Crash and burn
John Lasseter was the driving force behind Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars and the rise of Pixar Animation Studios. He’s currently the creative head of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios; he also sports the title of principal creative consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering, which designs and builds attractions for the Disney theme parks in Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Paris; Hong Kong; and Tokyo. The gossip is that in recent years, Lasseter has been so preoccupied with developing Cars Land for Disney California Adventure, that he’s been shortchanging the moviemaking end of the business. Planes offers discouraging support for this rumor. Lasseter used to make clever, original and innovative movies; now he makes promos for coming theme-park rides.
A couple of weeks back, reviewing Turbo, I reproached DreamWorks Animation for its obsession with outdoing Pixar; thus, it’s embarrassing to report that Planes is Turbo in almost every detail, right down to the hero’s loveable Mexican sidekick. The only difference is that in Turbo, the sidekick was human, while in Planes, he’s another airplane. Both Turbo and Planes have heroes with impossible dreams: Turbo the snail wanted to compete in the Indianapolis 500; here, a lowly crop duster, aptly named Dusty Crophopper (voice by Dane Cook) longs to enter a round-the-world air race. Playing hare to Dusty’s tortoise is Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), an arrogant multiyear champion determined not only to beat Dusty, but to grind his propeller into the dust somewhere along the way.
You needn’t have seen Turbo to get a sense of déjagrave; vu from Planes—almost any follow-your-dream movie will do. Planes cleaves to the formula with excruciating precision: the setup of Dusty’s dream, the help he gets from a veteran fighter-plane mentor (Stacy Keach), Dusty’s embarking on his journey and the amusingly eccentric character planes he meets, the subplot of the Mexican plane sidekick (Carlos Alazraqui) and his French-Canadian inamorata (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the mounting obstacles as the bad guys circle for the kill, the all-is-lost crisis, Dusty’s “dark night of the soul,” his climactic renewed effort, and the inevitable triumphant finale. Every tick of the plot comes along as steady and predictable as the action of a Swiss clock (but without the cuckoo). Lacking suspense or surprises, the movie offers nothing to occupy us but trying to identify its celebrity voices. (I decided Dusty’s voice belonged to Ryan Reynolds, until the credits told me it was Dane Cook’s. Oh yeah, Reynolds did the hero’s voice in Turbo.)
Giving credit where it’s due, the animation in Planes is never less than stunning. The opening shot, as Dusty daydreams himself into a race with two military muscle planes, looks so real that it isn’t until the planes start to talk (with mouths in their nose cones like the bygone jets of Pacific Southwest Airlines) that we realize we’re watching animation. We’ve come to expect nothing less from Pixar.
Planes, however, isn’t actually from Pixar, but from DisneyToon Studios, a subsidiary that usually produces direct-to-video cartoon features—various adventures of Tinker Bell and Winnie-the-Pooh, sequels to earlier Disney features (Bambi, The Lion King, Cinderella, Brother Bear), etc. Planes was originally going straight to video as well, but it’s now in theaters, no doubt to provide a higher profile for the ride that’s sure to come. It’s probably already off the drawing board and under construction—a flight simulator like Star Tours, the Star Wars ride, beginning with a leisurely crop-dusting jaunt, then accelerating into a replay of Dusty’s race from New York to Europe, India and China, across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico, and finally back home. No doubt it’ll end up in Disney’s California Adventure, in the aviation-themed Condor Flats area, where there’s currently only the hang-glider ride, Soarin’ Over California, which is beginning to show its age.
Planes keeps us tapping our feet impatiently for more than an hour-and-a-half—we know where this is going, so quit fooling around and get there already!—but the ride (Dusty’s Globe-trot?) will have us in and out and on our way much more quickly. That’ll certainly be a switch: a feature-length preview trailer for a five-minute main attraction.