Film Review: ‘Planes’

Planes Review

This endlessly merchandisable picture could very well soar at the box office, but it won’t stick the landing where word of mouth is concerned.

A “Cars” spinoff that seems to have taken an unfortunate detour through “It’s a Small World,” “Planes” is so overrun with broad cultural stereotypes that it should come with free ethnic-sensitivity training for especially impressionable kids. Produced outside the auspices of Pixar and showing it in every uninspired particular, this formulaic underdog story — about a lowly cropduster who dreams of joining the fast flyers in an international air race — feels heavily geared toward small fry at the expense of grown-up interest. Diverting in bits and pieces, but absent the heart, soul and ingenuity one associates with the best of Disney animation, the endlessly merchandisable picture could very well soar at the box office, but it won’t stick the landing where word of mouth is concerned.

Although the “Cars” movies rank relatively low in the estimation of most Pixar devotees, they are known to occupy a special place in the heart of exec producer John Lasseter (chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios), and “Planes” does have some of the rural American charm of the first “Cars” and the globe-trotting sweep of the second. What it doesn’t have, in the hands of director Klay Hall and scribe Jeffrey M. Howard (both veterans of Disney’s “Tinker Bell” homevid franchise), is the sophisticated story sense and visual pizzazz of even a middling Pixar effort. The film was originally slated for direct-to-video release this fall, and while its upgrade to the theatrical big leagues stands to fill Mouse House coffers several times over, the result feels like an indifferent smallscreen quickie through and through.

A Creamsicle-colored single-propeller plane who spends his days spreading something called Vitaminamulch across the same stretch of Midwest cornfield, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian-actor Dane Cook) dreams of a more exciting, less agriculture-focused life as a high-flying racer plane. Although he’s roundly mocked by his bigger, shinier rivals, Dusty is speedier than he looks and, after wowing the spectators at a local tryout, succeeds in landing the coveted final spot in a prestigious race around the world. “Maybe, just maybe, I can do more than what I was built for,” he says, positioning himself alongside the improbable aspirational heroes of “Ratatouille,” “Turbo” and numerous other fish-out-of-water toon fables.

Naturally, there must be some dramatic turbulence en route to the finish line, some of which is supplied by the ironic revelation that Dusty has a fear of extreme heights and hopes to maintain a fairly low altitude during the race. Helping him to work on his moves and get over his phobia are his four-wheeled friends Chug (Brad Garrett) and Dottie (Teri Hatcher), who, like most of the cars here, are always on hand to provide their winged brethren with engine repairs, cheers from the stands and overall moral support. But Dusty’s most valuable assistance comes from Skipper Riley (Stacey Keach), a long-retired Navy Corsair who used to fly daring missions during WWII, and who plays the same crusty mentor role here that Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson did in “Cars.”

So far, so smooth. But “Planes” takes a major dip once the race begins and Dusty starts making his way east from New York. With the exception of the smug, unscrupulous Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), a world-champion racer determined to hold onto his title at any cost, Dusty’s rivals almost all hail from different countries. There’s Bulldog (John Cleese), a stuffy, emotionless Brit; Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a sleek, dainty French-Canadian; Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), a striking Indian beauty who becomes an exotic love interest for Dusty; and El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a chubby, boisterous Mexican who’s also a wrestler, telenovela star and recording artist.

Funny accents and goofy shtick have of course long been a staple of toons for tots, and in the surreally anthropomorphic, human-free version of planet Earth that is “Disney’s World of Cars” (as it’s billed in the opening credits), this sort of cultural lampoonery provides an easy access point and a steady vein of relatable humor. But by the time El Chupacabra serenades Rochelle with a makeshift mariachi band, or when Dusty arrives in Asia and flies over a field of cars wearing bamboo hats, the rampant stereotyping has long exceeded the limits of what’s cute and acceptable for an ostensibly innocuous family entertainment. At the very least, it makes for a dispiritingly repetitive, one-joke movie.

If the humor is often in questionable taste, the dramatic beats play it far safer, throwing in a few supporting-character twists that momentarily shake Dusty’s faith in his comrades, but ultimately setting the brave little cropduster on a clear path to fulfilling his dreams, overcoming his fears, and realizing the value and meaning of friendship. It’s pleasant, life-affirming stuff, unlikely to rattle the foundations of any but the youngest tots in the audience.

