Most Walt Disney protagonists dream of bigger and better things: Pinocchio wished he were a real boy, Cinderella longed to meet her Prince Charming, the Little Mermaid hoped to shed her aquatic tail and be part of our world. The trend continues with the Mouse House’s latest dissatisfied hero, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), who fantasizes about doing “more than I was built for.” Dusty’s a plane, you see—a crop duster who’d rather be racing around pylons than spraying rows of corn with fertilizer. He gets his chance after just barely placing in a local competition, which guarantees him a spot in a globehopping aerial race. But first this green country boy (who is paradoxically afraid of heights) requires some Rocky-esque tutelage from Skipper (Stacy Keach), a seemingly tough-as-nails Navy Corsair whose gruff demeanor hides his tragic past.
A typically colorful, narratively inconsequential entry in the Disney canon, Planes manages to be slightly more involving than the two installments of Cars (an opening card informs us that all of these sentient machines share the same world). Credit director Klay Hall and his team of animators for maximizing the gravity-defying visuals—an ethereal flight to a Himalayan monastery is especially awe-inspiring—which distract from much of the questionable comedy. Strangest is the film’s tendency toward racial stereotyping, which comes off as breezily silly at best (John Cleese’s Bulldog is a snooty British De Havilland Comet) and downright insensitive at worst (Cedric the Entertainer voices a Southern-accented laze-about biplane named Leadbottom). But what really undoes the movie is its seen-it-all-before familiarity: Every crisis feels manufactured, be it the egotistical machinations of the villainous Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) or Dusty’s own third-act doldrums, which milk parent-figure pathos in all the ways you’d expect a Disney film to. The characters may soar, but viewers’ spirits stay grounded.
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