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.
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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.