Cook delivers a solid, capable turn as a loyal, good-hearted plane who often veers from overconfidence to insecurity, although there’s little he and his fine co-stars can do to deepen viewer investment in these chrome-and-steel characters, never the easiest individuals to warm to even when there’s a decent script involved.

The smoothly animated aerial sequences add lovely visual grace notes, while the detailed renderings of Iceland, Germany, India, Nepal, China and Mexico (where the racers make scheduled stops for refueling) provide nonstop visual variety. Overall, however, an underwhelming televisual quality persists; the riotous, almost abstract blurs of motion and color that made “Cars 2” such a feast for the eyes are little in evidence here, and the use of 3D doesn’t add much to the experience. The end credits include a plug for the next picture in the series, “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” set to be released theatrically July 18.

Film Review: 'Planes'

Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, July 27, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 91 MIN.


A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Disney presentation. Produced by Traci Balthazor-Flynn. Executive producer, John Lasseter. Co-producer, Ken Tsumura.


Directed by Klay Hall. Screenplay, Jeffrey M. Howard; original story, John Lasseter, Hall, Howard. (Color, 3D); editor, Jeremy Milton; music, Mark Mancina; executive music supervisor, Matt Walker; music supervisor, Brett Swain; art director, Ryan Carlson; animation director, Sheryl Sardina Sackett; head of story, Dan Abraham; sound designers/supervising sound editors (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Todd Toon, Rob Nokes; re-recording mixers, David E. Fluhr, Adam Jenkins; associate producers, Tony Cosanella, Kip Lewis; casting, Jason Henkel.


Voices: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Carlos Alazraqui, Roger Craig Smith, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Sinbad, Gabriel Iglesias, Brent Musburger, Colin Cowherd, Danny Mann, Oliver Kalkofe, John Ratzenberger.

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  1. John Freimann says:

    I believe that you might be wrong. Mr. Ebert was seldom “brutal”; what he was, was always “fair”.

  2. Mr. Chang, I’ve read a few of your pieces. I must say they can be brutal. But damned if I don’t think the late great Ebert would be proud.

  3. Kuan-Jen Mao says:

    Thanks, Justin CHANG for telling us what stereotypes and what quantity we should find offensive… Over and over and over again. How about making a some attempt at staying on point when reviewing a film? Maybe try focusing your word count on things like plot and pacing? And I really don’t care what the merchandising outlook is on a movie either- it’s the first thing mentioned. Somehow I doubt it plays much of a part in the viewing experience- unless you happen to be buyer for Target.

    • guylodge says:

      Actually, the merchandising outlook is a key point in a review for a trade paper, which is what Variety is.

      • Kuan-Jen Mao says:

        Fair enough. But I suspect Ebert would have gotten the “something called Vitaminamulch”. Yes, it’s an old reference, but this guy do have “Senior” next to his name.

  4. Bill says:

    Wow, do people really live their lives getting this upset over supposedly offensive “stereotypes?”

  5. Just Confused says:

    Sorry John,
    BUT I’ve got to disagree. THIS reviewer is “quickly” becoming THE ONE to read.
    Go back and dig out his Woody Allen “BLUE JASMINE” for an amazingly in depth (yes it is l —-o— -n—g) and brilliant review. VARIETY you are so lucky to have this guy, I hope you appreciated him! HIS review is the one I reach for FIRST!
    ONE LAST WORD to JOHN…you spent YEARS learning HOW TO READ, now make your underappreciated English teachers proud and spend a few minutes just doing it! You think that review was long? Read any good BOOKS lately?
    SURELY you remember


    And, NO, I’m not, calling you SHIRLEY!


  6. John Freimann says:

    Boy, that was a long review. Actually, I didn’t even finish it. I got the gist in the first paragraph; so why read on. Amazing how boring a review can get. While telling everyone how they should have made their film, perhaps they should apply some of that advise to their own writings.

    • Johnnie says:

      I agree. I just go to RT, read the number and decide if a movie is good or not.
      If I have to, you know, read stuff, then forget it.
      Tweet your opinion…if you must. And even that’s kinda long, but I can handle it.

    • davebaxter says:

      Except you admit that you got the point in one paragraph (which is indeed the point of the initial, summary paragraph). So obviously the writer did their job well. Just like in exercise: if you can feel all the burn in a shorter motion, that means your form is dead on, but you should finish the full range of motion anyway.

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