The runways in Disney’s Planes are paved with good intentions, but an overreliance on exhausted underdog tropes and a lazy central irony prevent it from truly soaring into the clouds. Strictly for the seven-and-under crowd, this breezy but forgettable diversion looks good on the silver screen, though its many shortcomings will no doubt become more pronounced when it eventually touches down on home video, where the thrill of the flight will fade considerably.
Dusty (voice of Dane Cook) is a humble crop-dusting plane who spends most of his days flying low, but his eyes are always turned up toward the clouds. He dreams of becoming a great racer, but sadly, his modest engine and intense fear of heights make winning the prestigious Wings Around the Globe rally a long shot at best. Things begin to look up, however, when veteran aviator Skipper (Stacy Keach) helps him earn a slot in the qualifying race. With the help of his trusty mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and loyal fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett), Dusty might just manage to soar past the checkered flag in front of reigning champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). But first, he must learn to let go of his fears and embrace the thrill of riding the tailwind.
First things first: With one of the world’s largest and most prestigious animation houses at the controls, the visual artistry on display in Planes was never going to be one of its faults. From the sprawling Nebraska farmlands that open the film to the Taj Mahal, this is a crisp and colorful movie. Even then, however, the frequent lack of detail and simplistic character designs hint at a certain void of inspiration, one that’s soon confirmed when Dusty reluctantly confesses to Skipper that he has acrophobia. A quick glance at the credits reveals that screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard made his name penning direct-to-video Tinkerbell features for Disney, which may offer some indication of why, both thematically and structurally, Planes is so frustratingly formulaic. There’s nothing in Howard’s screenplay that couldn’t have been dreamed up by any moderately imaginative ten-year-old reared on nothing more than second-tier Mouse House misfires, including the tired cultural stereotypes that form the characters’ personalities (the romantic Mexican, the stiff-upper-lip Brit, etc.). Meanwhile, the plane who’s afraid of heights may be the least clever character flaw ever devised; even worse, when Dusty must overcome his fears in the climactic race, Howard doesn’t even bother to show us how he summons the courage to do so.
Planes’ single saving grace may be Klay Hall’s fluid direction, but in the age of digital animation it’s difficult to discern just how much of the film’s soaring excitement can be attributed solely to him, rather than the hardworking legions of visual artists whose names too often get lost in the endless list of scrolling credits. At a time when video on demand and pay-per-view are increasingly blurring the line between theatrical releases and home video, Disney’s Planes feels like precisely what it is -- a direct-to-video feature that somehow escaped into the multiplexes. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan