‘Planes" begins with its main character, an airplane named Dusty, spewing brown smoke out of its tail as it crop-dusts an open field. This is oddly fitting, as crop-dusting is essentially what the film does to the audience for 92 minutes. (For those who don't know, "crop-dusting" is a slang term for "silently farting while walking.")
Watching the movie, you quickly realize you liked it better the first and second times you saw it when it was called "Cars," then "Cars 2." Pixar — the standard-bearer for computer-generated animation — made those two films, the first wildly successful, the second not as universally loved.
"Planes" is from DisneyToon Studios, which usually makes straight-to-video sequels no one's interested in, including such unseen-by-anyone gems as "Tarzan II" and "Cinderella III: A Twist in Time."
In the little hamlet of Propwash Junction, Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) dreams of becoming a racer. His coaches are Chug (Brad Garrett), a gas truck who knows very little about flying, and Chug's wife Dottie (Teri Hatcher), who's considerably more knowledgeable. Fortunately for Dusty, dubious circumstances allow him to qualify for the "Wings Around the Globe" race. He then embarks on a clichéd training montage and receives words of wisdom from older fighter plane Skipper (Stacy Keach) before heading to the globetrotting race. Dusty still has a problem, though, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he was built for economy, not speed: He's never flown above 1,000 feet, so he's afraid of heights.
In an effort to ensure "Planes" plays well internationally, the competitors in the race are from all over the world: Bulldog (John Cleese) is English, Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is from Quebec, Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) is Indian and El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) is from Mexico. Underhanded and dastardly deeds from reigning champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) and his cohorts Ned and Zed (both voiced by Gabriel Iglesias) are expected in the seven-leg, 31,000-kilometer race that will take the planes from New York to Iceland, Germany, China, Nepal and beyond.
There's no sense in lambasting the filmmakers for creating something clearly meant to be kid-friendly. But within that, there's room to appeal to adults, and aside from sports commentators cheekily voiced by Brent Musburger and Colin Cowherd, here too director Klay Hall falls short. "Rocky" and "Old Yeller" references don't work in this world, because there are no humans in the movie (and to that end: for whose consumption are the crops Dusty is crop-dusting?), and kids would benefit from seeing more global landmarks besides the Taj Mahal and Statue of Liberty.
Worse, it's only moderately, occasionally funny. It's interesting to have tractors be the de facto cows of this world, and more little trinkets like that would've made the film creatively entertaining throughout. Its heart is in the right place and it offers a nice message of believing you can do more than what you think you're capable of but, ultimately, "Planes" sputters when it needs to soar.