Ever show up to the theater completely uninformed? I guess that’s actually a pretty difficult question – if one shows up to a film uninformed, he would hardly be aware of his ignorance, as it defies the definition of the word. The point is, five minutes before stepping into the theater to check out Planes, I had no idea it wasn’t created by Pixar. I made a passing comment about it to my friend, betraying this misinformation, to which he replied “Dude, this isn’t a Pixar film. I heard it’s terrible.” With that sentiment freshly imprinted on my brain, I braced myself and cleared my head to see if I couldn’t extract even the smallest bit of Disney magic from what I was about to see. Despite my best efforts and highest hopes, warm fuzzies were nowhere to be found. Planes is about as bland as Dane Cook in a children’s movie. Oh wait – that’s actually what it is.
The issues with Planes run so very wide and so incredibly deep that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I almost feel as if I ought to simply state its terribleness and highlight its few strong points rather than the normal process of describing the film and highlighting some weaknesses, as the latter could easily occupy five thousand words with no prisoners taken. Of course, the goal of a review is never to senselessly bash something without relent, so I will instead make an attempt at a pre-meditated bashing with some relent.
Planes tells the story of Dusty Crophopper, a mildly awkward but kind-hearted and ambitious crop-duster with aspirations of making it big at the races. Um… you know, that actually sums it up entirely. The plot follows a strict, “unlikely-hero” film school blueprint, and never lets it go even for a second. Dusty flies over the fields each day in existential frustration, daydreaming about racing and being told to abandon his dreams by various other planes and cars around the farm. He has his friends, of course, and they couldn’t be more token. There’s Chug, a goofy, deep-voiced truck with memory loss and a penchant for flatulence jokes, while on the opposite spectrum there’s Dottie, in charge of maintaining Dusty’s general function and early on acting as the naysayer and realist of the bunch.
The early stages of the film are pretty inoffensive, and if Planes had continued along its no-risk path it would have ended up as a dull-but-tolerable summer kid-flick. As much as it pains me to chastise a film for taking risks, almost every deviation Planes makes from the cookie cutter results in embarrassingly stilted dialogue, offensive stereotypes, and plot threads that are spun and then left completely untied and blowing in the wind.
One example is a character known as El Chupacabra, a brawny Mexican plane who (of course) loves quesadillas and is a total failure in the romance department. Now, it’d be one thing if this character was designed to get laughs off of the kids in the audience, or provide side-goofs as the audience takes a breather from the main plot. In fact, I have no doubt that he’s included for just that reason. The problem is — and I see lots of kids movies having this problem lately — he’s just too much of a freak.
Kids are sometimes simplistic or childish, but they’re not stupid. How exactly did Hollywood come to the conclusion that characters who act like maladjusted, floundering spastics are what kids find funny? When El Chupacabra enters the scene and begins spewing painful racial cliches about Mexican food and the language of love, only to culminate with the big laugh — wait for it — “I swish my cape at you!!!!” *Swish.* Dead silence. Even the crickets were embarrassed. I have never heard a theater as quiet as it was after that moment, and as my friend and I shook our heads the young folks in attendance nervously looked around or clawed at their parents hoping for more popcorn or a bathroom break. It’s a true shame that such a thing could occur during a Disney film.
That’s just one example, but similar issues permeate the entire experience. Both of the prominent female planes, the “Pan-Asian champion from India” Ishani and “pride of the Great White North” Rochelle, shamelessly embody the sexy-badass archetype while possessing no further substance whatsoever. Well, what I should say is that they show no further positive substance. As El Chupacabra pursues Rochelle throughout the film, she understandably resists, but all it takes is a slow love song outside her window and she’s completely compromised and showering the brainless brute in kisses the following day. That’s how you win over the ladies, kids! Elsewhere, it’s Ishani who is coerced into trading her dignity for a fancy new propeller, not one of the male planes who are clearly less intelligent (El Chupacabra or the British Bulldog). I don’t mean to go off on a feminist tangent, and I certainly don’t think the filmmakers did anything intentionally, but sometimes obliviousness is even worse than malicious intent. The weak-willed nature of the above females is perplexing and bothersome, and the fact that they both talk in incredibly sexy voices for no apparent reason and are shown flaunting their propellers and rear wings in slow motion does nothing to help the situation.
I could go on about similar problems, such as the “British don’t cry!” proclamation by Bulldog that is apparently common knowledge (yet googling the phrase returns a clip from Planes as the second result), but the real issue comes down to Dusty himself. He’s a nice guy, but I never truly felt like cheering him on. In a word, he’s inoffensive – Disney took plenty of goofy risks with the supporting cast and none with the main character, when maybe what they should have done is the opposite. Towards the film’s end, it is revealed that Dusty’s teacher Skipper wasn’t entirely honest about some details from his past. Rather than realize that Skipper has still been a great teacher and a great friend, however, Dusty instead gets irrationally pissed off and stops talking to him entirely. It was at this point that I kind of just threw my hands in the air. Where in the world is this film attempting to go?
Walking out of the theater, I still hadn’t figured it out. The sad part is, Planes had its moments. A crash scene with an oncoming train was extremely exciting and well done, and the belly of the whale moment where Dottie gives Dusty a pep talk was so heartfelt that I almost shed a tear. That is, until I remembered the rest of the film thus far. It almost felt as if executive producer John Lasseter stepped in at a few opportune moments to patch things up, unable to bear putting his name on a film so completely devoid of Pixar’s trademark humanity. And before anyone points it out, I know Lasseter is credited as coming up with the story too. There’s nothing wrong with the idea behind this tale – it’s the script and overall execution that is flawed.
It’s too bad that Pixar didn’t have a say in whether Planes was allowed to be made. I can’t imagine they’re happy to be associated with it. I mean, look at me – I’m reviewing the damn thing and I didn’t realize it wasn’t Pixar until the last minute. How many everyday filmgoers, parents, or observant kids will walk out confused, shaking their heads, not quite understanding what just happened but unable to shake the feeling that Pixar no longer possesses the magic touch? It’s all just too much to bear. Don’t go see Planes it theaters. Don’t buy it for your kids when it comes on DVD. And please, for the love of all that is good, don’t blame Pixar. I never thought I’d say this, but you should really avoid Disney’s offering at all costs and go see Despicable Me 2 instead.
Planes isn't just tolerable - it's downright bad. It has redeeming moments and is visually pleasing, but overall there's no one target audience that will truly enjoy what Disney has to offer here.