Directed by Klay Hall
Written by Jeffrey M. Howard
The story goes, per a five-part PBS documentary back in the early 2000s about the history of the Broadway musical, that when Andrew Lloyd Webber was shopping around Cats to be performed and produced in the United States, he reached out to iconic producer/director/Stephen Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince. Webber pitched Prince on Cats, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s book of feline-centric poetry, and when he was finished, Prince admitted to not grasping the deeper metaphor. Were the cats representative of the English class system? Was one of the cats a member of the royal family? What piece had Prince not figured out yet, he wondered. Webber paused, then said, “Hal. It’s about cats.”
One imagines that, if he was forced to provide details about the so-called “World of Cars,” John Lasseter would answer similarly. Does it matter if we don’t know how the vehicles in this world could have kids? Or how they could be familiar with pop-culture references specific to our world? Not in Lasseter’s mind, so it likely doesn’t bother him too much that the first Cars spin-off, Planes, raises the ante on the plausibility of this universe to an untenable degree. (Of course, Lasseter is credited as the film’s executive producer and he co-wrote the story. So he definitely doesn’t care.) Unfortunately, his unswerving dedication to the world of planes, trains, and automobiles that talk and act like humans hasn’t ever translated into a legitimately good movie—Cars is the best, but still thinly drawn, predictable, and overlong. Planes is perhaps not as painful to watch as 2011’s Cars 2, but it’s only a hair or two better.
Dane Cook voices Dusty Crophopper, who dreams of being a star flier like his airborne idols. (You get three guesses to figure out his current job, and the first two don’t count.) Most of those in his small town of Propwash Junction think he’s got no chance to qualify, let alone compete, in the Wings Around the Globe race, taking him from New York to China to Mexico and more. But then Dusty gets help from an old Navy plane (Stacy Keach) and some other friends and…well, what else is there to say about the plot of Planes? Here is a movie with absolutely no hidden depths, no surprises, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. The only moments that are most memorable are those that are most disturbing, speaking specifically to the problem of how this world can exist if there are no humans present.
That old Navy plane, Skipper, tells many stories of the various missions he fought, like the Battle at Wake Island. Though Skipper’s past may be a bit more checkered than he lets on, the real trouble is that battles like the one at Wake Island are real. The Battle at Wake Island took place just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a couple days before Christmas 1941. As such, are we really meant to believe that Planes takes place in a world where World War II, or something close to it, took place? If we flashed back to the right moment, would we meet a vehicular Hitler, or Mussolini, or Hirohito? It’s safe to assume that director Klay Hall and writer Jeffrey M. Howard (both of whom co-wrote the story with Lasseter) don’t want us to dwell on such questions. But when a character’s backstory so heavily relies on naval battles—one of which is visualized in a scene that is, at best, baffling and, at worst, offensively, inappropriately misguided—based in historical reality, these details are what matter most.
Planes jumps from the somber, grim battle sequences of yore to gags in which Dusty encounters a couple of fighter jets voiced by Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer. (See, Edwards and Kilmer were in this movie called Top Gun, where these guys flew planes, and it’s little bits of nostalgia like this that make your mind drift away for a few minutes as opposed to paying attention to the movie this duo are in right now.) If that’s not eye-rolling enough, what’s worse is the name of the naval carrier these jets are housed on: the U.S.S. Flysenhower. Yes, the puns that pervaded Cars and Cars 2 have returned, and are in full force in Planes. Real-life sports personalities Brent Musburger and Colin Cowherd play Brent Mustangburger and Colin Cowling, for example. And because the story, just like Cars 2, jumps from country to country, we’re offered up supposedly safe distillations of nationalistic stereotypes, from the colorful Indian plane whose religion espouses the belief that all planes get recycled into tractors, to the fiery Latin flier named El Chupacabra who serenades a sultry French-Canadian plane with a slow mariachi rendition of “Love Machine.” (Yes, really, to all of that.)
Planes is not as bad as Cars 2, only because the latter film came directly from Pixar Animation Studios, and expectations were fittingly higher. Planes, it is worth emphasizing strongly, is not from Pixar; it’s from DisneyToon Studios, the same company responsible for the direct-to-DVD sequels that have flooded the home media marketplace over the last two decades, including popular series like the Tinker Bell films. But Disney and, by connection, John Lasseter would like to fool you into thinking otherwise. The animation is, for obvious reasons, heavily inspired by the work in the Cars films; John Ratzenberger, the Pixar lucky charm, even makes a cameo appearance as a new character. (His supposed luck has not extended to this franchise.) And sure, the animation in Planes is decent, in that it looks better than most direct-to-video animation would. Most fascinating is that, originally, Planes was headed to the DVD shelves entirely; Disney decided last year to send this to theaters first, and the reason why can only be financial. Nothing on screen validates the choice creatively Even worse is the threat…er, promise that Planes is the first in a trilogy, with the sequel—Planes: Fire and Rescue—on the way next summer. If Planes is any indication, we should not expect too much from its follow-ups.
So what does Planes want to be? It often feels like a weird mashup of both Cars movies, rushing through plot points or having characters spout exposition as opposed to letting natural character development spring forth. It can’t even succeed at being a passable diversion, a way to keep children quiet and sated for 90 minutes without getting bored or antsy. And its halfhearted, overly familiar message—that anyone can succeed no matter their origin—is at odds with the underlying theme of Pixar’s most recent feature, Monsters University, which sets Mike Wazowski up as being a relatably tragic figure, someone who has a very specific goal in mind that can never be fully achieved. Dusty wants to be a champion flier, but he’s a crop duster, so it should be impossible. Mike wants to be a champion scarer, but he’s just not scary enough even if he’s a monster. One of these characters goes through an actual trial of conscience; the other simply wins the day because for their climax to end otherwise would be unnecessarily challenging.
Which is worse: that Planes is not as challenging a film as Pixar’s movies, or that it does not want to be challenging at all? In essence, is it worse that, like Cats, the Cars franchise is just about cars, or that its filmmakers don’t even consider the deeper possibilities? All Planes wants to be is a way to give parents a break for 90 minutes, by cobbling together a group of well-known actors—among them John Cleese, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, and Cedric the Entertainer—and pumping in a few pop-culture references. (Old Yeller gets name-checked once, thus inspiring the question of what that film or character looks like in the world of sentient cars.) If parents need to give their kids something to do for a couple of hours in the dog days of summer, try the local pool, or the library, or see Monsters University. Planes—a movie in which one character’s subplot revolves around literally selling Dusty-specific merchandise—is a crass, frustrating affair. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a movie from a direct-to-DVD outlet isn’t very good or inspired. But, boy, it would’ve been nice to be thrown for a loop this time.
— Josh Spiegel