A Disney-only spin-off to an established Pixar brand that technically doesn’t bear the latter company’s name and certainly doesn’t attempt their degree of innovative storytelling or reliable wit, “Planes” proudly announces its existence within the world of “Cars” before cramming the stories of those two earlier films together in a visually colorful but otherwise vanilla continuation of the series.
Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) is a single-prop crop-duster in the tiny town of
Radiator Springs Propwash Junction who daydreams of flying far and fast. “I’ve flown thousands of miles, but I’ve never been anywhere!” he cries to manure-hauling compatriot Leadbottom (Cedric the Entertainer), but here’s the kicker: Dusty’s afraid of heights! That won’t keep him from attempting to qualify for the Wings Around the Globe race with the help of dumb fat fuel truck friend Mater Chug (Brad Garrett) and crusty mentor Doc Skipper (Stacy Keach).
Much like last month’s “Turbo” and countless other ‘toons before that, “Planes” incorporates any number of ethnic stereotypes for maximum international appeal -- a Latin lover wearing a lucha libre mask named El Chupacabra, for example -- while teaching wee ones that they can surely achieve their dreams granted that they best their cocky idols and endure severe body transformations along the way. (Much is made of Dusty’s reluctance to have his sprayer surgically removed. Good luck explaining that one, folks.) The fun doesn’t stop there: characters toss around pun-powered slang like “Lugnut up!” and “Why don’t you go plow yourself?” while a convertible flying car is greeted warily as a schizophrenic, because if there’s one thing that kids love with their “Midnight Cowboy” references (yes, really), it’s shoutouts to mental illness.
While the adults in the audience get to preoccupy themselves with the still-eerie logic of the “Cars”/“Planes” universe, where planes fly within one another to get places and still somehow built a Statue of Liberty in their own image, the kids should be placated by the close calls, bright colors and wacky accents by the likes of Cook, Keach, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Teri Hatcher, John Cleese, Priyanka Chopra, Carlos Alazraqui, Roger Craig Smith and -- in an admittedly inspired touch -- Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards as fighter jets. The intercontinental intrigue shouldn’t stun them, just as the valuable lessons about teamwork and self-worth (spoiler alert?) won’t blow minds. Everything about Klay Hall’s direction and Jeffrey M. Howard’s screenplay aims to make a minimal impact, and given the project’s origins as a direct-to-video venture, one is hardly surprised.
Only the sight of Chug shamelessly hawking Dusty’s merchandise feels actively aware of “Planes’” own thorough disposability as a money-making machine. When Chopra’s sleek Indian temptress makes a nod to Hindu culture by saying that “many believe that we will be recycled as tractors,” one is tempted to remind her that, technically, this will all be recycled as “Planes: Fire & Rescue” next summer, then as “Boats,” then as “Trains,” and then maybe as “Tractors.”
SCORE: 4.3 / 10