Taking a flawed property and removing all redeeming facets, like a chop-shop mechanic stripping an old vehicle of its working parts, Planes demonstrates that even Pixar’s creative nadir is hard to match. For many, the fact that this Mouse House spin-off exists within the “world of Cars”—as an opening title card unnecessarily announces—is reason enough to steer clear. John Lasseter’s twin odes to the automobile take a lot of abuse; critics have held them up as proof not only that Pixar is fallible, but that its artistic engines have become increasingly fueled by purely monetary concerns. Pandering as they are, though, Cars and its 007-flavored sequel are plainly labors of love—not just for professed car nut Lasseter, but also for the actors and animators bringing those anthropomorphized machines to life. The same most certainly cannot be said for Planes, in which Disney proper offers its soulless approximation of a Pixar movie. It’s the cinematic equivalent of those Chinese knockoff luxury sedans.
The hook here is that, unlike its earthbound predecessors, Planes occasionally soars into the vast, open expanses of the sky. The best that can be said for the movie is that some of its airborne imagery is pretty, though shouldn’t visual delights be a given for a Disney-animated offering? Doing his best Owen Wilson impersonation, Dane Cook voices Dusty, a plucky crop duster who yearns—like the super-powered mollusk of last month’s Turbo—to go fast. Trouble is, not only was he not built for speed, he has a crippling fear of heights. Like most family films, this one seems determined to tell its impressionable young audience that no dream is too impossible, so soon enough Dusty is overcoming his limitations to compete in a globe-crossing race. In his corner are a Mater-like fuel truck (Brad Garrett) and a veteran fighter plane (Stacy Keach) clearly modeled on Paul Newman’s rusty mentor figure in Cars. There’s also a whole fleet of supporting stereotypes, er, characters—most of whom are voiced by paycheck-cashing celebrities contributing little but an opportunity to sell a few more tie-in toys.
Clearly set to autopilot, Planes races through obligatory plot points, rushing its zero-to-hero narrative. The pokiness of Cars, which was a full half-hour longer than this speedy cash-grab, looks in retrospective like a benefit: There was time, back in Radiator Springs, for such niceties as character development. Planes cuts corners at every turn, a strategy that leaves it feeling like the skeletal framework of an incomplete Pixar project. Then again, when the film’s idea of charm is having one of its many comic-relief aircrafts perform a slow, mariachi-band rendition of “Love Machine,” maybe getting to the finish line as quickly as possible isn’t such a bad thing. For captive parents, the lone source of interest may be trying to make sense of the eternally confusing Cars universe—a place where Old Yeller apparently exists, but dogs don’t, and vacationing automobiles pack suitcases full of clothing, which they don’t wear. Come to think of it, why would this world even need crop dusters? Do the machines eat? What are their insides made of anyway? Perhaps one of the two already-in-the-works Planes sequels will crack one of these unholy machines open. That’d be about the only reason to return to this nose-diving franchise.