When Disney announced their once direct-to-video animated film “Planes” was actually destined for the big screen, no one expected it could actually be good. Billed as being “from above the world of ‘Cars’” – but not actually a Pixar-produced movie – “Planes” was sputtering from the beginning. And when well-liked lead voice actor Jon Cryer was replaced by adult comedian Dane Cook, expectations truly took a nose dive. But somehow, DisneyToon Studios managed to pull together a movie that looks almost as good as anything Pixar has created, featuring enough laughs and likable characters to warrant its big screen release.
The first half of “Planes” is horribly derivative. It’s like watching “Cars” with “Planes.” There’s the lead plane, Dusty Crophopper, who wants to be in a big race. He’s in a middle-of-nowhere rural town, wanting to break free into stardom. He’s got a best friend truck, Chug, who’s not all there but still makes a great pal. He eventually finds guidance under a gruff old retired plane, Skipper, whose own backstory and motivation comes as a surprise to everyone. And there’s the bad plane, Ripslinger, green in color, full of himself and determined to stop Dusty. Now substitute “plane” for “car” along with Lightning McQueen, Mater, Doc Hudson, and Chick Hicks for Dusty, Chug, Skipper, and Ripslinger and you’re left with essentially the same movie, but in the air – above the world of “Cars.”
Fortunately, somewhere along the production flight path somebody realized that “Planes” needed to be its own film. So around halfway through the movie, Dusty encounters some serious trouble that sends him on unexpected course that separates “Planes” from “Cars” in a big way. There’s high flying action, suspense, humor, and even a few heartfelt moments. Suddenly the rehash of a movie becomes something original and fun, especially as its secondary characters – who are entirely stereotypical and one-dimensional when introduced – become interesting and developed, moving the story along instead of just popping up for comic relief. (Though the Mexican plane El Chupacabra is actually funny throughout the film, uttering the movie’s best catch phrase.)
And after all that, somehow “Planes” lands with satisfaction.
Though the film may not have actually been animated at DisneyToon Studios’ Glendale headquarters (the credits full of Indian names make that pretty obvious), it’s still an enjoyable ride once it moves past trying to be “Cars” in the air. With a sequel already planned, called “Fire and Rescue,” Disney obviously has faith in the “Planes” franchise as a follow-up to “Cars.” It’s not likely that Dusty and Chug will ever be as popular as Lightning and Mater, but at least the new movie didn’t completely crash and burn.