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REVIEW: Disney’s “Planes”

REVIEW: Disney's "Planes"

The characters and plot in Planes are so familiar, it feels like Disney went directly to Planes 2 or 3, without bothering to pause at a first movie. It’s yet another
underdog-coming-from-behind story with elements of Cars, Cars 2, Despicable Me and Turbo.

Dusty (voice by Dane Cook) is just a regular crop duster in
the flyspeck Midwestern town of Propwash Junction. But he dreams of competing
in a big international race (obviously modeled on the World Grand Prix in Cars 2), even though he lacks the
requisite mechanical structure and is afraid of flying higher than 1,000 feet.
When he declares in the film’s opening minutes, “I am more than just a crop
duster,” the rest of the story is a foregone conclusion. 

As Dusty trains for the qualifying race, he’s aided by perky
forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and dim fuel tanker Chug (Brad Garrett), and
coached by WW II vet Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach). When he enters the big race,
Dusty encounters his hero, champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), who’s out
to win at any price.  Although he’s
initially scorned as a hayseed, Dusty’s dedication and nice guy persona win him
the friendship of an assortment of effortfully colorful planes from various
countries: El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Bulldog
(John Cleese) and Ishani (Priyanka Chopra).

Planes feels very
familiar, probably because audiences have seen everything in it before, usually
done better. Chug is Mater from Cars,
without that character’s sometimes grating charm; Skipper is Doc Hudson without
Paul Newman’s vocal presence; Propwash Junction is Radiator Springs without the
visual imagination. The little forklift-assistants have been turned into the
Minions from the Despicable Me
franchise. Better animated versions of the cheering crowds at the race stadiums
appear in both Cars films and Turbo.

In the few places where Planes
tries to veer from the well-beaten track (or runway), it gets very odd. In a
surprisingly dark flashback, Skipper describes a traumatic event during the War
when he and his newly trained squadron encountered “the enemy fleet.” In World
War II, the enemy near Wake Island was the Imperial Japanese Navy, but no
mention is made of that fact, presumably to avoid offending potential Japanese
viewers.

Although Disney studiously avoids mentioning it in the press
materials, publicity campaign and web site, Planes
was animated in India, for considerably less than a regular Disney feature. It
shows. John Lasseter and his Pixar crew worked hard to make believable
characters out of the automobiles in Cars,
using attitudes, expressions, body language and timing to create believable
human emotions in the vehicles.

Director Klay Hall’s crew simply can’t match that admittedly
high standard. The filmmakers try to cover it up with dialogue, but the result
is very talky and uninteresting visually. Too often, the other characters in a
shot freeze while one natters. It takes more than putting eyes in a windshield
to turn a plane or a car into a credible character.

Ten years ago – or even five – Planes would have been a direct-to-video release. With DVD and
Blu-ray sales falling, it gets a 
theatrical release.

Planes ultimately poses
more interesting and significant business questions than aesthetic ones. If
audiences accept the lower quality animation, will it precipitate a string of
low-budget CG features from India? Will budgets be cut on the animated films
from Disney and Pixar? Will those films be shipped overseas? And will the profits
from the toy planes compensate for the damage to the reputation for top-quality
animated films that Disney has worked to rebuild in recent years

And will it compromise Pixar’s unequalled reputation for
producing the highest quality animation? Although it’s not a Pixar film, Planes is designed to look like one and
includes a title card that declares its link to the world of Cars.

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