“Planes” has a weird relationship with the vaulted Pixar series from which it originates. On one hand, there’s the short film “Air Mater,” which appeared on the “Cars 2” Blu-ray and set up the world of “Planes” explicitly (at the end of the short, tow truck Mater turns to the camera and says something like “They should really make a whole movie about these planes”). But Pixar had nothing to do with the production of “Planes,” and the word “Pixar” has never appeared on any of the promotional materials for the film (instead, it comes from “Above the World of ‘Cars’ ”). John Lasseter, the director of the two “Cars” movies and the chief creative force behind both Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation, produced “Planes” and has been its chief spokesperson.
Instead, the animation duties were handled by Disney Toon Studios, formerly the Australian animation studio for Disney, who provided the beautiful hand-drawn animation for its afternoon syndicate programming block (for things like “DuckTales” and “Goof Troop”), direct-to-video sequels like “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World,” and additional animation for Walt Disney Feature Animation features (things like “Home on the Range”). (The duties used to be split between the Australian and Parisian studios but the French studio was shuttered early and all of the duties fell to the Australian crew.) In 2006, the consolidated Australian studio was shuttered and Disney began outsourcing the animation to various smaller companies (the finished product would always carry the Disney Toon Studios stamp, despite a physical “studio” no longer existing).
What makes this story even more complicated is the fact that once John Lasseter and his Pixar confederate Ed Catmull were installed as Disney Animation’s creative chiefs (following Disney’s buyout of Pixar in 2007), they made a clear cut, decisive vow to cancel all direct-to-video sequels to original Disney classics. This meant that a number of projects that were already in development, like sequels to everything from “The Aristocats” to “Chicken Little,” were summarily shuttered. A sequel to “Dumbo” that was very far along was also abandoned. Lasseter promised a commitment to new properties (mostly to tie in with the lucrative Disney Consumer Products line) and spin-offs; chief among them the “Tinkerbell” series of direct-to-video features that are actually pretty good.
“Planes” won’t be the first Disney Toon Studio feature to get a major theatrical release. Back in 1990, during the early years of Disney animation’s supposed Second Renaissance, “DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp” was released theatrically. More recently, “The Jungle Book 2” and the “Peter Pan” follow-up “Return to Neverland” were given wide theatrical releases. But this is the first under the Lasseter/Catmull regime to be given the big screen treatment.
The “Cars” franchise has become a key component to Disney Consumer Products in the past few years and an important part of the company’s overall health. The merchandise based on the “Cars” movies annually surpasses $1 billion. This past summer the Carsland section of Disney California Adventure, the centerpiece of a $4 billion renovation of the park, was unveiled to nearly universal acclaim (besides that damn Luigi’s Floating Tires ride), and just last month survey work was being done in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida for an east coast version of Carsland. The “Cars” franchise (which now includes “Planes”) won’t be running out of gas for a while. It’ll also be interesting to see if the theatrical release of “Planes” affects the sequel (which is already in development), “Planes 2: Fire and Rescue.”