What has become Disney/Pixar’s “World of Cars” franchise originally began with John Lasseter’s love of cars and stock-car racing, as well as his nostalgia for historic Route 66 and the American West of the past it represents. Lasseter’s personal enthusiasm for the subject matter elevated the 2006 film, making it better than it had a right to be.
Then, though, the popularity of one of the supporting characters — and fondness at Pixar for the actor who voiced him — took over the franchise. Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater the tow truck starred in the short Mater and the Ghostlight, got his own Disney Channel series, Mater’s Tall Tales, and went on to upstage Lightning McQueen as the true protagonist of Cars 2, a convoluted, condescending film that remains, for me, Pixar’s lone failure.
With Planes, a non-Pixar effort from Disney’s small-screen specialists in DisneyToon Studios, the World of Cars moves into a post-Mater phase. At this point, the driving force is simply the kid appeal of anthropomorphic vehicles, from the old days of Herbie the Love Bug and Speed Buggy to Thomas the Tank Engine. The World of Cars does remain odder than most stories of anthropomorphic vehicles, in that there are no humans, or indeed animal life forms of any kind, but most of the time it gets on tolerably well without them.
If Disney animated fare today often plays as Pixar Lite, and DisneyToons is Disney Lite, Planes must be Pixar Ultra-Lite. But Dusty Crophopper (Dan in Real Life’s Dane Cook, likable if not terribly interesting) is not an ultralight, but a one-prop crop-dusting plane who dreams of racing speeds and high-flying action he wasn’t built for.
Somehow, though, he just makes a qualifying heat for a world-class race around the globe and finds himself going up against an international crew of champions in a race with checkpoints from the U.S. to Iceland, Germany, India, China and back.
Both the big race and international flavor recall Cars 2 as well as DreamWorks’ Turbo, the protagonist of which had the same personal crisis as Dusty, a longing for speed he wasn’t built for. Yet Planes, in its modest way, cannily avoids the pitfalls that made those films unsatisfying.
Both Cars 2 and Turbo were essentially exercises in wish fulfillment, handing out superpowers to their protagonists. Mater got cool super-spy-car upgrades and lived out his “Tall Tales” fantasies of exotic adventures. Turbo, of course, got superspeed in a freak accident and lived his racing dream, competing in the Indy 500.
By contrast, Dusty is a protagonist who earns the audience’s support by the way he rises to various challenges. Though he has talent, he needs training, and he submits to the tutelage of an experienced teacher, working hard to master the skills he needs. Forced to choose between self-interest and doing the right thing, Dusty readily chooses the latter. Harassed by rivals and enemies, he never sinks to their level, winning rivals’ respect for sportsmanship as much as skill.
Finally, he must face and overcome his fears, specifically an ironic fear that nevertheless makes sense for a plane built to fly at low altitudes: Dusty is afraid of heights. At first, he’s ashamed to admit this to his mentor, a veteran WWII fighter named Skipper (Stacy Keach), who upbraids him with the Latin motto of his old squadron: Volo Pro Veritas, “I Fly for Truth.” (Yes: Latin in a Disney cartoon.)
A number of supporting characters also face moral challenges. John Cleese voices Bulldog, a snobby twin-engine British plane who looks down on the one-prop American upstart. Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra plays Ishani, a custom Pan-Asian champ with a billion fans she’s determined not to disappoint. In a nice twist on Cars, in which a character hides his distinguished past, Planes suggests that heroes may have other kinds of secrets as well.
Yet redemption is offered to nearly every compromised character, the exception being the villain (Roger Craig Smith) and his henchmen (both Gabriel Iglesias). All these themes — honesty, respect, hard work, good sportsmanship, doing the right thing and redemption — temper the rote motif of following your dream and being able to achieve whatever you put your mind to (“being more than you’re built for”).
This is all more thoughtful than anything in Cars 2 or Turbo, which only challenged supporting characters (Lightning McQueen and Turbo’s brother Chet) to “accept” or “support” the protagonists. Oh, and where Turbo’s freak-accident superpowers, developed from exposure to nitrous oxide, came uncomfortably close to endorsing performance-enhancing drugs, in this story, a plane is disqualified for using a banned fuel additive.
Director Klay Hall, who previously directed one of DisneyToon’s Tinker Bell movies, professes a lifelong love of planes (his father was in the Navy, and his grandfather was a pilot). His enthusiasm doesn’t come across quite the way Lasseter’s did in Cars, but clearly he and his team have done their homework. Anthropomorphic as they are, Dusty and his fellow planes don’t just look authentic, they fly, turn, roll and maneuver like real planes with given capabilities and limitations interacting with gravity, momentum and air pressure. Special expertise in a subject can be a liability to enjoying a film about that subject; here, I suspect it may be an asset.
The international cast and locations also help. While Planes doesn’t have the same interest that Cars 2 did in its travelogue destinations, there is some lovely scenery, particularly in a flight over India with a flyby past the Taj Mahal. (Shortly after this is a sequence in Nepal at a Buddhist monastery. Unlike Cars 2, with its popemobile, there is no Christian image that I recall, though the dialogue briefly refers to the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.)
In addition to the characters mentioned above, hardworking voice actor Carlos Alazraqui plays a flamboyant Mexican racer named Chupacabra with a strange Thermos-shaped body (a Gee Bee Model R, according to Wikipedia) infatuated with Rochelle, a fleet Québécois twin engine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss). Teri Hatcher and Brad Garrett play Dusty’s loyal pals, a fuel truck and a forklift.
Some may find the stereotypes problematic: the comic-relief Mexican, the stuffy Brit, the competitive Indian. If I could change one thing, it might be Chupacabra’s relentless pursuit of Rochelle, despite her evident lack of interest, until he tries a soulful serenade. Oh, I’d probably redo the soundtrack too; a movie skewing this young doesn’t need the occasional rock and rap textures. (I’m also obliged to mention a subtle throwaway bit concerning Dusty’s discomfort with having his crop-dusting sprayer removed — “This is reversible, right?” — which even some adults may not recognize as a veiled vasectomy joke.)
Planes was originally planned for home video in the U.S., but Disney brass were impressed enough to give it a big-screen release. While I’m not sure it needs a theatrical release, I’m struck by the rarity of seeing such a comparatively simple, innocent cartoon on the big screen. Movies like Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 have complex plots, mature themes and scary moments that put them beyond the reach of many young children who will readily enjoy Planes. Parents jaded by the likes of The Croods or Turbo may find Planes modestly agreeable fare.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Some mild action, including a brief WWII flashback and a scary accident at sea; mild rude humor. Fine family viewing.