'Disney's Planes' should have remained grounded
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Promoted as "From above the world of 'Cars,'" "Planes" is really more of a how-low-can-you-go enterprise. It's a spin-off from "Cars," the least-beloved but most merchandisable Pixar film, and Disney-made for a straight-to-video fate, diverted into theaters when it was found to test through the roof and/or enthuse the audiences who saw it. When Disney formally bought Pixar in 2006, the hope was that the small, scrappy upstart would revitalize and change the super-sized, deep-pocketed, tradition-bound company that purchased it. Seven years later, "Planes" suggests the opposite can happen. "Planes" borrows a world from "Cars," but even compared to that soulless exercise in animated automotive adventure, "Planes" is dead in its big, googly eyes and hollow inside.
"Planes" follows Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a crop duster who wants to be a racer. His daydreams get a boost when he's offered a chance to train with war vet Skipper (Stacy Keach). He then, against the odds, enters a global race opposite such international pro racing luminaries as Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), Bulldog (John Cleese), Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) and El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui). Will Dusty overcome treachery and self-doubt to win? If you're unsure, as a follow-up question: Have you seen a film before? If so, you've seen "Planes."
I may be a little hard on "Planes," considering its origins in the tedious, terribly written "Cars" films, but director Klay Hall and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard have almost nothing to do with the film's ultimate and very real failure. The same marking, marring fingerprints Pixar head and producer John Lasseter put on "Cars" and "Cars 2" -- sticky with motor oil and saccharine -- are all over this film, too. When Skipper explains his past and how he lost a group of fellow fighter planes on a mission in the war, we see sentient, living planes shooting at other planes and being shot down, with only Skipper surviving to tell the tale. Do kids need to see a story of the brutality of the Pacific air war? Do they need to see a plane with PTSD? This creeping level of brute violence seems to be a theme in films that follow "Cars": "Cars 2" featured car-on-car gun violence and plenty of talking, self-aware cars plunging to their doom in ice-cold waters. Never mind why the MPAA lets this fly in a PG film; the better question is if Lasseter truly thinks this kind of violence is necessary in a children's story, or if he's just a lazy storyteller.
There's plenty of crop duster gas-passing jokes, and the various racers carefully tread the line between "lively tribute to national identity" and "ethnic stereotype." It's nice to be able to try to enjoy a Dane Cook performance without the drawbacks involved in actually seeing Dane Cook, but Dusty's an incredibly rote hero whose hopes, fears and beliefs all smell like leftovers from other, better films and stories. Dusty's hailed as a hero, a symbol for, as one downtrodden vehicle puts it, "all of us who want to do more than what we're built for." It's a lovely sentiment -- in a pure cash grab of a film specifically built to do no more than sell made-in-China toys with CG animation that was, yes, outsourced to India. In among the delights and sights in Pixar's 1995 first film, "Toy Story," there was a running joke about how Buzz Lightyear couldn't fly, but he could, and did, fall with style; now, nearly 20 years later, "Planes" is here to show us exactly what falling without style looks like. If you're a Disney shareholder, congratulations. If you're a parent looking for a good, well-made, memorable and appropriate film to take your kids to, I'm sorry.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.