It features Dane Cook in the cockpit of the main protagonist and is a spin-off from the (criminally underrated) world of Cars, but somehow Disney’s Planes is actually all kinds of fun. Part of the reason for the general goodness of this 2013 animated flick is the input of one John Lasseter, whose nose for detail and humanity can elevate even the most routine of properties.
It is both easy and popular to knock Planes for not being a Pixar film, but what actually sails through the brisk 92 or so minutes is what counts. Those with their minds made up prior to seeing the picture won’t be swayed by the vibrant colours, easy humour and light style of this Klay Hall-helmed escapade anyway.
Cook voices Dusty Crophopper, a crop-duster plane with aspirations of becoming a racer. With the support of his pal Chug (Brad Garrett), he enters and eventually qualifies for a Wings Around the World competition. This requires him to brush up on his skills with the help of a crusty old navy warplane named Skipper (Stacy Keach).
Dusty heads off for the race’s starting point in New York City and is thrust into a world in which his competition is willing to do whatever it takes to win. But he also makes new friends, including a Mexican racer (Carlos Alazraqui) with a crush on a French Canadian plane (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
There are other colourful characters in the domain of Planes, including Dusty’s love interest Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) and the English plane Bulldog (John Cleese). The characters are represented by wide exaggerations of different cultures to be sure, but there’s nothing sinister afoot.
Along with having the film populated with planes of different nationalities, Hall’s picture flies the audience around to different locales around the world. There’s some neat stuff in Germany, Nepal and Mexico, with a segment taking place in the Hump end of the Himalayas for good measure. The animation is sometimes breathtaking, especially during a sequence in India.
The plot is less than innovative, of course, but the movie overwhelms its structural shortcomings with a sense of adventure and excitement. The animation expertly connects the world on the ground to what’s going on in the heavens to offer a vision of scale and lift. Perspective shots help in this regard and some moments are incredibly thrilling as a result.
Planes is also very funny. It balances out a nice blend of black comedy (an early mention of a crash into an orphanage is bitingly bleak), broad humour and one-liners with an array of cute romantic stuff as a chaser. A mid-movie comment about a Skypad, a tablet computer used by one of the characters, is spot-on in its observations on planned obsolescence.
And yet much of what goes on in Planes may soar over the heads of many viewers. There’s toilet humour (watch the line of outhouses near the end) and exploding planes in a deadly war sequence to contend with, stuff that most assuredly wouldn’t be for kiddies were these vehicles anything but vehicles.
There’s also a deeper theme. Dusty seeks out the help of Skipper and believes him to be a great warrior in the universe of Planes, but a discovery changes this and subsequently alters Dusty’s impression of him. When the warplane asks him if he’d have sought out his advice having known the truth, Dusty has to confront his reasoning head-on. The plot strand isn’t complex, but it does deal in the demoralizing crush of truth and in the impact guilt can have.
But even with these touches of humanity, Planes seems to have fallen short for many. It’s too bad. It is a world comprised entirely of machines and vehicles and, as such, could seem rather inert. But in the hands of the animators and writers, the world dreamed up by John Lasseter can even get Dane Cook off the ground and into the infinite sky.