Only the very youngest children will find much to enjoy in this misguided spinoff of the Pixar “Cars” franchise, which looks and sounds like something made for the Disney Junior cable channel and unwisely rerouted to theatres. And that’s not far off—it was actually intended for direct-to-DVD release and switched to theatrical mode at the last minute. Though that’s worked before (with “Toy Story 2”), in this case it seems a cynical move related more to profit than quality of product.
The plot of “Planes” is basically nothing more than a recycling of the first “Cars” flick with the setting changed from land to sky. A genial cropduster named Dusty Crophopper (voiced blandly by Dane Cook) wants—like Lightning McQueen in the earlier picture (not to mention Turbo the Snail in a more recent one)—to be a racing champion. (Since the world of the story is, like that of “Cars,” entirely human-free, one presumes that all those crops are being grown solely to make ethanol.) Though he suffers from a fear of heights, forcing him always to fly close to the ground, he’s encouraged by his pals, forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and fuel trick Chug (Brad Garrett) to pursue his dream, and is eventually trained by crusty old Skipper (Stacy Keach), a veteran navy plane who was in the famed Jolly Wrenches flying squad a long time ago.
Though he doesn’t ace the preliminaries, through a fluke Dusty makes the roster for an around-the-world competition and is soon up against the best in the world. That includes the arrogant champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), another American, who will stoop to every nefarious move to win again. Happily the representatives from other nations are friendlier. There’s Bulldog (John Cleese), a stiff-upper-lip Brit whom Dusty saves from crashing in an early lap; Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a coy, sweet French Canadian; Ishari (Priyanka Chopra), a luscious Indian for whom Dusty develops a crush; and especially El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), an ebullient Mexican who becomes Dusty’s best buddy and cheerleader. (The last character’s prominence points to a trend—witnessed also in “Turbo”—to emphasize Hispanics and Latinos in animated films nowadays. In this case there’s great emphasis on the partnership between Mexico and the US, with El Chupacabra, presented as a reliable compadre to Dusty and given a major subplot as a suitor to the stand-offish Rochelle effectively becoming the picture’s second lead. Whether this represents a laudable development in cultural sensitivity or a crass effort to appeal to a growing segment of the family audience is a point worthy of discussion.)
Anyway, the race proceeds lap by lap in a by-the-numbers fashion that will make every beat predictable even to the tykes in the auditorium, let alone their parents. There are setbacks aplenty for Dusty—including one act of betrayal (quickly reversed, however)—and a revelation about Skipper’s past that temporarily brings things to a sudden halt. But the plucky little fellow’s friends all pitch in as needed to help him fulfill his ambition, and things end precisely as you’d expect. Unfortunately, the kind of witty repartee in the dialogue that has elevated so many animated movies in the past is totally absent here. The writing is as formulaic as the plotting, and even this voice cast can’t breathe life into lines that have no verve in them.
The computer-generated animation is mediocre, too. Admittedly it’s difficult to make planes, cars, trucks and forklifts very appealing, but the boxy, cheesy look they’re given here leaves one longing for the real Pixar touch. (Though a spinoff from “Cars,” “Planes” is an in-house Disney project.) The addition of 3D doesn’t help; the glasses dim the colors, giving the visuals a pallid, dreary tone.
“Planes” turns out to be less funny—and exhilarating—even than Ken Annakin’s 1965 comic epic about an air race, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” And one can only hope it doesn’t lead to another sequel to complete a “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” trilogy. Of course that would be completely redundant, since this movie—and so many of today’s animated kids’ pictures as well—are just regurgitations of the old Little Engine That Could template. Completely lacking in imagination and panache, it makes for a boring flight during which passengers young and old will inevitably get restless.