Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stuck on the Runway: PLANES


I’ve never found the world of Pixar’s Cars movies to be all that difficult to believe. It’s Earth, but every living thing is a vehicle. Of course the level of realism is close to nonexistent, but you know what else isn’t real? Talking cars. There comes a point where you aren’t picking away at the plausibility of a fantasy world and you’re just simply resisting the premise. When people wonder, say, how cars managed to build a cathedral or why they’d need farms, well, there’s no good answer other than “they just do.” Those questions simply don’t bother me because the world of Cars and Cars 2 is nothing more than a moderately clever spin on ours that’s only use is as a backdrop for fast-paced sequences of comedy and excitement vividly brought to life through Pixar’s typically virtuosic attention to animated detail and terrific sound effects. That they aren’t deep Pixar doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable in their own right. They’re cartoony and operate within their own cracked world perfectly. I choose to believe in it because I find them fun enough to avoid nitpicky questions.

Planes, on the other hand, is the movie that people who don’t like the Cars movies think they are. It’s a junk heap of cliché and distractingly haphazard approach to keeping the fantasy world making some sort of consistent internal sense. If nothing else, I hope it’ll help some Cars haters realize that, at the very least, those movies aren’t this bad. Pixar has had bad buzz around their recent sequels and prequels, as if follow-ups are inherently uncreative. I don’t think that’s the case. Nor do I think that they’re forced to make movies they don’t want to make. Proof is Planes, which is a spinoff of the Cars movies that was punted to their corporate sibling Disney Animation to cook up as a direct-to-DVD release. For some reason this on-the-cheap piece of rote animated family filmmaking has been deemed worthy of the big screen. Maybe Disney had an opening on the schedule they needed filling or hoped that it could cushion the blow of the mega-budgeted The Lone Ranger should it flop. (It did, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it if you haven’t. It’s very good.)

Watching Planes had me questioning aspects of this universe I’d never contemplated before. It’s the story of a crop-duster (Dane Cook) who’d really like to be a racing plane. With the encouragement of a fuel truck (Brad Garrett), a forklift (Teri Hatcher), and a World War II (really) fighter plane (Stacy Keach), he enters an international globetrotting race filled with lazy cultural shorthand for contestants and destinations. The crop-duster is laughed at until he starts to make progress and win friends with his good heart. But isn’t this world one with a great deal of predetermination? If you’re born a crop-duster, don’t you have some mechanical limitations that could never be overcome? If you’re born a train, a popemobile, or a jumbo jet, isn’t your job pretty much set? Cars finds a racecar learning to enjoy life in the slow lane, while Cars 2 finds a tow truck mistaken for a secret agent. But neither advocates them doing things they’re just not built to do.

I realize it doesn’t make a good kid’s film moral to say that these vehicles are built to do certain jobs and should be happy with their lot in life, but isn’t that what’s happening here? To claim otherwise is to promote willful ignorance about the way life in car-land is built. This world has a pretty rigid caste system. Why else would a forklift (Sinbad) and the other racers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese, Priyanka Chopra, Cedric the Entertainer, Carlos Alazraqui, and Roger Craig Smith) relentlessly mock the crop-duster for his God-given technical specifications? So what happens when a vehicle goes into the shop? Is it major surgery to improve the engine block? How about getting outfitted with shiny new aerodynamic wings? Plastic surgery or performance enhancement? There’s a deeply strange moment when the crop-duster is worried about removing his sprayer to improve his speed.

If there had been anything distinctive or enjoyable about this movie I probably wouldn’t have been stuck contemplating the underlying philosophy and countless technical details of this fantasy world. I also found myself asking why this world even needs crops, let alone crop-dusters and, in the vehicular World War II, what type of car was Hitler? A shot of the New York City skyline had me briefly wonder what happened in this world on 9/11. I realize these aren’t questions the target audience is likely to be asking, but I had to do something to keep my mind active. It’s not often a studio approves its own cheap knockoff, but here one is anyways. The animation is vanilla, the plotting achingly predictable and painfully simple, and the moralizing cheap, sentimental, and tone-deaf. (The only mildly enjoyable touch is the casting of Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer as Top Gun fighter jets.) Director Klay Hall and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard (responsible for three direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell movies between the two of them) have made a movie that’s nothing more than a timewaster, a space-filler, and, worst-case scenario, a babysitter. Kids deserve better than this lame hunk of junk. 

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