MOVIE REVIEW: DISNEY’S PLANES
It was only a matter of time before Disney • Pixar’s “World of Cars” courtesy of “Cars” and “Cars 2" went up and up and away into the wild blue yonder and with DISNEY’S PLANES and the artisans of Disneytoon Studios, that realization is achieved. A high-flying fun-filled adventure directed by Klay Hall, executive produced by John Lasseter and written by Jeffrey M. Howard, while immensely likable and entertaining and filled with engaging characters complimented by superb voice casting, DISNEY’S PLANES can’t escape feeling like a poor man’s version of the gloss, glitter and sophistication of a Pixar project. However, what it may lack in “polish” and originality, DISNEY’S PLANES more than makes up for with its attention to aviation detail and authenticity, sound design and animated aeronautic fly-bys to rival that of the Blue Angels or those guys from “Top Gun” who feel the need the speed.
Dusty Crophopper is your run of the mill, average single prop plane. Surrounded by friends on the ground like fuel truck Chug and forklift aka mechanical genius Dottie, Dusty is a happy-go-luck little cropduster. Spending his days flying low over crop-laden cornfields in the heartland of America spreading Vitaminamulch (something obviously akin to Vitameatavegamin), his thoughts always wander high into the clouds dreaming of a life as a world class racing plane like his idol, world champion Ripslinger. Only problem is that while Dusty is faster than most, cropdusters aren’t designed for around the world racing and Dusty, er, Dusty is afraid of heights. He can’t go any higher than 1,000 feet.
But life is all about dreams and dreaming big, so undeterred by ridicule from other aircraft at his local hanger in Propwash Junction, Dusty enters the Around the World Air Rally Race. Fortunately, Dusty realizes that he has no chance of winning on his own and needs the help of his friends leading him to look to the one plane that can really help him - Skipper. A Navy Corsair who led the Jolly Wrenches back in the World War, Skipper was retired from air combat after a tragic accident and has been sitting idly, sequestered in his hanger for decades.
Running loop the loops, timed heats and mimicking the trials and tribulations of world topography, Skipper drills Dusty into top form. Adding a little more juice is some mechanical fine-tuning by Dottie. And before you know it, Dusty’s off and flying in a globe-trotting jaunt. Needless to say, he meets up not only with some memorable characters and fellow racers but hits a lot of turbulence along his journey.
Facing off against the best of the best, Dusty not only faces his idol turned nemesis, Ripslinger, but the stuff upper-crust Bulldog from Great Britain, the sultry pink French-Canadian Rochelle, the exotic Pan-Asian champion Ishani and one who turns out to be Dusty’s greatest friend and ally, El Chupacabra aka El Chu, who is not only a world class racer with a very cool swishing tail, but a wrestler, telenovela star and recording artist. And then we’ve got two hot shot F-16 Jolly Wrenches, Echo and Bravo, who play an important part in Dusty’s journey.
As comes as no surprise, the entire voice cast just soars with perfection. Each voice brings each character to life and gives him (or her) wings to fly into our hearts, starting with Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper. When it comes to Dane Cook, many consider him to be the "alternate Ryan Reynolds" which makes it quite ironic to have Cook and Reynolds facing off right now with animated films at the box office - Cook as Dusty in PLANES and Reynolds as that speedy snail Turbo in “Turbo.” (Seems they both feel the need for speed!) Trust me when I say that as Dusty, Cook is not second-fiddle or alternate to anyone! So calm, so NICE, such a gentleman of a plane! But where he excels is with his tonal inflection giving Dusty heart. Dusty's heart is as wide as the sky; a very charming touch that goes beyond the animation and is totally reflective of Cook.
One voice casting that many not get the significance of is Stacy Keach's Skipper. Keach played Wilbur Wright in a little indie back in the early 70's - "Wilbur and Orville: The First to Fly". Can't do much better than cast a man in a movie about PLANES and flying than a man who played a Wright Brother. According to director Hall, ‘[Keach] is an amazing thespian and an actor. Having someone cast in that role as Skipper the mentor, right away when you hear him speak to Dusty, he commands instant respect. There’s a texture to his tone and his voice that’s sort of the salt-of-the-earth experience that you believe him. He elevates the world.”
But talk about stunt voice casting! How about two of everyone’s favorite “Top Guns” - Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards as F-16 Jolly Wrench fighters Bravo and Echo, respectively!! I always love it when actors are used in cameo roles or for cameo voices with characters that relate to something for which they are known in the past.... and Edwards and Kilmer, stepping in to fly Dusty to USS Fleisenhower is perfection. Noticeable is that the dialogue of the Echo and Bravo scenes are as if lifted almost verbatim from “Top Gun”. Very cool on the one hand from a nostalgic standpoint, I would have liked to have a bit more creativity with their exchanges. Another nice touch is having one of the air traffic controllers at JFK in NY at the starting point of the race, actually do JFK’s voice.
Lavender-hued forklift Dottie is bound to be a fave among girls everywhere! Voiced by Teri Hatcher, Hatcher really delivers, giving Dottie this wonderful "I can do anything you can do better" attitude. Dottie is smart, fast-talking, kind and giving. Interesting is the rapidity of speech but with a silken flow that kind of belies what one would think of for a grease monkey, especially a girl grease monkey!
Bringing the exotic Indian plane Ishani to life is former Miss World and Miss India, Priyanka Chopra, who gives Ishani a sultriness that puts the spin in Dusty’s props. Putting her own stamp on Rochelle is Julia Louis-Dreyfus who gives Rochelle a French accent and lots of attitude when it comes to the romantic overtures of El Chupacabra. And let’s talk El Chu! Voiced by the incomparable man of a thousand voices, Carlos Alazraqui (best known as the Taco Bell dog), El Chu is the comedy in the film, all of which comes from a perfect blend of Alazraqui’s tonal inflections and delivery with animation. El Chu is destined to be a true break-out star of PLANES.
