Pixar discovered that they could mint money after the release 2006's Cars, and you know what, good for them. The studio that has spent-- and earned-- enormous amounts of money on some of the most ambitious animated films ever made probably deserved its little money tree, even if that meant bringing us last year's Cars 2 and now the spin-off, Planes. Initially relegated to the direct-to-DVD ghetto, Planes is now getting a theatrical release, but it's still best to think of how it was originally intended: playing in the early afternoons in living rooms to entertain kids freshly home from kindergarten.
Anyone older than that is likely to feel restless in Planes, which shamelessly lifts the plot from Cars with the minor transformation of its lead character; instead of a hot-shot race car who must learn humility, Planes's hero is a starry-eyed crop duster named, appropriately, Dusty. Voiced by Dane Cook after apparent coaching from Cars's Owen Wilson, Dusty dreams of being a high-flying racer, but of course the world is full of meanies who tell him he's just a lowly crop duster. After qualifying by the skin of his teeth for a round-the-world race, Dusty enlists grouchy former warplane Skipper (Stacy Keach) and his plucky truck friends (Brad Garrett and Teri Hatcher) to help him train.
Wouldn't you know it, Dusty meets a whole bunch of colorful characters at the race too, each of them conforming to some generally established national stereotype-- John Cleese voices the stuffy tea-drinking British plane, Antonio Banderas the lusty Mexican plane, Julia Louis-Dreyfus the aloof French-Canadian plane, etc. Will he learn not to be intimidated by the hotshot Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) and fly on his own terms? Will he be wooed into danger by the mysterious Indian plane Ishani (Priyanka Chopra)? Will he learn to overcome his fear of heights? Will Skipper ever reveal the scars from the war that have kept him from flying all these years?
Oh boy, will they ever. The only audiences who will be surprised by Planes are those for whom its intended-- children who may have never seen a movie before, period. Gentle humor and lessons are delivered to back row with the precision of air traffic controllers, and director Klay Hall (veteran of the direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure) manages it all at a swift, disarmingly accomplished pace that almost makes Planes feel like a real movie. The animation, while not quite as lively for the characters as in actual Pixar productions, is impressive in many of the flying scenes, and a nighttime crash landing in the ocean is visceral and a little terrifying-- maybe to jolt the audience awake. Accepting that Planes is at heart a direct-to-DVD film can allow it a little leeway, and if you laugh at the silliest of the dumb jokes it can help you forget that you've spent 90 minutes with characters and a story wispier than the vapor trails behind a jet.
Have you had Cars on repeat in your Blu-ray player for the last 5 years? Planes is for you and your kids who can't get enough of anthropomorphized machinery. For the rest of you… well, come on. You knew Planes wasn't for you anyway. As a perfectly agreeable if not especially smart little animated film, it's an effort-- and probably a burgeoning new franchise-- that you now have permission to forget entirely.