Disney’s Planes arrives as a spin-off of Pixar’s Cars and on the heels of the most critically disappointing movie in the current Pixar filmography: Cars 2. Under the shadow of Pixar’s least appreciated work, one can forgive low expectations for yet another 3-D CGI kiddie movie set in “the world of Cars.” The fact that it has been made by the direct-to-video Disney production arm DisneyToon Studios will add another strike to the animated movie’s prospects, especially considering director Klay Hall’s only other film is another Disney spin-off: the direct-to-video Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure. Who can blame any knee-jerk judgments based on these factors? But to take any critical assessment of Planes based on such prejudices does this amiable, if flawed, animated romp a disservice.
Though Planes is not innocent of some rather lazy, hackneyed Disney tropes, more often than not, it transcends expectations by taking its time with its hero’s steady rise to self-actualization. Planes follows Dusty (Dane Cook), a prop engine plane with aspirations to be “more than just a crop duster.” While flying low over a field of corn, Dusty daydreams of winning an aerial race around the world. His mantra: “I’m just trying to prove maybe I can do something more than I was built for.” It’s the classic underdog story fraught with overcoming conflicts outside (an experienced, conniving and bullying racer named Ripslinger voiced by Roger Craig Smith) and within (a fear of heights).
Though apparently concocted as a direct-to-video cash-grab, Planes deserves the big screen, 3-D treatment more than many other 3-D films. The movie features three variations of flight scenes: the third-person perspective looking on at planes zipping toward the screen, the first-plane rollercoaster-like experience from the Windshields of the planes and the stomach-dropping depiction of poor Dusty’s vertigo. The fact that higher-definition projection has improved the 3-D effect to decrease edge blurring makes this one of the better 3-D films ever made.
Key to Planes‘ success comes from its reserved pacing. It actually spends quality time with its characters. Exhilarating race sequences are varied and never feel overlong and unending. In a race around the globe, the director knows how to hold-off on the throttle of indulgence and save room for the next heat, as no single race sequence overstays its kinetic drama to devolve into a droning series of set pieces that grow tiresome. It also does quiet moments quite nicely, indulging in some CG magic hour backdrops and a playful pallet of varying light sources including some rather atmospherically nostalgic effects like neon glows and incandescent lights.
Though these more serene moments may play well to adults, it may test the patience of the little ones in the film’s target demo. There are moments, especially before the race commences, where the anthropomorphized vehicles share conversations featuring commentary that will fly over the heads of younger audience members. It may make for some rather nice moments of character development for parents hoping for a little more substance, but on the other extreme, parents will have to endure a few moments of the laziest type of crude humor (a fart joke appears two minutes into the action, and it’s not the only one).
However, the biggest hit against Planes is how it reinforces stereotypes disguised as character color. Coupled with plane bodies stylized to depict cultural and racial stereotypes, including, most offensively, a chunky Mexican entry decked out in a luchador mask named El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), it makes for a rather mixed message by Disney. It’s not just a cheap gimmick, but a harmful reductive trope that reveals the hypocrisy of Disney’s message that marginalizes more than celebrates diversity.
So often, Disney movies feature unlikely heroes rising up against bullies, however these cringe-worthy, short-sighted characterizations only serve to reinforce the differences that create such easy targets for bullies. It’s ironic that Planes‘ protagonist works so hard to overcome prejudice to rise above social classification while the film itself indulges in the same disregarding behavior its hero attempts to transcend. Leaning on cultural stereotypes is the film’s biggest if somewhat subtle offense. Otherwise, it should make for a worthwhile distraction as far as 3-D experiences for the family. Lest you feel prejudicial as far as the filmmakers’ credentials behind a sub-label within the Disney Studios umbrella, the film still deserves the benefit of the doubt.