Planes is passable direct-to-video animated entertainment for kids - featuring action sequences that are more cinematic in their style.
Planes - the new 3D computer-animated feature released by DisneyToon Studios - is described as being an underdog story that takes place in the "World of Cars" - yet, the actual movie doesn't contain any direct references or connections to that lucrative Pixar franchise. Here, the protagonist is Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a scrappy small-town crop-dusting plane with big dreams - which include competing with the greatest high-flying aces of the world.
Dusty, with guidance from his bosses/friends - a jolly fuel truck named Chug (Brad Garrett) and the practical-minded ace mechanic/fork lift known as Dottie (Teri Hatcher) - takes the first steps towards qualifying for a prestigious air-race around the globe. He eventually seeks help from Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach), a reclusive old aviator who is no longer capable of flight - but who's wise in the ways of how to maneuver speedily through the air. However, Dusty soon discovers that he has another major obstacle to overcome (if he wants to win the big race) - namely, he is terrified of scaling great heights.
Planes began as a direct-to-video project, but it then received a theatrical upgrade - after early footage from the movie impressed Walt Disney Picture studio heads during pre-production. Indeed, there are a number of aerial racing sequences in the movie that can fairly be described as slick in construction and having captured a child-like sense of wonder, when it comes to creating the fun sensation of soaring through the atmosphere (more so when viewed in 3D). Unfortunately, in terms of storytelling, character development, and certain technical elements (for example, scene-by-scene editing), Planes offers noticeably amateurish direction by Klay Hall (a former supervising director on the cult TV animated comedy King of the Hill).
The script was written by Jeffrey M. Howard (Tinker Bell), but was based on a story concept that was co-created by Pixar legend John Lasseter. However, the Planes story poorly retreads a central theme in the first Cars installment (i.e. that shinier and fancier doesn't mean better) up to the final act, at which point certain plot developments appear to contradict that idea. Similarly, Dusty's motivation - to do something other than what he was designed for - has potential from a storytelling perspective, but it amounts to little more than a couple throw-away lines near the beginning and end of the movie. What little heart and substance Planes has comes from the relationship between Dusty and Skipper - which offers familiar lessons about the student-teacher connection, but also manages to give each character a complete (if thin) arc.
There are a ton of anthropomorphic vehicles featured in Planes (just take a look at our complete character guide), but the majority of them have been given little to no real personality - nor are they all that relevant to the overarching plot - and feel like they exist primarily to sell toys and Planes merchandise down the line. As it stands, many of them are just cultural stereotypes realized as anthropomorphic planes (example: John Cleese voices "the British one," Carlos Alazraqui voices "the Latino one," etc.). That's in addition to the antagonist Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) - a generic arrogant champion (in plane form) - and the semi-love interest Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), whose nationality is her most memorable trait.
Planes is most-engaging during the sequences that revolve around the high-flying races nearby various natural landmarks and obstacles (snowy mountains, ocean storms, rocky canyons); these tend to be the same moments where the 3D factor offers some genuine fun, for both kids and adult viewers. Nonetheless, the movie suffers from observably rocky transitionary editing between scenes - and every so often, even some uneven editing within an individual scene. Similarly, Planes fails to impress from an animation standpoint, as it has neither the organic texture of Pixar's work or the cartoonish expressiveness of other studio films; not to mention, many individual animated shots are weak (in terms of composition and layout).
At the end of the day, Planes is passable direct-to-video animated entertainment for kids - featuring action sequences that are more cinematic in their style - but the movie doesn't deserve a theatrical release, when viewed as a whole. No doubt, many young moviegoers will still enjoy large segments of the film (especially if they see it in 3D), which may well be reason enough for some families to give it a look. Regardless, it's difficult to ignore how Planes ends up feeling like little more than an (often) dull and nearly-soulless cash grab.
... One that Disney clearly expects to payoff, considering that the sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue is already scheduled for theatrical release in July 2014.
In case you're still undecided about whether or not to see the movie, here is the trailer for Planes:
Planes is 92 minutes long and Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters around the U.S.