Telling sign: Pixar’s logo doesn’t appear on Planes. Disney has no interest in tarnishing that impeccable standard with piffle like this, despite the fact that it comes “from the world of Cars.” The claim is technically true, but pushing it, even for one of the much-maligned low points of the Pixar canon. If nothing else, Planes demonstrates just how relative a low point can be. Even the worst Pixar effort to date operates several levels above this direct-to-video disaster.
And actually, it would probably do much better if it were direct-to-video, because then at least we could accept its low-rent status as par for the course. Everything about it – story, characters, graphics, images – arises from a lazy cash grab, dependent upon an undemanding audience of toddlers to even get off the ground. Said audience was well-represented in the screening I attended, and while none of them looked bored or restless, they left the screening with a remarkable lack of excitement.
It’s hard to blame them. Planes does nothing with its already desperate premise, taking us to the skies above Cars-land for reasons we can’t fathom. Since this is a Disney joint (or at least a DisneyToons joint, the low-rent corner of The Mouse’s neighborhood), we start with a misunderstood dreamer: crop-dusting underdog Dusty (voice by Dane Cook) who yearns to enter an around-the-world flying race. Nobody thinks he can do it, but he’s got pluck and gumption, along with a screenwriter who wanted to turn in the draft before happy hour started at the Trader Vic’s. So he ends up in the race, braving the disdain of his fellow pilots and the crushing wall of clichés in his way to somehow realize his life’s goal.
No overwrought contrivance is left unturned of course, but Planes goes beyond the merely perfunctory into some kind of mystic ideal of laziness. Even the most threadbare underdog story can work if you invest some thought and creativity into its development. (Monsters University being a good case in point.) This one can’t even come up with a good reason why Dusty manages to persevere: only that he really, really wants to. Not because he finds some clever way of exploiting his strengths or discovers some hidden talent he never knew he possessed, but because the film says so. It’s like telling the story of a paralyzed man who wants to win the Boston Marathon, then goes off and does it without ever addressing the fact that he can’t move his legs. Even for a babysitter movie, that’s pushing it.
The imagery does little better, though director Klay Hall is savvy enough to disguise the worst of it. The “beautiful” landscapes display a distressing lack of beauty, and are doled out with miserly reluctance throughout the film’s running time. This causes big problems in a globe-trotting movie, as each stage of the race dissolves beneath dreary hand-waving montages. There’s no dramatic build-up, and no sense of progression towards a climax of any kind. It doesn’t end so much as stop, and since we all know how it’s going to end anyway, we’re left with the impression of a vast empty space in the wake of an actual story.
The low budget is further reflected in the character models. You’ll notice an awful lot of forklifts in this movie, including quite a few in positions that never call for one. Why? Because they couldn’t afford any other models, and so just slap a fresh skin on the existing ones in the hopes that we won’t notice. Add to that a pathetic gaggle of ethnic stereotypes that represent Dusty’s fellow competitors, and you have a product that redefines the term “phoning it in.”
Ostensibly, we’re supposed to forgive that because it’s just for kids. But they can do better and so can Disney. They have no shortage of merchandizing opportunities – the real justification for an effort like this – and a studio (Pixar) that maintains a reputation for high quality even with its lesser efforts. Planes treats that reputation like a used diaper, sacrificing a unimpeachable gold standard with a casual contempt that defies belief. Even worse: there’s a sequel planned for next year, slapped together and rushed out the same way this one was. Hiding the logo can’t begin to make up for the cognitive disconnect here. The utter worthlessness onscreen becomes all the more galling because we can see the heights from which it started... heights that have never felt so remote and distant as they do after sitting through this waste.