While everyone else was having the time of their life following/attending D23 this weekend, I went and saw Planes.
Um. Let me start over. I promise I’m cool!
Friday night I went with the family to see Disney’s Planes, the latest from Disneytoon Studios. In hindsight, I think is was important I at least saw the film as a lover of animation, since Planes was the first theatrical release of a Disneytoon film since the 2006 film Bambi II aka Those Hunters are Coming For Me Next and Captain Kirk is My Father.
It’s also the first fully-CG theatrical release from Disneytoon and, as the previews made clear, is “from the world of Pixar’s Cars“. So the big question was: would Planes live up to its legacy?
In the style of The Matrix, I will not definitively answer that question. But I would like to share some thoughts about the film, mostly about how Planes managed to exceed my expectations and is actually a good family movie.
First, let’s look at the technical stuff. Planes will almost certainly surprise you by how well the studio researched flight. Besides the whole talking aircraft thing, every twist, turn, dive, and stall looks very accurate, perhaps even more accurate than the driving physics from Cars. Aircraft buffs will recognize a variety of true-to-life flyers, from the mighty P-51 Mustang to the conspicuously-placed American Airlines jet (apparently the new paint job is a huge deal). The overall level of expertise in the film is impressive, though sometimes overwhelming.
The dedication to authenticity makes for some just-fine animation, and the vibrant colors of the film are perfect for a family film. I was pleasantly surprised by how good everything looked. The film takes you to parts of the globe that you didn’t see in Cars/Cars 2, and the different settings are refreshing. You’ll have to mind a few obvious shortcuts that were taken with the visuals, but only if you’re looking for them. And now you’ll be looking for them. Inception.
And speaking of IT WAS ALL JUST A DREAM, potential spoilers from here on out, okay?
The actual story of the film was much less surprising. It’s a sweet underdog story where a lovable crop duster plane gets a chance to compete in a plane race of sorts around the world. The only things keeping him from winning are his lack of experience and fear of heights. Racing action ensues.
Dane Cook, whose past comedy work I can’t quote because there’s Preschool toys around, does such a good job playing the good-natured, clean-cut protagonist Dusty Crophopper that it’s scary. Actually, when I first saw the previews I thought he was playing Ripslinger, the bad guy plane. I find Dane Cook annoying in real life, but he was alright as Dusty.
You’ve got a bunch of other celeb voices too, like Brad Gerrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Pixar fans know her as Princess Atta), John Cleese (who always plays That British Guy), and Cedric the Entertainer (who we should probably just classify as a voice actor by now). One particularly clever cameo was Val Kilmer (Top Gun), who plays one of the fighter planes stationed off an aircraft carrier.
The story zooms from one racing challenge to the next, and before reaching the finish line Dusty will experience culture shock, betrayal, severe trauma, and his worst fears. Most of the movie you will be able to guess what happens next, but there are a few surprises. And maybe this was all just too soon after Monsters University, but the ending was quite anti-climatic. I mean, he just wins the race. And that’s it.
The characters are cute, if not typical. There’s the grumpy veteran airplane trainer, the bumbling best friend/sidekick, the total jerk-face x-time racing pro champion who thinks winning is everything, etc. I can live with all that, but I did have a problem with Dusty. I think he was just too perfect. He didn’t really have any character flaws to be tested and ultimately conquered and so his story was less engaging. You find yourself rooting for Dusty but not really relating to him.
Another thing that annoyed me was that almost every car in the film was one of those forklift/utility vehicles (like Guido from Cars). Like normal-sized cars almost didn’t exist. Might have been a licensing issue, but still. C’mon.
One interesting part of the story that completely surprised me was Skipper, a Corsair fighter plane who saw action over the Pacific during World War II (or the Planes equivalent). The film does not water down his story; in fact, there is frequent mention of air-to-air combat (aka killing) and even a flashback scene showing Skipper’s entire squadron getting blown to bits by anti-aircraft fire. It’s an unusually realistic treatment on war for a kid’s movie (much more real than the over-the-top missiles and lasers stuff we saw in Cars 2). While the film makes no real statement about war or veterans, I actually appreciated it as kind of a respectful salute to the old war birds who fought during World War II.
The humor in Planes is nothing close to Cars but the cuteness of the characters makes up for it. You will find some adult-ish humor sprinkled in here or there, particularly referring to a plane’s “lug-nuts” and a subtle joke after a plane gets an important part of his “undercarriage” surgically removed.
And that’s about it. If my review has convinced you to go see this film, then I’m glad. Disney’s Planes definitely exceeded my expectations and is definitely one of the best released from Disneytoon. A good family film!