Planes is not a Pixar movie, but it badly wants to be. More to the point, the Walt Disney Company wants you to think that Planes is from Pixar. Though the Pixar Animation Studios logo does not appear in the film—and it shouldn’t, because the movie was animated by the people at DisneyToon Studios, even if the short film that inspired Planes was created by those at Pixar’s Canadian studio—there are more than enough hallmarks of Pixar’s work present within that could fool you. The first thing on screen after the Walt Disney Pictures logo is the moniker “World of Cars,” with the last word designed a la the title cards for Cars and Cars 2. John Lasseter, the head of Pixar Animation Studios, Disney’s Chief Creative Officer, and the man who’s almost singlehandedly spearheaded the Cars movement to the point where it has its own land in a theme park, co-wrote the story for Planes and is its executive producer. To cap it all off, John Ratzenberger, long known as Pixar’s good-luck charm, makes a cameo appearance. (No, he doesn’t voice the Mack truck from Cars, but a different character, even though cars exist in the world of Planes. Try not to think about it too much.)
But Planes is not a Pixar movie, which simply makes all of those signs more troubling. Now, granted, if you’re reading this article, you probably don’t need to be reminded about Planes’ true origins. You may even have reached the point where you wish you could forget the film exists. (This writer certainly does, especially after seeing the finished product.) However, it’s important to deal with Planes because it represents a crass low for Disney and, by association, Pixar. Some people will walk out of Planes and shrug, saying something along the following lines: “Well, it could’ve been worse.” “Well, it was a way to waste a couple of hours and keep the kids occupied with something new.” “Well, I’d rather my kids, or the kids I babysit, or my nieces and nephews, or my cousins, watch this instead of Cars for the 100th time.” In essence, people are going to make excuses for Planes, excuses that the movie does not deserve, especially from the paying public instead of studio executives or creatives.
Some people at Pixar may wish to pretend that Planes doesn’t exist—there have been cases where Pixar employees have stated the first sentence of this article, for example, to emphasize that they don’t want to be connected with the film, or included in any serious discussion about it. Here, at least, it’s worth pointing out that the burden has fallen on dedicated fans, not on Disney, to draw a demarcation between Pixar and DisneyToon Studios, between Cars and Planes. “From above the world of Cars” says the tagline. From a business standpoint, Disney’s choice to tie Pixar and DisneyToon Studios together makes sense. Perhaps the real issue is that they chose, less than a year ago, to move Planes’ release from direct-to-DVD to theaters first. It’s this decision that spawned more and more connections to Pixar. Would “From above the world of Cars” have been as prevalent if Planes never migrated to theaters? Who knows? But that decision, you could presume, wasn’t entirely based in the almighty dollar. DisneyToon Studios, once Disney’s go-to arm of creating sequels to classics like Cinderella and Bambi, now works almost entirely with the Tinker Bell franchise. This extension of the Peter Pan mythology is enormously popular for Disney, to the point where Tinker Bell and her fairy friends have their own meet-and-greet section at Disneyland Park in Anaheim. None of Tinker Bell’s movies have opened in domestic theaters. So why did Planes get lucky? Maybe Robert Iger and John Lasseter knew something we didn’t know; maybe this was a case like Toy Story 2, where something originally targeted at the home-media market was secretly a thrilling ride that packed an emotional wallop.
Alas, no. Planes, like Cars and Cars 2, is not a vastly deep film, one with surprising bursts of emotion and character-based honesty. The plot is exceedingly, almost insultingly simple: a crop-duster wants to be a champion flier and enters a worldwide race to prove his worth. That’s it. You don’t have to be an eagle-eyed viewer to note all the similarities in this 90-minute wannabe to Cars and Cars 2. (Sidebar: a number of reviews are pointing out that Planes is most similar to Turbo, which isn’t exactly false but ignores the fact that Turbo is not a bastion of original storytelling and shouldn’t be held up as such.) Just like Cars, Planes takes place primarily in a sleepy town that time forgot (Propwash Junction instead of Radiator Springs), its main character mentored by an old pro in a champion race (Dane Cook and Stacy Keach, instead of Owen Wilson and the late Paul Newman).
And just like Cars 2, Planes shifts focus to let its main character jet-set around the world, in a race that pits the lead against various caricatured vehicles that are solely defined by their locale and related recognizable traits. These are ethnic stereotypes, not characters. What people love about Pixar is that their movies feel natural, as if the filmmakers alighted upon the notion of a rat who wants to cook or sentient toys or a world of monsters, instead of being forced into making movies based on those concepts. (It’s worth pointing out that this feeling isn’t always accurate. Brad Bird was not the original director of Ratatouille, nor did he come up with the very basic morsel of an idea. The personal does not always translate into high quality, even at Pixar. Look at Cars for proof.)
