By Peter Hartlaub
New York Times News Service
“I am more than just a cropduster!” Dusty Crophopper exclaims at the beginning of “Planes,” and it’s hard not to sigh.
In recent years we’ve seen a penguin that wants to dance, a video game villain who wants to be a good guy and, most recently, a snail that wants to be a race car. The children of the world get it. You can be whatever you want if you work really hard and have a couple of charming sidekicks.
But after a trying first act, this DisneyToon Studios release finds a nice cruising altitude, embarking on a world tour that yields some pleasant surprises. “Planes” was supposed to debut direct-to-video, before Disney decided it was deserving of the big screen. (Story idea: A video store cassette that dreams of being a theatrical release!) “Planes” is no “Toy Story 2,” but it was certainly worthy of the promotion.
Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) is a small town cropduster, who finds a mentor in a relic war plane named Skipper (Stacy Keach), and yearns to compete in a grand prix-style race around the world. If that sounds like “Cars” and “Cars 2” — the movie poster tagline also references the connection — know that this film efforts to distance itself from its Pixar distant cousins. There’s no Lightning McQueen. No Radiator Springs. Even John Ratzenberger gets to voice a completely new character. Looking at the history of spinoffs as related to their source material, “Planes” feels less like “The Penguins of Madagascar” and more like “Prometheus.”
The sidekicks, training sequences and mentor/trainee growing pains in “Planes” have a familiar feel.
The first 30 minutes sometimes feels like more of a checklist than a movie. However, once Dusty earns his wings, screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard and the story team seem to get more adventurous as well. Much fun is had with the destinations, whether it’s a temple in India or an aircraft carrier.
Dusty’s suave Latin friend El Chupacabra has an excellent serenading scene, which starts with a “Say Anything” reference, before turning into something original and sweet.
The main story arc remains predictable, with several themes — including Dusty’s fear of heights and Skipper’s mysterious military background — reaching inevitable conclusions. But the smaller details remain fresh. When Dusty gets to New York, the JFK Airport air traffic controllers have Kennedy-esque accents, and the Statue of Liberty appears to be a forklift.
(Three films into this sort-of series, it’s time to ask what has happened to all the humans in these movies. Was there some kind of “Maximum Overdrive”-style takeover, or does the fact that no enslaved humans remain mean that mankind never existed at all? In any case, adults shouldn’t do drugs and watch “Cars” or “Planes.”)
Airplane buffs are going to have a particularly good time; each of the planes seems to have an obscure real-life counterpart. And pop culture junkies will appreciate a few sly nods as well. Listen very carefully to the voices of Bravo and Echo, the two F-18 Hornets that Dusty meets in the middle of the film.
The biggest enemy of “Planes” may be misinformation. Many movie-goers are going to enter theaters thinking this is a Pixar film, with the raised expectations that accompany that mistake. But even cynical animation fans will see there’s quality here. After a little turbulence, “Planes” comes in for a nice landing.