Directed by: Klay Hall
Premise: A spinoff of Cars. In a world where cars and airplanes are living beings, a crop-duster (voice of Dane Cook) dreams of entering an around-the-world flying competition.
What Works: Planes is an animated picture and in terms of its visual style this is one of the best looking animated films of 2013. The images have a lot of texture and many shots are visually dynamic, recalling the flight scenes of Top Gun. Planes exists in the same universe as Cars but this film is much better than Cars 2 and even has a slight edge on the original. Planes primarily exceeds the original Cars in its protagonist. It isn’t that the crop-duster of Planes is a particularly interesting character—he isn’t—but compared to the narcissistic Lightening McQueen of Cars and the obnoxiously moronic Mater of Cars 2, Dusty Crophopper of Planes is much more tolerable. The film is also helped in the way it reverses the story design of Cars. In that film, the city dweller ended up in the sticks and learned to appreciate supposedly blue collar country values. That story outline is inherently condescending to both metropolitan and rural audiences. In Planes an Average Joe gets a shot at the big time and that makes for a much more satisfying story. So where Planes exceeds its predecessors it does so primarily by default.
What Doesn’t: As similar as Planes may be to Cars, it is even more similar to Turbo, the DreamWorks Animation production released earlier this summer. Both stories are essentially about the same kind of character who goes through the same experience but even though Turbo was not a great movie it had much more going for it. That film at least had a sense of showmanship and drama. Planes is a flat movie and none of its characters or set pieces are memorable. Even the scenes of flight, which do have some admirable detail, lack the kind of urgency that a race ought to have. Planes also shares Turbo’s reliance on racial and nationalistic stereotypes. Every character that Dusty meets in his travels is a caricature, from the stiff-upper-lipped Brit (voice of John Cleese) to the wrestling-masked Mexican (voice of Carlos Alazraqui) to the exotic Indian (voice of Priyanka Chopra). Like Turbo, none of these stereotypes are mean spirited but they do betray a laziness that underlies the whole movie. Planes feels very much like Disney’s direct-to-video sequels. Many of the studio’s recent animated films, including those of the Pixar division, have relied on familiar storytelling boilerplates but there was usually enough that was original or interesting in the characters and concepts to make up for the predictability. That’s not the case in Planes. The viewer has already seen the talking vehicles gag in the two Cars flicks and none of the characters are engaging. Even Dusty is an empty vessel, a fact that is highlighted by the lazy plotting. This story follows the Horatio Alger template without deviation and the filmmakers fail to even do the clichés right. The most basic rule of a Horatio Alger story is that the protagonist must work hard to achieve his goals. Dusty never has to work for anything. In fact, he usually makes bad choices that set him back and is bailed out of his problems by the actions of other people. When he does encounter resistance, those challenges are far too easily overcome. This is a failure of basic storytelling. People go to movies about Average Joes—like Rocky or Win-Win—in order to be inspired by the character’s dedication and experience hope in his triumph. Planes fails to do that. Whether it was a matter of lazy writing or a fear of making a story too complicated for children (which is condescending to kids), the filmmakers of Planes seemingly avoid drama at all costs and the result is a flat movie that wastes every potential moment for character development or excitement.
Bottom Line: Planes is a mediocre movie. It isn’t terrible and very young children may find it holds their attention but for a theatrical release from Disney this is well below expectations.
Episode: #454 (September 1, 2013)