Disney Sequels: Crash and burn
That there are two animated films in the summer of 2013 which both feature a creature that just wants to race, doggone it, no matter what institutional bias he faces from the powers-that-be because he belongs to the wrong species, and when he eventually manages to make it into the big show, he ends up squaring off against his idol, now revealed to be a complete asshole, is surprising. That, given this is the case, Turbo (racing snail) would prove to be at least the equal to Planes (racing crop duster) is discouraging. That Planes couldn't even manage to improve upon Cars 2 is downright heartbreaking.
For Planes is, if you've managed to miss hearing about it (and bless your dear innocent heart if that's the case), is a spin-off of Pixar Animation Studio's most widely-dislike films, Cars and Cars 2;* it does not otherwise have a single damn thing to do with Pixar, being as it was animated at India's Prana Animation Studios under the aegis of DisneyToon Studios, the company responsible for all those notorious direct-to-video sequels that John Lasseter ostensibly put a stop to back in 2008, on account of how they were diluting the value of the originals Given that Lasseter is, according to all available evidence, the single biggest fan of the Cars movies, one can barely stand to imagine how much it must have hurt him to executive produce this confounding extension of those movies' alternate universe, and presumably it was only to avoid hurting the feelings of the toy designers who, aw shucks, already had the prototype for the many marketing tie-ins ready for Planes that he did not likewise pull this one off the assembly line some early stage.
There's already enough evidence in this review for you to know exactly where things are going: in middle America, anthropomorphic crop duster Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) - pronounced "crawp-hawp-purr", not "crow-fop-per", which I just realised is what it looks like it should be when you see it written down like that - wants to be in the great Wings Across the World race, more than anything. Nobody takes him at all seriously, and he's doing serious damage to his innards by pushing so hard, but eventually he places, barely, in the qualifiers, and now with the aid of WWII veteran Skipper (Stacy Keach) he begins training to become the greatest kind of flyer, one who can compete with such legends of the sport as Mexican Stereotype (Carlos Alazraqui), British Stereotype (John Cleese), French-Canadian Stereotype (Julie Louis-Dreyfus, who's father was French, so apparently that's what makes it okay), and Somewhat Less Odious Indian Stereotype (Priyanka Chopra). You will undoubtedly drop dead of shock when I tell you that the final leg of the race comes down to a one-on-one face-off between Dusty and the complete asshole superstar Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith).
I am, firstly, impressed that Planes manages to shameless copy both of its predecessors in the Cars franchise, in order - the first third of the movie is the "hotshot kid and crusty old guy" movie, the rest is the "grand prix" movie, and tragically, there are no ghastly redneck caricatures getting involved in an international espionage ring. There's simply not time for it: and whatever else is true of Planes, at least it's blessedly short. All the less time to spend with the thoroughly unlikable characters and tired performances, with Cook attempting a bland knock-off of Owen Wilson that neatly compliment's Keach's feeble impression of Paul Newman.
All the less time, as well, to deal with the mountain of insanity the movie adds to the Cars universe, which was already the strangest place in all of Pixar. This is not a world that benefits from adding too many details, as Cars 2 proved; with Planes, there are so many bizarre wrinkles - starting with the need for crop dusters and the crops they're dusting in a universe that has no animal life and thus no herbivores (there's a tossed-off line that you could force to be a reference to bio-fuels, if you squint) - that it becomes increasingly impossible to take the setting for what it is, and start to wondering Who builds these planes? and Why can you root around in a plane's engine and have a conversation with him at the same time? Wouldn't that be like taking out a human's heart? Why is there a military? And a World War II? Are the planes and the cars evolutionarily linked? Why are there so many of those little forklift people, who seem to be the primary species on the planet, and neither cars nor planes?
Admittedly, questions like these - and many, many others, crop up mostly because Planes offers nothing else to distract you, unless you are a small child (and, to its credit, the small children in the audience when I saw it were thoroughly entertained, though the were also ready for it to be only about one hour long), and thus lack the sophisticated understanding of narrative tropes that allows you to predict, in detail, the exact shape of the film's final 20 minutes, from within the opening 10. There's no substance to the characters or narrative at all; it's the worst kind of storytelling by fiat, in which we are informed that this is the protagonist that we shall find compelling and involving, without there being any good reason to find him either of those things, and that's even without the wall of impenetrable white noise that is Dane Cook attempting his god-damnedest to sound like a callow Jimmy Stewart-style American kid.
It looks... decent, at least. There's nothing wrong with the animation, except in that even Pixar, at the mid-to-late-'00s height of its creative powers, wasn't able to figure out a way to make its cars look entirely appealing, and cars already resemble faces more than planes do (except maybe a Cessna, and there isn't one of those, except for echoes in Dusty's design). So there's something uniquely and consistently unpleasant about looking at the characters, and that's always rough. But the actual rendering and coloring and texturing of these abominations is more than satisfactory; the backgrounds are pretty handsome, though never as lusty and rich as the "don't you fucking love the American Southwest" design mentality in Cars, and there's a terrific storm at sea in the back half of the movie that includes some truly marvelous effects animation. But you are unlikely to walk of Planes thinking that it is a nice thing to have looked; frankly, even enjoying visuals requires a certain degree of engagement that this utterly dull, artistic dead-end of a marketing gimmick refuses to provide. So there you have it: a movie so boring it can't even be pretty.