I’m “biast” (con): hate the Cars movies, and this looked even worse
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
As fictional world-building goes, Pixar’s Cars universe — in which machines are sentient and the evidence of departed or extinct humanity is everywhere — is perhaps the most bizarre, the most disturbing, and the least credible in the annals of science fantasy. It asks us to suspend disbelief hurtling in from multiple directions… and all so that we may be subjected to mechanical vehicles portrayed as (human) gender and ethnic stereotypes acting out a “humorous” story rife with tired clichés.
Maybe this is why humanity escaped the planet or just died in despair: because we saw what we had wrought in our constructs, reflecting the cheapest, laziest, most predictably small-minded we can be, and simply couldn’t bear it.
This franchise started out in ways less than auspicious: Cars was Pixar’s contractual-obligation movie, and it felt like little more than a pre-fab ad campaign for new toys. It was the only awful Pixar movie until Cars 2, which was worse. And now we have Planes, which is like a prank pulled by the same sort of trickster god who would invent talking automobiles who believe they are male or female. It’s not a Pixar production. Disney originally intended Planes to go direct to DVD, acknowledging up front that this is the kind of schlock that’s “good” for nothing but the electronic babysitting of toddlers and fomenting consumer desire in impressionable children for the new extruded plastic Dusty Crophopper toys that factories in China manned by desperate people working 16-hour shifts are producing from the last of the easily accessible oil. The kiddies will be demanding them, because they don’t have the media literacy to reject bright colors and zooming images.
And for what? A junky retread of the Cars flicks? Apparently there is nothing to do in this universe but race. Because here we have a crop-dusting plane called, with such deeply clever originality, Dusty Crophopper (the voice of Dane Cook: Dan in Real Life, Mr. Brooks), and he wants to enter a round-the-world air race. Even though racing isn’t what he was built for, which is supposed to be some sort of anthropomorphic-aviation take on the dare-to-dream plot. It’s bad enough this sort of thing has been run into the ground previously, and would require a helluva lot more creativity than Planes has to offer in order to make it fresh and even just the slightest bit interesting. But it literally makes no sense in this context. Dusty was, in fact, built for crop-dusting, and there shouldn’t be any way in hell he has a ghost of a chance against planes that were built for speed. At least Cars’ Lightning McQueen is actually a racing car. And there’s no fantastical excuse for how Dusty might see his dream come true, as in this summer’s other apparently very similar animated flick, Turbo, in which the snail who dreams of speed gets a superhero-type transformation via an injection of nitro. Dusty is, simply and simplistically, the little plane who could, but he’s not competing against himself and his own ideas about what he might be able to do: he’s competing against other machines who are clearly designed to do things he cannot physically do.
Ah, well, there is one way in which Dusty is competing against himself: he’s afraid of heights. Could not screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard have invented something the teensiest bit clever? Something the teensiest bit plane-ish? A fear of heights is very human. How about a fear of landing? That would be plane-ish. What is the point of telling a story about anthropomorphic planes if they’re going to be just like humans?
“It’s just a kids’ movie” is no excuse. Kids deserve better than this.
Look, either this all works in its own context and under its own rules, in which case Planes is full of howling, menacing mysteries. How do flying metal cans have gender and, ugh, sexual attraction? (You can tell which planes are “female” because they’re pink and pretty, and might turn a coy landing-gear ankle to flirt. Yes, this happens in Planes.) How do flying metal cans have ethnicity — and hence by the usual sort of extrapolation in what passes for “for kids” these days — rampant ethnic stereotypes? What purpose do commuter planes serve in a world without commuters? Or else it’s all metaphoric, in which case, what are we telling our kids when even in a world in which planes are sentient, “ladies” is considered an insult when directed at “male” planes? When the aggressive harassment of a “woman” plane is totally cool, because “no” means “yes” and eventually she’ll come round (she does)? When only “boys” can dare to dream and “girls” will be there to support them along the way?
You know how you’re gonna feel after those made-in-China Dusty Crophopper toys are broken and forgotten two days after you spend money you don’t have on them? Planes has that feeling built right in.