The marketing forces were out in full swing for the screening of Planes that I attended. A chirpy crew of interns from the local Radio Disney affiliate tossed out gewgaws to a gaggle of 11-year-olds. Onscreen, inside the theater, a digital slide encouraged us to tweet our thoughts on the film afterwards. The whole ordeal smacked of the kind of desperation that likely resulted in this film — a sort of sidequel [“sidecar?” ha! -Ed.] to the Cars franchise — being rescued from its initial fate of direct-to-DVD purgatory. Once the film got rolling, the reasons behind this sweaty-palmed approach to promotion became abundantly clear: Disney had another dud on their hands. A furiously unoriginal dud at that, rife with cliches, skin-crawling cultural stereotypes, and inept references to modern pop culture.
Simply put, director Klay Hall and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard try to port over the skeletons of the plots of Cars and its sequel for this very psuedo-epic. There’s a plucky hero (Dusty Crophopper) who aspires for greatness, his brain dead sidekick (a fuel truck named Chug), an old-timer there to teach our hero the ropes (Skipper Riley), and a nasty rival (Ripslinger). Slapped hastily on to that framework is the story of an around-the-globe air race that Dusty, an erstwhile cropduster, finds himself competing in. And, since this is to include racers from all over the world, the filmmakers get the chance to truck out all kinds of embarrassing characters, including a hot-blooded Latin lover plane who goes by the name El Chupacabra, a stuck-up British competitor, and delicate flower of an airplane from India.
All that might have been easily pushed to the background if there were even a hint of the “wow” factor that has been part of so much of Disney’s computer animated efforts. But because this was likely meant to head to DVD first, and is not a Pixar film in spite of its thematic Cars association, the picture doesn’t leap off the screen — even in 3D. Apart from one nicely conceived sequence in which Dusty and Ishani (the aforementioned Indian plane) explore the skies around the Taj Mahal, every other landmark or city is reduced to one quick, dull scan before being brushed aside.
Any right-thinking filmgoer above the age of 12 should be able to figure out the inevitable conflicts and finale of Planes. In that respect, it’s almost like comfort food — all the better to turn your mind off and just appreciate the scenery and supposed comedy. But when, unavoidably, both of those aspects of the film fall way short of their marks, what else is there to do but grit your teeth and brace yourself for impact. That and, sadly, the inevitable sequel.