Planes is DisneyToon Studios’ first US theatrical release since Bambi II in 2006. The film follows crop duster, tractor plane Dusty, who dreams of being a racing plane in the high-flying air competition.
Within the clouds, Planes opens 'in the world of Cars' - as if to gently remind viewers 'this is not Cars' and the films are only connected by existing in the same universe - but it feels like the message is saying ‘if you thought this was a Cars sequel, you’re right to feel confused but you are wrong.’ This problematic detail will affect the older viewers, but, for little ones, it will be the sole reason for wanting to see Planes: it looks just like Cars. Furthermore, Brent Mustangburger, the race commentator from Cars 2, reprises his role, as well as a cameo appearance from a beloved Pixar name.
Maybe it's some sort of psychological effect, knowing Planes wasn't first intended for a theatrical release, but the film feels very much like a direct-to-DVD film. The story is actually very basic: an underdog farm plane, who dreams of racing in the big league, gets the chance and, well... so on. It's an average-length family film, which isn't a negative in any sense, if anything the film rarely feels slow. But the actual main event of the race begins within the first ten or fifteen minutes, and then the rest of the story is that race. The characters don't have a build-up or a history because they don't need one for the uncomplicated story; it’s simply about Dusty going from being a plane that isn’t built to compete in races, to living his dream.
The voice talent is quite a delight - considering this is one of Disney's lesser-known films of 2013, there are still some big-name stars there. The great Brad Garrett is Chug, Dusty’s buddy; and John Cleese as British Bulldog, though underused, is superb (a few British stereotypes are highlighted as a funny gag). The best character, and the one children will adore, is Mexican plane El Chupacabra, a passionate lover and flyer who Dusty becomes good pals with. Despite the characters not having any real characterization - in some cases being very 2D - they're not a fault with Planes.
The progression of the race engages the audience well; it’s not a little 10 lap race, but a race across the globe with nightly check-in points, so the entire race is Dusty’s story. Dusty slowly becomes more confident, El Chupacabra gets determined to woo Rochelle, and the film’s bad guy, Ripslinger, feels worried that Dusty may get in the way of his winning streak. It's pretty standard storytelling, but the development of the story is still entertaining for a while.
Another Cars similarity is the calm rock anthem style music played during races and over the credits, making it constantly feel like a feel-good movie- the good feeling just won’t last too long for the mind. The animation itself, though more or less exactly like Cars, is pretty and colourful, making it another Disney treat for the eyes. There are no experiments with the animation, but Planes plays it safe.
Planes isn’t something that is going to be a highlight of 2013 - neither is it going to be a memorable Disney film - but it works. There are likable characters, some very Disney-cutesty lines and jokes, and the 3D (mostly in the sky scenes) is bold, so it’s not something you should dismiss right away.
Of course, being Disney, Planes has a lot of heart but it doesn't elevate to the heights Dusty aims to go to. It’s worth getting around to watch, but it doesn't make for a must-see theatrical release but rather something you’d pick up cheap in a shop for a lazy afternoon.