“Planes” literally takes off from the retro world of “Cars” and “Cars 2,” with the story of a brave little crop-duster named Dusty (Dane Cook) who wants to compete in an international air race. A couple of problems for Dusty: he was not designed for racing and he is afraid of heights. A couple of problems for the movie: originally intended as a straight-to-DVD release: it does not have the narrative or emotional impact we expect from a feature film and a misguided flashback with a WWII air battle is jarring and likely too much for the intended audience of young gearheads.
The modest ambitions for this movie are refreshing in a summer of over-plotted movies for kids. It is a very simple “little engine that could” story (hmmm, could the next installment be “Trains?”), set, like “Cars,” in a charmingly imagined world of anthropomorphized modes of transportation where even the Statue of Liberty is a machine. It wastes no time giving us the histories of the characters and gets right down to it. Dusty may be built for seed, not speed,” but he wants to race. In his dreams, he has soared near the stars, but in reality he flies “low and slow,” dusting crops. He gets a lot of support from his friends, a practically-minded forklift named Dottie (sweetly voiced by Teri Hatcher) and a loyal fuel truck named Chug (Brad Garrett), who has a copy of “Air Racing for Dummies.”
There is a qualifying race for the Wings Around the World event, and Dusty is determined to participate. He barely makes it into the top five, only after the plane ahead of him is disqualified for the aviation equivalent of doping. He knows he will need more help if he is going to compete in the big event. He asks a WWII Naval plane called Skipper (gravelly voice of Stacy Keach) to be his coach. Skipper himself has not flown since the war, but he knows that “races are won by skill, not speed” and “it’s not how fast you fly; it’s how you fly fast.” He also knows about things like torque, lift, drag, turn ratios, and wind shear.
Dusty enters the race and meets his international competition, including the arrogant champion, Ripslinger (Robert Craig Smith), the lovely Asian champ Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), the British Bulldog (John Cleese), who always has a cup of tea at hand, or, I should say, at wing, the colorful Mexican Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), whose design is inspired by a Mexican wrestler’s mask, and the French Canadian Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), with whom Chupacabra is instantly smitten. Dusty is determined to win the race his way — by flying low and holding on to his crop-spraying equipment. But he will have to bend on both to stay in the race.
Each leg of the journey presents different challenges, but all present stunning vistas. There are some slow patches without the detailed characterization of the community and characters we saw in the original “Cars.” And, as noted, a diversion into Skipper’s backstory is poorly conceived and out of sync. It seems a bit off to make fun of merchandising when it comes across as more of an informercial for the very products it pretends to spoof. But the obvious affection for the mechanics of aviation and the dream of doing more than you are built for keeps things aloft.
Parents should know that this film has some potty humor, a brief WWII battle scene flashback with a reference to the loss of some characters, and some peril.
Family discussion: What can you do that goes beyond what you were “built for?” Why did Dusty help Bulldog?
If you like this, try: “Cars” and “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”