“Planes” is a pleasant surprise.
Not a huge one, that’s for sure. So no, it isn’t even close to the caliber of film that one might think belongs with those a few years ago that made us wonder if computer animation hadn’t put us into a Golden Age of Animation. And yes, this movie, then, is many miles away from masterpieces like “Wall-E,” “Up” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” not to mention wisecracking winners like the “Shrek” films.
But so, too, is this Disney animated feature many miles above the most recent miniaturizing malarkey from Disney, namely “Monsters University,” a fantasy whose essential rah-rah dimwit version of university life would have seemed old-fashioned in 1963.
There’s something appealingly open-aired and exhilarating and even international about this fantasy about a lowly little crop duster who yearns to enter the “Wings Around the Globe” air race and compete with the fast, high-flying likes of legendary hot dog champ Ripslinger.
Let’s cede that the plot is almost an exact reproduction of its parent film “Cars,” but despite the novel appearance of Paul Newman, in late life, in that one as a cartoon voice, I like “Planes” a good deal more. Our ambitious little cropduster (Dane Cook) – who rebels against the hopeless modesty of his created purpose – goes to a legendary and austere old World War II fighter plane named Skipper (voiced gloriously by Stacy Keach) for advice on how to compete with the bigger and faster planes.
But along the way, Dusty’s inherent kindness and fellow feeling for his competitors picks up allies just by being the soul of middle American virtue. So when the harrumph harrumph British competitor named Bulldog (John Cleese, no less) runs into trouble, there’s humble little Dusty the Cropduster flying right along with him and coaching him through difficulties at low altitudes he wouldn’t know how to deal with otherwise.
And when the amorous Mexican plane El Chupacabra clumsily woos the beauteous tail-swishing French Canadian airplane Rochelle with a raunchy version of “I’m Just a Love Machine,” it’s little Dusty who advises him that he’d be a lot more successful if he slowed the Motown classic down and sang it with romantic violins.
Voila. The two competing planes make beautiful music together.
As Dusty eventually does with a sleek and sexy competitor from India, too.
Dusty, of course, does have a flaw much worse than being small and single-purpose (“maybe I can do more than I was built for”). He’s afraid of heights – not exactly a quality that puts one in the forefront at air races. But there’s war hero Skipper there to cheer him on.
That’s not what’s modestly exhilarating about it for kids and everyone else. Whereas “Cars” was a confident entry into NASCAR America, “Planes” comes from an older, less populous child’s fantasy – of being up in the air and soaring through the clouds while looking down on all the little specks on earth.
If you’re a sucker for airplane fantasies (confession: one of my nominees for most underrated film of all time will always be John Guillermin’s marvelous “The Blue Max”), the flight scenes are fine here. And how can you resist a film that luxuriates in planes traveling around our magnificent globe – gliding past the Taj Mahal in India, over the Himalayas in Nepal, taking off from aircraft carriers in the Pacific?
And the voices? Set aside Cook and Julia Louis-Drefus as the sexy French Canadian airplane. We’re talking Cleese here, for pity’s sake, in a movie with Keach, Brad Garrett, Cedric the Entertainer, Larry the Cable Guy, Sinbad and – get this– Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer doing voice cameos as nasty little helpers to the unethical Ripslinger.
Kids at the screening were happy enough, despite some bathroom traffic. Adults won’t feel burdened. As these things go, a modest win-win situation.
With the voices of: Dane Cook, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stacy Keach, Teri Hatcher, Brad Garrett
Director: Klay Hall
Running time: 92 minutes
Rating: PG for mild action and rude humor.
The Lowdown: Dusty, the little cropduster, yearns to compete with bigger faster planes.