Disney's Planes: Good, Clean Fun
On Interstate 4, southwest of Orlando, is a conspicuous power pole consisting of one large circle topped by two smaller ones, the lines tacked to their arcs. It’s a major power feed into Orlando’s Disney World. And the fact that there’s not a four-year-old alive who’d miss the reference to Mickey Mouse makes it a steel-and-concrete testament to Disney’s genius in anthromorphising everything from brooms to bars of soap for fun and profit. (But mostly profit.)
Continuing the 85-year tradition over the weekend, Disney opened Planes, a feature-length animation that got a pre-release showing at AirVenture last week. In a way, Planes brings Disney full circle. Mickey Mouse debuted not in Steamboat Willie but in Plane Crazy, a silent cartoon in which he emulates Charles Lindbergh by building his own airplane to fly Minnie around. A test screening failed to generate enough interest for wide release. Planes flowed the other way. It was originally intended for the direct-to-video market, but test screenings revealed strong audience interest, so it was recast as a wide-release theater feature, including a 3D version, which I saw on Friday. You can't help but think that sort of interest bodes well for aviation.
I’m sure you’ve read about the story line, which is so generic (and predictable) it feels like it could have been faxed over with characters left blank to be populated by whatever objects cry out for anthromorphising; cars, trains, trucks, boats, whatever. Speaking of trains, the plot MacGuffin is the gold standard: The Little Engine That Could, an animated life lesson in the value of hard work, discipline and optimism. Just once, I’d like to see a kid’s story make the delicate point that optimism is overrated, but real life isn't mean to intrude into cartoons. Interestingly, Planes carries a PG rating for “rude humor.” Not to worry, South Park this ain’t, although I left the theater desperate for at least cameo appearances by Stan and Kyle.
The film’s underdog is Dusty Crophopper, a sort of Air Tractor look alike who wants to compete in a circle-the-globe world air race against a fleet of flashier airplanes, including the antagonist Ripslinger—looking curiously like Nemesis—the sleek and sexy Rochelle and a Gee-Bee R1 named El Chupacrabra comically drawn with a mask and cape. John Cleese voices Bulldog, a British competitor styled after a de Havilland DH.88. There are various other characters in supporting roles, voiced by stars such as Brad Garrett, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Stacy Keach, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Rochelle) and Dane Cook in the lead role as Dusty.
So does this assemblage of parts fly? Yes, adequately, but not brilliantly. Since the plot declares itself in the first 10 minutes, you can satisfy yourself with simply watching how the animators execute and decorate a not-very-rich story. Don’t expect the stunning animation and cleverness of something like Pixar’s Toy Story. Planes is not a Pixar production, although it’s being marketed with a tie-in to the Cars films, which were. DisneyToon Studios took the lead with animation done by Prana Animation Studios. The animation and art rendering are terrific, but maybe not quite so terrific as John Lasseter and Pixar at their best. Perhaps the script’s predictability kept the animators’ muse confined. Or maybe production was just done on the cheap, given the strong commercial feel of this film.
I’ve read comments about how “aviation authentic” Planes is, including this CNN report from a Planes consultant. There's a certain bizarre truth to this, but consider that one of the opening scenes features a stadium filled with cheering and yelping cars festooned with eyeballs. I suppose if you said the stadium seats had numbers just like a real stadium, that would be authentic, ignoring that the cars are talking. But give the film its due: You don’t have to look too closely to see evidence of a technically knowledgeable hand at work. The best example—and one of the film’s cleverer scenes—is Dusty’s nighttime approach to New York’s JFK, with the controller, in a dead-on John F. Kennedy accent that will be lost on the kiddie audience, vectoring airplanes and referring to the Canarsie visual. That’s a nice little confection just for pilots, as is the nuanced rendering of Skipper, Dusty’s World War II-era Corsair mentor. The Corsair has a particularly effective scene in which the animators nailed a radial start-up sequence.
The airplanes are drawn with convincing if not perfectly accurate detail and their movements are similarly adroit. Rendering a machine to emote with movement and expression requires no small skill. Some of the sequences are indistinguishable from film, which shows how far animation has come. Still, the thing is a cartoon after all, and I wouldn't ding it for taking maximum license with the laws of aerodynamics and physics, which it does anyway. Isn't that what cartoons are for--to distort reality in entertaining ways? They're meant to be escapes. Otherwise, we could just plop GoPros in our offices and replay the day's toil in the flatscreen luxury of our men dens. In aviation, we tend to get so incensed when directors take license in portraying aviation inaccurately that we're grateful when they toss a bone and try to get it right. Really, we expect so little. Planes certainly does that, within the context of its fantasy story line.
At AirVenture, there was some buzz that Planes would inspire youthful audiences to become pilots. I won't be the slightest bit surprised if, 10 years from now, some kid earns his private on his 16th birthday and says, "Ya know, I was inspired by that cartoon, Planes." Astronaut Mae Jemison freely admits she was inspired by Star Trek. But I wouldn't expect a mass eruption of kids rushing to the airport. Kids have multi-media stimulus coming at them a mile a minute and Planes is just another pixel-pack in the stream that may be forgotten next month, much less next year. After our sparsely attended matinee on Friday, I asked a couple of kids in the audience what they thought of the film. “Awesome!” said one. But when I asked if seeing Planes got him interested in learning to fly, I got a blank look. Literally. Maybe Redbird needs to do a little merch tie in. (They actually did; a Redbird simulator appeared on the red carpet at the Hollywood opening.)
Planes is definitely worth the $10 ticket price, or whatever you happen to be paying where you are. I have two recommendations. First, skip the 3D version. The glasses darken the view enough to subdue the finer texturing and hues that make modern animation snap and the 3D effect just isn’t that good. Second, review a list of the characters so you know who’s doing the voicing. Personally, I think that adds to the viewing experience for adults who aren't, after all, the target audience. And if you want more, standby. Planes is supposedly the first of a trilogy. There are some outakes circulating on the web that are interesting, including multiple trailers and the movie's web site has some engaging semi-educational shorts that are worth a look.
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