Billions of dollars flood the Walt Disney Company every year, thanks to the toys, videogames, DVDs, clothing, gummy vitamins and bed sheets associated with their “Cars” franchise. What originated as a single Pixar movie (2006’s “Cars”) has expanded beyond the sequel (2011’s “Cars 2“) and short films and “land” at the Disney California Adventure theme park (whose signature ride, Radiator Springs Racers, is one of the most impressive attractions in the whole Disneyland complex). It’s now it’s own universe, one with just as many spin-off and sequel possibilities as such high profile Disney modules as “Star Wars” or Marvel. This is made very clear in “Planes” mere seconds after the shimmery Disney castle disappears and an odd title card emerges, before anything else, that reads, simply: “World of ‘Cars,'” which, depending on your age and demographic, is either a promise or a warning. Either way, “Planes” is just the beginning. Buckle up.
“Planes,” in its perfectly synergistic way, started out life as part of a short film on the “Cars 2” DVD and Blu-ray. In a short film called “Air Mater,” the tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), travels to Propwash Junction (the setting of “Planes”), a town full of equally nightmarish anthropomorphic planes, and gets trained by The Skipper (Stacy Keach) and his cohort Sparky (both are characters in “Planes”). At the end of the short film, Mater looks into the camera and says, “Hey, they ought to make a whole movie about planes.”
But the “Air Mater” short film and “Planes” are pretty different beasts. For one, “Air Mater” was animated by the wizards at Pixar’s Canadian campus, while “Planes” was animated by the DisneyToon Studios, a somewhat low-rent outfit known mostly for their cheapo sequels to beloved Disney classics (what, you’ve never watched “Bambi II“?) From the beginning there’s a disconnect in the quality of images in “Planes”: when we’re introduced to Dusty (Dane Cook, who took over for Jon Cryer so late in production that Cryer still gets an “additional story elements” credit), the biggest dreamer in Propwash Junction, there’s something decidedly off about the whole thing. The animation is stiffer, less fluid, and lacking in the distinctive emotive qualities of Pixar, although that could be partially due to the fact that airplanes, with their fixed wings and lack of hands, are even less expressive than talking cars.
Dusty wants to compete in the Wings Around The Globe competition, a worldwide air race, even though he’s a junky crop-dusting plane. His buddy Chug (Pixar regular Brad Garrett), a fuel truck, believes in him, while Dottie (Teri Hatcher), his mechanic/forklift, is more skeptical. Still, they make up his makeshift team after, remarkably, he makes it through the qualifier and into the race. He’s also able to convince Skipper, who went from being a welcoming flight instructor in the short film to a grizzled old man who doesn’t help out anyone (much in the vein of the Doc character from “Cars”), to train him. There’s not much opposition in this movie; things just kind of happen without much resistance or drama. At one point Dottie shows up to a race and says, “I don’t know how you talked me into this,” but the movie never shows us how Dusty talked her into it. Must have been good, though, for her to show up since a couple of scenes earlier she was vehemently against it.
While in the big race he meets (and competes against) Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), a sleek jet from India, Bulldog (John Cleese), a stuffy British model, Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, another Pixar alum) and El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a Mexican stunt plane who becomes this movie’s buffoonish Mater stand-in. None of the characters are particularly memorable, but they do have distinctive color schemes, which at least makes it easier to tell them apart. The movie’s heavy is Ripslinger (veteran videogame actor Roger Craig Smith), a blowhard plane who has won the three previous Wings Around The Globe races and who will stop at nothing to see Dusty fail. A lot of the plotting, if you can’t tell, is perfunctory and workmanlike. Blurring the line between Disney and Pixar even further is the fact that Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger shows up to voice a small role.
It goes without saying that the logistics of the expanded “Cars”/”Planes” universe becomes a metaphysical nightmare that you can barely untangle. Is this a world populated exclusively by cars and the planes are kind of like lower class citizens? Because they seem to have their own distinct areas but air shows are highly populated by cars. Who builds buildings and roadways and air strips if not a single character has hands? And who is supposed to be living in those buildings in New York City? Shouldn’t the whole thing just be a series of really tall ramps? And where, exactly, has humanity gone? Depending on your point of view, this universe is a hellish, post-human wasteland. Or an alternate dimension. Or something.
Most of the movie consists of the air race, which alternates between genuinely thrilling and kind of tedious. The movie’s 3D presentation actually adds a lot in the case of “Planes,” something that makes its original direct-to-video release seem even more baffling. There are moments when you really do feel like you’re rocketing through the sky, a sensation not unlike the Soarin’ attraction at Disney California Adventure and EPCOT which, in the synergistically circuitous Disney way, has been earmarked for some kind of “Planes” overlay (yes, seriously). When “Planes” really takes flight, it can be boldly transporting. Other times, though, it feels like it’s running low on jet fuel, full of limp characterizations and questionable set pieces (of all the places to stage a low altitude air race, the “Cars”-ified version of New York City wouldn’t have been my first choice).
But as far as summertime animated fare goes, this is honestly one of the better movies, with some clever flourishes (Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards show up to basically play the “Planes” versions of their “Top Gun” characters) and halfway decent gags (Dusty is afraid of heights, a character trait that could have been explored in greater depth but still plays well). About halfway through “Planes,” though, which was co-conceived and produced by “Cars” director (and Pixar bigwig) John Lasseter, we started to notice the characters that were creeping into the periphery of every frame and started writing down the possible future movies: “Trains,” “Boats,” “Helicopters,” “Emergency Vehicles.” In the anthropomorphic world of transportation, the possibilities are seemingly endless, as are the merchandising opportunities. [B-]