In an intro that, beyond all else, implies a lack of brand distinction and self-confidence, Planes begins by racing the viewer across the ground, where a familiar, chrome-framed logo reads, “The world of Cars.” The film then takes to the sky and climbs above the clouds, where the Cars spin-off’s own title appears. Though released exclusively through Disney, and not Pixar, Planes still plays by the rules of executive producer John Lasseter’s realm, wherein autonomous machines have evidently replaced humankind. Aside from the fact that such a premise has a certain eerie and distancing Matrix quality, there are other problematic tidbits to consider. When the lazily named crop duster Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) glides through New York, the Statue of Liberty is in the shape of a green car, but the city’s buildings are lit up just as we always see them. If Earth’s only inhabitants run on manufactured motors, who lives inside those buildings, and turns on those lights? Motorcycles? Segways? Vacuum cleaners? And when Dusty sails around the Taj Mahal with Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), a fetching Indian jet who, like Dusty, joins a global flying contest that drives the plot, one wonders how machines (and only machines) are getting in those doors, particularly when a passing flock of small, white bird-planes confirms the full absence of animal lifeforms.
This is the stuff you’re forced to focus on while sitting through Planes, since the central narrative is so bland and banal you might otherwise nod off in your seat. Dusty is your typical down-home dreamer, who, much like the title character from Turbo, wants to be more than he is, and go really fast, despite the naysayers. The contest is his big shot, but the first of many hurdles (which also include an ironic fear of heights), is the ire of nasty winged bullies, who perpetuate the movie’s odd and inappropriate obsession with man parts. Planes initially seems harmless enough to be recommended for little tykes, but then comes the line, “He’s gonna fly? With a prop that small?” directed at Dusty in a qualifying race. The crack will likely soar straight over kids’ heads, but, then, its reiteration could beget a little recess reprimanding, and the same applies to a “Go plow yourself” joke that’s dropped when the planes make a stop in Iceland. These cheap innuendos aren’t for kids or accompanying parents so much as teenage punks, and writer Jeffrey M. Howard is strangely persistent with them. There’s also a gag about Dusty’s oily tow-truck buddy, Chug (Brad Garrett), “leaking all over” the bullies, and Dusty’s fear of having his under-parts and “sprayer” removed for better aerodynamics (once the deed is done, Dusty feels wondrously “freer,” a development that invites a whole new set of connotations).
Directed by Klay Hall (who, like Howard, previously worked on the direct-to-video Tinker Bell franchise), Planes feels second-rate in every sense, from the quality of its animation to its C-list voice cast, which also includes Teri Hatcher, Anthony Edwards, and Sinbad. It’s dreadfully edited, with frantic fades in the thick of races that may as well be described as turbulent. There’s also the matter of its broadly drawn cultural globe-trotting, perhaps sourced from a text by the same publisher of Air Racing for Dummies, which Chug drags around in the first act. In Japan, they all eat sushi. In Germany, they “drink!” And when underdog Dusty, “a working-class hero around the globe,” suffers serious structural damage, all his multi-ethnic competitors, including El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a part-time telenovela star, come to his aid so he can up and win the race. There are two ways to read this: that Planes is a shiny, happy promoter of world peace and good international relations, or that it’s of the vexing belief that the whole world should be subservient to ’Merica. Let’s be optimistic and go with the former.