Pixar Animation has been a wondrous success story, churning out hit after hit that pleased children while stirring the emotions and intellects of grown-ups. “Finding Nemo”? “WALL-E”? Those weren’t just great pieces of entertainment for kiddies; they were works of great art.
Lately we’ve seen the inevitable doldrums period, where ideas are being recycled and productions are being handed over to a new wave of creators. “Cars 2,” “Brave” and “Monsters University” were pleasant enough but missing that spark of creative flourish that had been the Pixar hallmark.
This is the first time, though, that it feels like they just aren’t trying very hard.
I suppose “Planes” isn’t really a Pixar movie, since it doesn’t carry the label and comes out of the larger Disney umbrella corporation — with an animation arm from Mumbai, India, providing much of the heavy lifting.
But it’s a direct continuation of the “Cars” universe (“From Above the World of Cars,” to use the poster tagline), was executive-produced by Pixar kingpin John Lasseter, and features the voice talents of some key Pixar veterans (Brad Garrett and John Ratzenberger).
Those who would like to quibble about me knocking Pixar for the lackluster qualities of a movie that’s technically not a Pixar product are missing the point. The very fact that the once-infallible geniuses would be willing to spin out a down-market clone of their intellectual creation is a demonstration of how the studio has lost its stamp of specialness.
“Planes” feels like a made-for-TV flick with a higher-than-average budget for CG animation. Overall, the looks of the film are decent, although the humanizing of aircraft doesn’t work quite as well as it did with cars. With their windshields as eyes and propellers as noses, their outstretched wings make them seem like they’re perpetually telling you how they did something thhhiiiisss muuuuuuuch!
Alas, the storytelling is not on par with the visuals. Screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard and director Klay Hall, who both got their start with Disney “Tinker Bell” videos, approach the material with pre-adolescent assumptions and mindsets.
It plays out as a pretty standard be-who-you-are message, with Dusty Crophopper as a lowly crop-dusting plane who dreams of competing in the Wings Around the Globe race.
He’s sort of a diametrical opposite of Lightning McQueen, who suffered from too much confidence. But the familiar roles of curmudgeonly older mentor and humorous truck sidekick are filled by Skipper (Stacy Keach), a broken-down Navy legend, and Chug, the goofy fueler (Garrett).
Dusty faces some setbacks but manages to get into the race and make a serious run at it, impressing the doubting crowds and surprising the sneering longtime champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). He also befriends El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a Mexican stunt plane with an outsized personality, and Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), the Far East champion.
Rounding out the cast are John Cleese as an unctuous Brit flyer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a French Canadian racer and Teri Hatcher as Dusty’s mechanic/coach.
There are few surprises in the plot, including some nefarious schemes by the villain and the facing of fears by the good guys. In Dusty’s case, this includes a phobia of heights — funny stuff for a plane, huh? Right?
Dane Cook, a rather generic comedian and actor, makes for a pretty generic vocal stand-in for Dusty. He doesn’t have a particularly memorable voice and doesn’t infuse the character with any distinct inflections or personality.
Bland and too afraid to soar for the heights — much the same could be said for “Planes.” Whether you want to label it Pixar or not, it’s like watching a play in which all the stars broke their legs at once and the audience has to make do with the understudies.