Planes, in essence, is very reminiscent of one of the great early jokes from Arrested Development. The lead character, Michael Bluth, opens the refrigerator in his house and pulls out a paper bag reading “Dead Dove – Do Not Eat.” He opens the bag, perplexed, and then backs away, saying, “Well, I don’t know what I expected.” After being announced, as well as after the first trailers came out, some of us assumed we knew what Planes would be: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a slick, shiny, and hollow attempt to capture the glory that Pixar has bottled, for the most part, over the last 20 years. It’s legitimately painful to find out that the presumptions were true. As has been stated in this column in the past, Pixar’s power to throw its audiences for a loop is one of its greatest gifts. Even if Planes isn’t a Pixar film specifically, it’s a movie tied to the Pixar universe, so maybe hoping for something out of the ordinary wasn’t too outlandish.
Planes appears to represent nothing short of a phrase dreaded by many fans of Pixar’s work: a cash grab. Some accused Cars 2 of being precisely that, a movie that did not exist because there was a natural progression from the first film to a sequel. (Some are already sharpening these same verbal knives for Finding Dory, even after the D23 Expo presentation that shed some minor and comforting light on the subject. Maybe Finding Dory will let us all down, but with more than 2 years to go, it’s a bit early to judge it with all finality.) Planes isn’t going to do as well as Cars 2 did at the box office, though it’s doubtful that anyone thought it would. Even though Cars 2 is, domestically, Pixar’s least popular film—it’s the first since A Bug’s Life to not gross $200 million, and it had 3D prices on its side—the globetrotting adventures of Mater made enough money worldwide to justify this spin-off. As a cash grab, who knows if the head honchos like Iger and Lasseter will consider Planes a smashing success—with an opening weekend take of $22.5 million and a reported $50 million budget, it should end up making some decent money, but it’s not a world-beater. Still, they’re probably not too worried.
The most terrifying image in Planes is a promise in the end credits, that the planes will return next year in Planes: Fire & Rescue, a fact also emphasized at the D23 Expo last weekend. (The movie opens in July 2014, unless someone decides it’s best to just release this one on DVD and skip theaters. Can you feel the electric excitement?) Planes doesn’t open itself up to a sequel in terms of the story, as—spoiler alert—the good guy wins the day and the bad guy has to stew in his frustrations. For all we know, Dusty Crophopper won’t even make a cameo appearance in Fire & Rescue, much as Mater and Lightning McQueen don’t show up to say hello to their new friend in Planes. It would be nice to be proven wrong here, but this grossly unnecessary extension of the already-stretching Cars franchise is all about making money and hoping that 90 minutes of seen-it-all-before content will be enough to satiate little kids.
Perhaps this is most vexing, that Lasseter and friends are essentially, deliberately manipulating parents into paying for 3D tickets simply so their kids will give it a rest for a couple of hours. It’s the dog days of summer, so maybe they’ve gotten extra-restless in the house, and you, the parent or parents reading this, are thinking, “I don’t care if it’s good. I just want them off my back for a while.” And you know what? You do deserve a break. You do deserve them doing something healthy, safe, and fun for a couple of hours. Try the pool. Or a library. Or let them play kickball in the backyard, or in the backyard of one of their friends’ houses. Or, if you must plop them in front of a movie, have them watch something at home. Or bring them to see Monsters University or Despicable Me 2 or, if you have to, Turbo. To presume that Planes is the only option for you and your family this weekend or any weekend is incorrect. It’s the newest option. But it’s not the only option.
And if you’re reading this, just now realizing that Planes isn’t a Pixar movie, remember that fact above all else. Disney wants you to think that Planes was made by the same animators and filmmakers, the same craftsmen and women, who brought you Monsters University or Finding Nemo or Cars. In essence, Disney wants to fool people until it’s too late to ask for a refund. If Planes was as entertaining as Cars, or as well-animated, maybe it wouldn’t matter. Who cares if you’re being fooled if you like what’s on the screen? But Planes represents sheer frustration in cinematic form, an attempt to suck a few more dollars from your wallet, a few more hours from your life. You’ve seen this story before, and you’ve seen it done better. If there had to be Cars spin-offs, it sure would’ve been nice if the people making them put more effort into the project, instead of counting down the days until their next paycheck.