The relative decline of the quality of Pixar’s animated features has at least one benefit: its presumed effect on corporate sibling rivalry. Disney animated features don’t have as much catching up to do. “Planes,” Disney’s latest, seems, in fact, like a lesser version of what may be Pixar’s two weakest efforts, the “Cars” movies. That likeness may have something to do with the fact that Disney animation chief John Lasseter, who directed and co-wrote the Pixar titles, is executive producer and co-writer of “Planes.”
Like “Cars,” “Planes” features vehicles with faces and personalities — mostly aircraft, of course, but also trucks and forklifts and, yes, cars. Propellers make for nice nose substitutes. Chief among the personalities is Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook). He’s a single-engine crop-duster — “built for seed not speed,” as one rival puts it — who dreams of winning the Wings Around the Globe air race. If that setup recalls last month’s animated release from DreamWorks Animation, “Turbo,” about a snail who dreams of winning the Indy 500, well, at least “Planes” has clouds to fly through. Aviation offers all sorts of possibilities to animators’ imaginations, and “Planes” isn’t shy about pursuing them.
The movie starts out slow, poky even. “I’ve flown thousands of miles — and I’ve never been anywhere,” Dusty laments. Once he gets away from Propwash Junction, where he practices “the sweet science of aerial application,” “Planes” picks up airspeed. Dusty’s pals in Propwash — forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher), fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett), retired Navy Corsair fighter plane Skipper (Stacy Keach) — are all as amiable as the movie itself. But they’re a bit earthbound. That’s not true of the collection of international racers Dusty is up against in Wings Around the Globe.
Dusty’s rivals flirt with ethnic stereotyping, but so good-naturedly the film gets away with it. And the villainous favorite, Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), is American. John Cleese doesn’t have much to do as Bulldog, an English plane, but when has having John Cleese around been a bad thing? Priyanka Chopra (the voice that woman has!) is Ishani, an Indian plane, with a rear-mounted propeller, no less. Best of all is Carlos Alazraqui, as a Mexican plane. He is to “Planes” as Antonio Banderas’s Puss in Boots is to the “Shrek” movies — which is to say, he walks away with the picture. When Alazraqui’s plane, El Chupacabra, serenades the French-Canadian competitor, Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), with a mariachi version of the Miracles’ “Love Machine,” it’s so inspired it’s worthy of Pixar.
“Planes” has some wonderfully goofy, even ineffable, touches. In Bavaria, the aviation fuel is served in beer steins. For some crazy reason, “The Girl From Ipanema” is playing when Dusty arrives in Iceland on the first leg of the race. Birds are gliders. Someone watches FlewTube on his skyPad. An aircraft carrier is named the USS Dwight D. Flysenhower. The sight of Skipper lowering his retractable wings is startlingly beautiful— in its realistic way as much a miracle of aviation animation as the various impossible stunts plausibly presented throughout the movie.
A word of caution: The final third of “Planes” includes a crash landing at sea and a World War II flashback that are likely to seem very intense — too much so? — for small children.