John Cleese is perfection as the British spitfire, Bulldog. Giving Bulldog an air of refinement and pride, he is the epitome of sage and wisdom when it comes to “in the old days”. Brad Garrett gives Chug a distinctive persona, although more than reflective of Mater in “Cars”, but is problematic with the over-exuberance and frenetic “stepping” on other dialogue to the point of annoyance. One of my favorite characters is Franz/Fliegenhosen (which I hope becomes a toy in the merchandising line) voiced by Oliver Kalkofe. I can't help but feel that he fills the part of Professor Z or Miles Axelrod from “Cars 2" but rather than be evil, is truly good and a champion of Dusty.
As comes as no surprise, be on the lookout for John Lasseter’s, “good luck charm”, John Ratzenberger, who provides his own little character voice cameo.
Directed by Klay Hall and written by Jeffrey M. Howard, PLANES’ strong suit is its well-researched technical aspects from plane selection, design and construct to technical jargon. Going beyond John Lasseter’s mantra of “research and then more research”, Hall had personal reasons to achieve authenticity; his father was a Navy fighter pilot. As he describes it, “You might not as an audience member understand exactly everything that’s being said with the Navy speak or the jargon going on or what that piece of machinery is that Dottie’s talking about, but it sounds right to you. . .that adds a level of truth and believability to your film that elevates the film to a whole other area. We’re not faking anything here. . .With our military sequences in the film, they had to be spot on. . .We were invited by the Navy to go out to the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, 150 miles out to sea off of San Diego, and spend 2 days with the men and women on the carrier and talk to the flight team, the executive officers and the captain. W e actually sat down and we screened those sections of the film for that team to weigh in on. . .They gave us little notes about adjusting here and there but the facts were right.”
When it comes to actually drawing and animating planes, each plane’s physical structure in terms of frame, size, weight, design, propellers, engines and design, is met with animation embracing the limitations of each individual design structure. Similarly, using the restrictions inherent within the design of each plane or four-wheeled vehicle, innovation in animation is top-notch when it comes to physical movement and emotion.
Sorely lacking in Howard’s story structure is originality. PLANES is truly is a meld of “Cars” and “Cars 2", just moved into the air. Skipper is a winged Doc Hudson from “Cars”, Chug is the PLANES’ Mater and so on and so forth. Color commentator Brent Mustangburger from “Cars 2" even returns to call the air rally race. While it’s one thing to rely on tried and true, it’s another to do so to the point of mimicry and duplication.
The biggest shortcoming of Howard’s scripting comes with the jokes or what are supposed to be jokes. Unfortunately, the bulk of dialogue that is clearly supposed to be funny and are written as jokes, just crash and burn, which is more than disappointing; except when it comes to Sinbad and his voicing of Roper. Now THAT is actually funny, as is much of El Chu’s persona, but that comedy comes from the animation and Alazraqui’s voice talent, not the scripted dialogue.
Where the script does take shape and have some depth and meaning is with the dramatic beats that speak to dreams, facing your fears and the over-riding element of friendship. Dusty may have his head in the clouds, but his wheels are planted firmly on the ground when it comes to his friends. A valuable lesson for the young and the young-at-heart.
An aspect which I find problematic and which may prove so for many others, especially children, is the speed at which dialogue is delivered with all the technical jargon. I, for one, would like to be able to catch all of it, but some of it is just piled in so thickly that you miss much that could end up being quite interesting.
As with “Cars 2", DISNEY’S PLANES goes around the world, tossing in some geography lessons and a high point, celebrating the cultural and ethnic diversity of the world in which we live. For Hall, “Part of the whole idea was we wanted to throw a competition or hurdle in front of Dusty that could embrace a whole global feel. To get out there and sort of visit those areas and try to be true to the cultures, the ethnicities, the colors, the smells, the sights, the sounds and all that, it was a big deal.” Nothing new and nothing unexpected, but beautifully animated. (We even get a bathroom incident again as we had in “Cars 2" which should again prove a big hit with kids)
Distracting is the race rally finale with fans in the stands. Filled with wheeled and winged vehicles alike, do my eyes deceive me or are these animation backgrounds lifted directly from “Cars 2"? Color just looks a bit toned down and not as sleek.
Where DISNEY’S PLANES reaches stratospheric heights is with the sound and the animation of flight. The incorporation of different planes, different engine sounds, flight patterns and technical specs is out of this world! Technically impressive is that all of the engine and prop sounds in the film, including the F-16s, were recorded specifically for PLANES by miking the respective aircraft both on the ground and in the air in order to be as authentic as possible. Animators and Sound Designers AMAZE once again! And talk about the tailspin spirals to earth and feeling the turns and G-force of Dusty and the fighter jets! Animation of flight sequences are stunning. Incredible technical production value!
Exceptional is Mark Mancina's score. It ebbs and flows like the wind currents carrying the planes. At times soaring, at times powerful, at times lilting and light but always wonderful and pitch perfect for this film.
With touchstones to “Cars”, “Cars 2", “Top Gun”, even nods to “Air Force One” and “Strategic Air Command”, DISNEY’S PLANES has something that will resonate with everyone. Although not the most original film in the Disney vault, PLANES is nevertheless entertaining, engaging, high-flying fun and adventure that will put your head in the clouds and wind beneath your wings!
Directed by Klay Hall
Written by Jeffrey M. Howard
Voice Cast: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Carlos Alazraqui