Directed by Klay Hall
Voices of Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Priyanka Chopra, Brad Garrett, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Roger Craig Smith, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui
Dusty is a crop-dusting plane from the countryside who dreams of competing in an around-the-world aerial race. This has proven to be a highly dangerous competition for the fastest planes and it risks being lethal for a tiny plane with a fear of heights.
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Once upon a time, in faraway lands, Simba gave up “Hakuna Matata” to guide his tribe, Marlin crossed the ocean to save Nemo, and Woody let Andy go, realizing that his life was to be seen as service. Not every hero has to save the world, and not every movie needs to have an epic dimension.
But watching Planes makes us ache for all those characters able to go beyond themselves and their personal ambitions. If Brave celebrated the affirmation of an independent, feminine ego, Cars’s spin-off seems to make a similar narrative choice, by centering its story around the celebration of personal dreams and individualism.
Dusty’s closest friends, Dottie, a forklift, and Chug, a small truck, assist him in his adventure. His mentor is Skipper, a warplane, who left the force after a mysterious accident. Once the race begins, new characters enrich the narrative. El-Chupacabra is a masked Mexican plane (used as comedic device) in love with the Canadian competitor. Ishani is an Indian plane that serves as Dusty’s romantic interest. Lastly, there is Bulldog, English and seemingly arrogant, who learns to appreciate and respect Dusty.
To each one of them, the protagonist teaches the value of friendship, solidarity and honesty. The story cannot miss its antagonist; in this case, it is the defending champion with his two sidekicks, who does not hesitate to commit any sort of wrong to win the title.
Initially thought as a direct-to-video film, Planes is a story that has the right elements to fly but never manages to take off. The problem lies in the superficiality of its screenplay, both in terms of content and narrative. The story appeals to a lazy and bland Disneyan sense of good, avoiding any attempt to deal with truer, and consequently problematic, human themes.
Dusty’s friendship with Dottie and Chung are never explored and/or put to the test. The screenwriters describe an idyllic relationship that does not know jealousy or weaknesses. This is a smiley world, which has been deprived of any chance of growth.
The only exception is the duo of Dusty and Skipper. When the protagonist discovers that everything he has admired in the old plane comes from a lie, their friendship cracks. What could have been an opportunity to pose questions on the meaning of responsibility and failure, and for the protagonist to mature, resolves too quickly and in an anti-cinematic manner.
The other moments of conflicts between the contenders are equally superficially explored. It is interesting to notice how the secondary characters are always the ones making mistakes and consequently making amend and maturing.
Our protagonist is imperfect only “physically” but does not need to learn anything on a “human” level. Even his terror of heights is never motivated or faced realistically. Dusty overcomes his fear because he needs to win, because the story wants him to win, not because he acquires a better sense of himself.
Emblematic is the “dressing” scene, where Dusty receives new shiny parts that make him look like one of the contenders rather than the little crop-dusting plane we used to love. At this point, it is licit to wonder what the message of the movie is.
If to achieve the dream of a lifetime, Dusty needs to change everything that makes him different (special maybe?), what is he really teaching our kids?