"Planes," the new animated action adventure from Disney, is a jaunty excursion into the wild blue yonder where planes do the talking, as well as the flying, and a crop-dusting underdog dreams of making the Wings Around the Globe racing circuit.
If all that sounds as if it's from another era, that's because the film feels like old-school Disney. The good guys are well-grounded and doing a lot of "by Jiminy" talking about what it takes to have the right stuff. The bad guys aren't so awful. And dreams don't seem impossible. Even the hard-rock soundtrack has a nostalgic beat.
You'd know it was from the folks who created "Cars" even if the ads didn't scream it. The film looks drawn by the same hand (yes, I know computers are involved). The general shape of things is nicely rounded, not too many harsh edges. The eyes are expressive; a few look slightly sleepy. The color palette feels stone-washed and dreamy. As with "Cars," the world of "Planes" feels safe. A little too safe, perhaps.
I did wonder what kind of magic it would take to make a plane that spews chemicals over farmland into a hero, but between the artistry of the animation and the voice of comic Dane Cook, Dusty Crophopper is kind of a cool cat. One of the running jokes is a certain lingering smell….
Dusty's stuck in a place called Prop Wash Junction, surrounded by endless acres of green growing things so lush and lovely that it's hard to imagine wanting to leave. But the single-engine prop has his eyes on the prize — he's determined to win that international race.
Directed by Klay Hall and written by Jeffrey M. Howard, the plot keeps circling around the idea of how the old ways and the new ways can coexist rather than collide. It's only one of "Planes'" many feel-good messages, at times laid on about as thickly as that crop dust.
Meanwhile, our hero is an unlikely one. Dusty's not especially sleek like his nemesis Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). A sprayer on his belly weighs him down. His engine needs fine-tuning. And he has a serious fear of heights. Anything above 1,000 feet and he's in a stomach-churning nose dive. But given flyboy edge by Cook, Dusty is the one who propels the action.
The film opens with Dusty dreaming while he and Leadbottom (Cedric the Entertainer) spray and debate the virtues of leaving home versus staying. Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and Chug (Brad Garrett) own the local service station and do their part to keep Dusty in working order. Just as Lightening had an assist from a legendary race car driver in "Cars," famously voiced by Paul Newman, Dusty has Skipper (Stacy Keach). He's a local recluse and a former fighter pilot whom Dusty enlists to train him. You can tell the filmmakers love planes and flight, there are lots of specifics — it can be a little much.
When the tiny prop plane finally makes racing's big leagues, the film starts to pick up speed.
The race is the place where most of the movie's conflicts play out and many of the characters come on board. In line with the action movie trend of pan-Asian romance, Dusty falls for Ishani (Priyanka Chopra). John Cleese as Bulldog provides the British stiff upper lip and a latte snap. The international influences seem calibrated to enhance overseas box office potential. There is not a villain among them, unless you count El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), the movie's scene stealer.
I don't know what it is about animation per se, but it seems to unleash the inner Don Juan in actors and animators alike. "Shrek" had its irresistible Puss in Boots brought to marvelous life by Antonio Banderas. Alazraqui does the same for "Planes" with El Chu. Though his passion for Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a slick pink Canadian number from Quebec with the accent to match, is unrequited, his wooing is relentless. It is the film at its most charming.
And now a moment of silence. For the sound.
It plays a distinctive role in "Planes," so a shout-out to the multitudes involved. Sound is always a key element in every film, but the way in which the filmmakers manipulate it in "Planes" is especially inventive. The silence, when it comes, is so surprising and so complete that it's a grabber.
For a movie about planes, a lot happens on the ground — those refueling stops can take forever. But the animators take advantage of the power of flight, packing the action sequences with daredevil runs. But it's a race, and a kind of sameness occasionally sets in. The slingshot launches off an aircraft carrier that comes to Dusty's aid provide a needed injection of adrenaline.
Ripslinger doesn't always play on the up and up. And after more than a few ups and downs, Dusty finds out who his real friends are — and more important — what he's made of. The film struggles with the same issues. If it had been made of stronger stuff, more like Dusty, "Planes" might have soared.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild action and rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In general release
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