There is, of course, no need to point out that Disney’s Planes, an animated 3D family film, is a spinoff of the Disney/Pixar Cars movies, not only because anyone with a pair of eyes would be able to notice that immediately, but also because the film opens with the caption, “From the world of Cars.”
So rather than begin by discussing the visual and narrative motifs the films share – the characters’ square-shaped eyes and pursed lips, a screenplay that turns just about every proper name into an aerocentric pun – I will instead talk about the stage musical that kept popping into my head as I watched the film. This would be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, very well known throughout much of the world but less popular here in the United States.
It tells the story of a group of international train engines convening for an annual race. All the engines, especially the cocky diesel and the preening electric, can only point and laugh at Rusty, the underdog steam engine entering the race for the first time. True enough, Rusty is young, inexperienced, and constantly coated in soot. But he’s also plucky, persistent, and good-hearted, and with just a little guidance, he summons from within the strength to carry on. Planes works in much the same way. It tells the story of a nobody cropduster plane who enters an international aerial race, facing not only the mockery of his famous competitors but also his own design limitations. Simply put, cropdusters aren’t built for speed and agility.
Appropriately named Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), he is, as all underdogs are in movies like this, surrounded by a reliable band of friends and foes. There’s his best friend, a forgetful yet surprisingly entrepreneurial fuel truck (voiced by Brad Garrett). There’s his idol, the World War II fighter plane (voiced by Stacey Keach), who, despite being old, embittered, and no longer able to fly, takes Dusty under his wing (no pun intended) and trains him for the race. And then, of course, there’s his main rival and the film’s primary antagonist, a sleek, posturing carbon-fiber plane (voiced by Roger Craig Smith), who at first refuses to take Dusty seriously but eventually begin to fear that he may in fact lose a race to a lowly cropduster. This is despite Dusty’s habit of flying low to the ground, which he does due to his contradictory fear of heights.
Cartoons are known for their scene-stealing side characters, and Planes is no exception to the rule. Because many of them are foreigners, and because the race includes pit stops in several countries, mild cultural stereotypes are worked into their development. There is, for example, the Mexican plane (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui), who always speaks in passionate lovelorn clichés and constantly yearns for the affections of the beautiful but snooty French Canadian plane (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Apart from the fact that he will eventually serenade her with a muy romantico rendition of “Love Machine,” it should be noted that his entrance and exit from all his scenes requires a guitar strum, a few castanet clicks, and the occasional trumpet blow.
There’s also the stuffy British plane (voiced by John Cleese), who, after Dusty saves his life, struggles to hold back tears as he declares, “I don’t cry. I’m British.” And then there’s the Indian plane (voiced by Priyanka Chopra), who takes Dusty on an aerial tour of India while establishing herself as someone who has a bigger role to play in the story than it might first appear. In a moment I found very amusing, she explains to Dusty that tractors, which represent cows in this alternate universe, are considered sacred in her country, with many of her people believing that they will someday be recycled into a tractor. It isn’t likely that young American children – or some American adults, for that matter – will pick up on this reference to the Hindu religion or understand that the word “recycled” replaces the word “reincarnated,” but so it goes.
The long and short of it is that Planes is a perfectly adequate entry in the Disney catalogue. It may not tell the most original story or have the most complicated characters, but it’s fun, bright, colorful, and harmless. It also has some wonderful animation, most evidently during the flight sequences, which are surprisingly enhanced by the 3D process. Much has been made of the fact that the film was originally slated to be released directly to DVD here in the States, perhaps because Pixar wasn’t involved in its production and was therefore deemed inferior. I hope that wasn’t the case, because, so far as I could tell, it’s visually on par with all of Pixar’s offerings. Narratively, on the other hand … well, it’s still more successful than this summer’s disappointing Monsters University, which has inexplicably garnered rave reviews.