Disney's Planes uses a generic and mediocre story structure to uncover a truly gripping and disheartening exposé on vehicular inequality.
Stop me if you have heard this one before: There is a wonderfully lifelike inanimate object with a celebrity voice who has big dreams of becoming something more than his designated lot in existence. So, he goes out to prove those dreams in a race/competition/cook-off/whatever, even if everyone tells him that “you’re going to fail.” And guess what? His dreams come true.
Planes is a movie about animated, talking airplanes. Planes who verbally communicate with the voices of Dane Cook, Teri Hatcher, Brad Garrett and Julia Louis-Dreyfus among others. You should know going in if this movie is for you or not. But unfortunately, Disney’s insistence of setting this in the world of Pixar’s Cars, without the Pixar, draws far too many comparisons to a studio that has done this formula exceedingly well. And throughout the whole movie, the only interesting thing this Disney project brought to that computer generated table was a fascinating, if only implied caste system.
Okay, sure, there is a main plotline about Dusty Crophopper (Cook) wishing to one day be a racing jet, despite having been built expressly for crop dusting. And against the odds of a disbelieving eye from maintenance truck Dottie (Hatcher) and other racing planes like Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) and Bulldog (John Cleese), he gets the mentoring wing of wise WWII dogfighter Skipper (Stacy Keach). A few romantic and troubling subplots ensue, including with Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and, what do you know, Dusty really is a jet stream kind of guy.
But that has been all done a thousand times, as the animators and storytellers clearly know, since they don’t even make a pretense of adding anything new to this rote, banal mediocrity parading around as if it were a narrative. Ergo, there has to be SOMETHING under the surface. Right?
The real meaning of the film’s existence is to expose the inequality in the planes, trains and automobiles world in which the winged and aerodynamic rule the skies and everything beneath. When viewed in this light, Planes must surely be a harrowing exposé of the suffering that ground-locked transportation has endured, and I’m speaking of more than just Cars 2.
Early on, it is established that Dusty Crophopper is the most important piece of mechanical machinery in his small world. Chug (Garrett) is a truck whose sole purpose is to cheerlead and hoist the crop duster predisposed to bouts of self-doubt onto his shoulders and raise him high until takeoff. And while Dottie has the nurturing give-and-take with Dusty like a big sister, she kindly reminds Dusty that he was “built” for crop dusting. If that is so, what was she built for? Slowly, the horrific realization seeps through that she was constructed to serve Dusty’s every whims like Hattie McDaniel to his Vivien Leigh.
Eventually, the whole unjust structure of automotive oppression is unraveled and lay raw. Not only does friendly Skipper have his own four-wheeled sidekick, but so does every single plane in the global race that Dusty enters for the majority of the film’s running time. Indeed, Leadbottom (Cedric the Entertainer), another truck, exists like a particularly useful maitre d’ who must put on a sycophantic air of inferiority around all the planes. At first glance, he rolls his eyes at the manure-smelling cropper from the Midwest, but as soon as he realizes that Dusty can fly high, he reacquaints himself into a forced and inauthentic subservient position, kneeled before the entitled cloud rider.
Once Dusty arrives at JFK International Airport, radioed in by a voice that sounds like it grew up in Chappaquiddick, he sees the runway not unlike how tourists view Times Square. And all the cars are subordinate to the guy fresh off the gulfstream. This is crystallized no better than when Dusty meets his single fan during the movie’s second act, Ned/Zed (Gabriel Iglesias). When Dusty first lays eyes upon the meekly voiced car calling himself Ned, he is a bit disappointed to learn that he only has one fan and it is such an introverted little fellow. But he is even more puzzled when Ned reveals that he has second personality, Zed, due to being a Convair from the 1940s, one of the few cars that ever could transform into an airplane. Besides suggesting that if a car wishes to rise beyond its indentured servitude in life, that it must develop a split personality and bouts of schizophrenia to do it, the scene also implies that only once you give it wings does a vehicle hold its self as valuable or of worth.
It is an unsettling message that Planes has bravely thrown a taillight on. One can only fathom how down on the class system food chain boats are in this repulsive, human-less world. Boats are clearly lifelike creations too, as a harbor tugboat is seen with a smiling face early on when Dusty makes his descent. Yet later, we are introduced to a slew of aircraft carriers that are used to support Skipper’s old flying division in the Pacific. Beyond a curious question of why talking planes would go to war with each other in the 1940s, and who has been designing them to keep missiles, it also chillingly demonstrates that boats are not even allowed to show their faces in the presences of jets and bombers. While that early tugboat is seen smirking earlier, these massive ships of war are as inanimate as your pulse is while watching this movie. Are the carriers even allowed to speak or do the F-22s hold their faces underwater like they’re performing a perpetual swirly?
These are questions wholly raised but never addressed throughout Planes’ sluggish 90-minute running time. Yet, the fact that my mind kept returning to them over the typical, “Dreams really come true when you believe hard enough,” schtick, tells me that Disney did its job right for me to be picking up on these gentle undertones….
…I mean otherwise, it is just a poorly written, averagely constructed and thanklessly voiced family film with so-so 3D. And who wants to see that?
Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars