It's damning with faint praise, but Disney's new airborne franchise is more fun than the automotive one that spawned it
Parents who have accompanied their children to a lot of movies this summer will be forgiven if Dusty Crophopper, the hero of “Planes,” feels more than a little familiar.
Like Mike in “Monsters University,” his dreams don't match his size; like Smurfette in “The Smurfs 2,” he wants to forge a destiny different than the one he was born into; and like Turbo in “Turbo,” he defies the odds to enter a race that no one thinks he can handle.
As cookie-cutter and as shameless an attempt by Disney to sell more bedspreads and bookbags to the under-10 market as “Planes” is, it nonetheless manages to be inoffensively entertaining, a minor lark that will at least mildly amuse anyone who ever thrust their arms outward and pretended to soar over the landscape.
And while this may be the definition of damning with faint praise, “Planes” winds up being way more fun than either of the “Cars” movies, in whose universe this globe-trotting tale takes place.
Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook), as his name implies, spends his days spraying mulch over farms. (And lest you wonder why there are crops in a world full of machines, there's a throwaway line about corn-based fuels.) During his monotonous work hours, however, Dusty dreams of entering a round-the-world race that's reserved only for the sleekest and most powerful of planes.
Thanks to the support of mechanic/forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and best pal/fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett), and coaching from war veteran/Navy Corsair Skipper (Stacy Keach), Dusty makes it to the big time. Most of the other racers are aloof to the little duster — only the gregarious El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) takes Dusty under his wings — but our hero eventually wins over his competitors, particularly after he saves the life of British racer Bulldog (John Cleese).
Meanwhile, returning champion Ripslinger (veteran voice actor Roger Craig Smith) commits every dirty trick possible to eliminate Dusty from the race, lest the competition be overrun with “skywriters and banner-draggers.”
So you can pretty much guess where “Planes” is going and how it's going to get there; what makes it fun to watch are the cool little touches provided by writer Jeffery M. Howard and director Klay Hall, both making the leap to the big screen after toiling in the worlds of TV cartoons and made-for-DVD animated sequels.
We know, for instance, that El Chupacabra is going to aggressively woo French-Canadian airplane Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus; “Seinfeld” viewers will get the joke behind the character's name), but turning the disco hit “Love Machine” into a soulful mariachi ballad makes for a nice surprise. And when Dusty takes flight with his South Asian love interest Ishani (Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra), they soar through a flock of paper cranes that scatter like seagulls in one of the film's most visually compelling sequences.
If nothing else, here's a movie that's made up almost entirely of flying scenes, and offering up a POV from the clouds always bumps up the 3D experience a notch or two. “Planes” isn't one for the ages, but in a summer full of ho-hum kids’ fare, being a little better than OK counts as enough to sail above the competition.