Film Review – Planes
Planes now marks the third time we have visited the world of animated talking vehicles first established with Cars (2006) and continued with Cars 2 (2011). This series feels like it overstayed its welcome by two films. No longer in the hands of Pixar, Disney decided to take the reins with this spinoff, and produced something that should have gone straight to home video (as first planned). It’s a tough feat to do successfully, given that the Cars films are the lowest-rated work Pixar has put out to date. But oh, did it make for some profitable merchandise! I’m trying to imagine Planes through the eyes of my ten-year-old self. Would that kid like this? Perhaps. Would that kid remember it a few weeks after seeing it? Probably not. Heck, the adult version just saw it and is already forgetting about it!
“Forgettable.” That’s the keyword here. Written by Jeffrey M. Howard and directed by Klay Hall, the story is as generic as can be. Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is a crop-dusting plane that dreams of becoming a racer. We’re introduced to Dusty’s story midstream, as we first see him enter a qualifier for a famous globetrotting competition. We don’t know Dusty’s background other than that he’s afraid of heights (ironic) and that his biggest dream is to compete. Aided by his friends, the fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett) and forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher), and mentored by the retired naval bomber Skipper (Stacy Keach), Dusty faces his fear of heights and pursues his aspirations, much to the annoyance of the other racers. In particular there’s Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), the high-flying favorite who can’t believe Dusty is allowed to be in the same race.
Haven’t we seen this before? Many, many times before? To take the route of The Underdog Story is a very weak approach, because it’s been revisited to the point of nausea. Turbo—another animated movie that came out only a few weeks ago—contains the exact same plot. Granted, any story can be engaging as long as it provides a fresh perspective and is crafted with enthusiasm, but that isn’t the case here. Once Dusty enters the race and begins to make a name for himself, the film becomes exhaustingly repetitive. The racers fly from one place to another, Dusty struggles to keep up, gets a nice pep talk from his friends, and the cycle begins again. This makes up the entirety of the film’s second half! This is what I’d like to call The Checkmark Method, where you can sense the screenplay checking each box as it moves down the list of elements that make The Underdog Story. Is there any real narrative tension going on? No, because we’re so familiar with what’s happening that nothing comes as a surprise.
At what point does incorporating cultural diversity turn into cultural offensiveness? Some supporting characters tiptoe that line, if not possibly crossing it. I enjoy it when movies display different ethnic backgrounds, until they turn into caricatures. Many of the racers that fly against Dusty come from different countries, but some may push the envelope with how over the top they are. Case in point is El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a Spanish/Mexican plane that isn’t so much a character as he is a clown. He even wears a wrestling mask and cape; not too subtle, if you ask me. When he’s not flying, El Chupacabra spends his time trying to win the affections of the French-Canadian plane, Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Of course he can’t do it without a full-out serenade scene, complete with a mariachi band. At what point can different ethnic characters exist without having to play up their cultural stereotype for comedic effect?
Maybe I’m being too hard on this film, given that it’s meant to be a simple family entertainment. But that’s the problem: it settles on being a simple family entertainment. I think kids (and parents) deserve better. It’s not enough to put bright colors and funny-looking characters on screen. There needs to be something more to really connect with audiences. Whatever catharsis we’re supposed to get remains at a surface level, almost like an afterthought. For a studio that was once synonymous with setting trends and breaking barriers in the animation world, Disney acted out of caution with this one. They looked to capitalize on an existing property but brought nothing new to the table, and, as a result, what we get lacks any kind of staying power.
Most importantly, Planes doesn’t answer the questions that were originally brought up in Cars. If these vehicles are living creatures, how exactly do they procreate? If buildings, hospitals, and airports exist in this world, who (or what) are meant to populate them? Do cars and planes sleep in beds? Dusty is a crop-duster, but who hand-picks the produce from the fields? If you really thought about it, you could get into some Twilight Zone material here, but I think the studio would rather have us buy the toys or ride their roller coasters instead.