Despite being a spin-off of the world created in Pixar's 2006 film Cars, it's worth prefacing this review that Planes is not made by Pixar. Yes, it has a story credit for Pixar head-honcho John Lasseter. But aside from laying the groundwork for the universe of Planes Pixar Studios had little to do with this film that was once slated to go straight to the DVD shelves. Instead it received a theatrical release to little acclaim and has arrived at its originally intended destination with a heftier profit margin and even fewer reasons to exist.
Planes is a sign of what is to come for Disney and Pixar if their quality control does not start to pick up a bit. The world of Cars is hardly creative, spinning off from the same idea of giving inanimate objects lives and personalities that fueled the Toy Story franchise since its inception. Yet, Cars at least had the great Paul Newman lending his voice to a story that contained a few nice slices of Americana. Planes has Dane Cook warbling his lines in a thoroughly derivative story told with some horrible stereotyping.
Americana may gloss over some of the darker aspects of American society, but at least there's a chance we could get some war fuzzies thinking about quiet county drives. There's nothing grounding the world of Planes outside its tenuous connection to Cars. It's as cynical a cash-in as can be, and the saddest part is with this being the first of a planned Planes trilogy, it worked.
Dane Cook voices the lead, Dusty Crophopper, a plane who dreams of being one of the stars of the next Top Gun film instead of being delegated to shooting chemicals on plants for the rest of his life. Despite being built specifically for agriculture, Dusty enters into the qualifying rounds for a race around the world and beats other planes designed for speed because he believes in himself. So, under the guidance of the old war vet plane Skipper Riley (Stacey Keach), Dusty overcomes his fear of heights and begins his race with a twinkle in his eye.
That's about as deep as Planes gets. It tries for a late film reveal that, like Toy Story 3, mines World War II as a cheap emotional beat. Any scene designed to give depth to the various planes ends up feeling like extra padding, as if script rewrites didn't involve examining if this is a story worth telling and instead just lengthening the film. As a result, there are a lot of sub-plots that get tossed in only to be resolved within a scene or two, or are sporadically mentioned throughout the film.
This is where Planes really falters, because it forces us to pay attention to the broad stereotyping on display. One of Dusty's competitors-turned-friend is the Mexican plane El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui). Ridiculous name aside, he fancies himself a luchadore of love, sporting a painted on mask and tiny cape. With this horrible stereotyping, it shows that the designers weren't thinking very hard about the logistics of their characters if one of the planes is wearing something that would cause a bit of extra drag during the race.
In fact, none of the designs make that much sense. Almost all the planes, from the Mexican El Chupacabra to the Indian Ishani, are all based on American designs. Their basic shapes are the same with the only distinguishing features being the garish and gendered color palettes each one of the planes carries. The two female planes are pink and multicolored like an assortment of jewels, or simple primary colors to shape the parts of the planes' bodies. The strangest part of all this is that despite the many American designs that pepper the film, our hero is based off of two American planes and one Polish. It shows that there was not much love or care put into the design of these aircraft, reflecting the same level of polish put into writing each character.
All of this might be acceptable if the freedom of animation gave us some exciting scenes, but Planes does a terrible job of conveying a sense of flight. The camera hardly ever shows the planes moving independent of a standard X / Y axis, setting up the expectation that each scene is a simple jaunt from point A to B. There's none of the freedom of movement that Turbo gave and, aside from some scenes from Dusty's vantage point filmed like old WWII dogfight footage, nothing to spices up the race that comprises most of the film.
The sad conclusion is that Planes is every bit the simple cash-in that the advertisements suggest. It's a simple story with a terrible sense of the possibilities of its environment and drawn with stereotyped characters. Even if you have a family member that's simple to please, think about the entertainment that you're putting on for them before subjecting anyone to something this dumb.
Directed by Klay Hall.
Screenplay written by Jeffrey M. Howard.
Starring Dane Cook and Stacey Keach.