The Universal/Chris Melendandri production “Despicable Me 2” has racked up significant box-office grosses despite being a pale sequel to its infinitely more charming predecessor.
DreamWorks’ “Turbo” and Pixar’s “Monster’s University” enticed family audiences albeit with mediocre stories while “The Smurfs 2,” yet another sequel, does entertain very young children.
At this point in the year, DreamWorks’ “The Croods” looks like it has post position for year-end awards as the most original cartoon. Its lovely excursion into the primordial world of the imagination so far is the best of a mostly humdrum lot.
I get a strong feeling that too many animated features these days are being rushing into production without truly original stories in hand. The development process has apparently been put into overdrive to feed consumer demand for family entertainment.
This is certainly true for “Disney’s Planes,” a film that may have had the potential to be much better than it is. Then again, the movie is surprisingly not-bad considering that the original impulse behind the film was mercantile rather the artistic.
The film is being marketed as a continuation of the successful “Cars” auto racing cartoons from Disney-owned Pixar — only with its racing promoted to the skies. Along with box-office lucre, the “Cars” movies have been merchandising phenomenons.
How can we continue this? the Pixar/Disney folks no doubt wondered. Hey, how about “Planes?”
So this “sequel,” of sorts, was handed off to Disney’s straight-to-video unit in order to provide a movie to ignite consumer demand for a new series of toys. The result looked good enough to Disney brass to warrant a 3D theatrical release.
“Disney’s Planes” is indeed better than your average video release. But at the end of the day it’s too generic, betrayed by its commercial aspirations and rampant cultural stereotyping.
Nevertheless, it provokes a few laughs, features eye-catching visuals in its globe-hopping design and, yes, introduces a line of toys — sorry, I mean characters — that should generate significant sales between now and Christmas.
In terms of what’s happening in development at animation studios these days, it’s interesting to note that this underdog racing story invites any numbers of comparisons with “Turbo.”
Rather than taking inspiration from artistic creativity, Disney and Dreamworks are first and foremost seeking to appeal to an international crowd — and a toy-buying one at that. So both films trade in impossible dreams with an international flavor.
“Turbo,” remember, is the story of a snail that believes it can win the Indy 500. “Disney’s Planes” concerns a single-prop crop duster named Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) determined to compete with high-flying air racers. This despite the fact that Dusty, engineered to fly at low altitudes, is actually afraid of heights.
Other points of similarity include Mexican characters with a flowing south-of-the-border accents and bravado and a French-Canadian racer (although in the case of “Planes” a female) with considerable sex appeal.
Like Turbo, Dusty comes with a pit crew. His consists of Navy Corsair Skipper (Stacy Keach), a fuel truck named Chug (Brad Barrett), a truth-talking mechanic/forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and a fellow crop duster, Leadbottom (Cedric the Entertainer), a biplane with a discouraging attitude.
After training under the guidance of Skipper at his headquarters in Propwash Junction, somewhere in rural Middle America, Dusty flies to JFK (whose control tower speaks in the late president’s New England accent) where he joins in an around-the-world race.
His competition, some ruthless and others surprisingly friendly toward this ultimate underdog, represent a wide range of international toys — drat, I keep doing that — characters.
Along with the aforementioned Mexican egotist El Chupacabra or “El Chu” (Carlos Alazraqui) and aloof Quebecer Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — these two provide the film’s “romantic interest” by the way — you get a sporting British Bulldog (John Cleese) and silky Ishani from India (Priyanka Chopra) plus a villain, the wily Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), although since he is a villain his nationality goes unidentified.
There is also a in-joke salute to “Top Gun” in casting that film’s Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards as the voices for Bravo and Echo, two fighter jets who rescue Dusty from a mid-Pacific storm.
Disney animators — it does look as though considerable outsourcing was done to India though — do some flair in animating this world tour from the icy Arctic to sultry India, exotic China and festive Mexico. The layouts and art direction certainly create colorful backgrounds for the story.
The many flight sequences too entertain the eyes as the cameras always find the right angles to capture the swift movements of the character-airplanes.
So “Disney’s Planes” makes a bright and pleasing 3D feature for families but will leave animation buffs mildly peeved: The legendary studio responsible for the birth and development of feature animation is capable of much better than this.
Opens: August 9, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Disneytoon Studios
Cast: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Carlos Alazraqui, Roger Craig Smith, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Sinbad
Director: Klay Hall
Screenwriter: Jeffrey M. Howard
Original story: John Lasseter, Klay Hall, Jeffrey M. Howard
Producer: Traci Balthazor-Flynn
Executive producers: John Lasseter
Art director: Ryan Carlson
Music: Mark Mancina
Animation director: Sheryl Sardina Sacked
Head of story: Dan Abraham
CG supervisor: Nickie Huai
Editor: Jeremy Milton
PG rating, 92 minutes