animation is "good-enough" and the younger set won't notice the difference. Enjoyable, but very safe and wholly uninspired. I guess I would say that the entire effort felt very mechanical, from the copycat characters to the cast (Dane Cook was a poor choice). Basically, the film lacked any real soul.

  • Fred Patten | August 17, 2013 12:47 PMReply

    Good question, NW. If there are no humans in this world, who hired Dusty to dust crops? Another inconsistency: if Ripslinger is so fast that only Dusty can match his speed, how do Ripslinger's assistants keep up with him? "Planes" has many nits to pick, which again will be irrelevant to children

  • Fred Patten | August 17, 2013 12:39 PMReply

    The critique is accurate but probably irrelevant. "Planes" is a childrens' movie. Children will not care about these flaws. The CGI by Prana Studios is ALMOST as good as Pixar's and Disney's; you have to be an industry insider to be aware of the slight drop in quality.

  • NW | August 9, 2013 7:44 AMReply

    Many reviews have mistakenly said this was a Pixar venture....and promotion wise it's mentioned 'it's above the world of cars" in some ways i guess to mislead/direct the public into thinking it is a pixar venture.....All i want to know is, if Dusty is a crop duster, who is he dusting crops for?

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