The Cars films have always been a black mark on Pixar’s permanent record. It’s not that the movies are bad – although the first one is too slow, the second is too ridiculous and neither of them make any sense to speak of – it’s that they reek of pandering to merchandise-swilling young people. The rest of Pixar’s output always seemed to have put a genuinely good story first and foremost. That’s why Planes is the best Cars so far, even though it’s about planes. It does nothing special whatsoever with the cinematic form but at least it works as its own movie and not just a bloated Doc Hollywood knock-off, or a spy film that had no need to be set in a world of talking cars.
Planes goes out of its way to tell a formulaic underdog story, but it gets the formula right and it doesn’t fill every frame with constant reminders that “The World of Cars” is a fundamentally dumb idea. The film stars Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper, a crop-dusting plane that dreams of being a racing plane instead. The first, most obvious question that comes to mind is why the hell a world consisting entirely of planes, cars and other vehicular abominations would need crops to begin with, but hey, look at that: Planes reveals in the very third scene that they use corn oil as fuel. That actually makes sense. This alone makes Planes the best film in the Cars franchise, and it didn’t even have to try very hard.
It also helps that, unlike Turbo – a film about a snail who dreams of being a racecar and stupidly succeeds – the hero’s journey in Planes actually makes sense and requires him to work hard and learn valuable lessons to achieve his goals. He doesn’t get superpowers, so he has to win the big race through actual discipline. Plus, he’s genuinely decent person, or plane, whatever. Dusty doesn’t have the engine power to properly compete in Planes’ around the world racing event, but even then he’s still willing to jeopardize what little chance he has just to help one of his fellow planes, voiced by John Cleese, to land safely after experiencing catastrophic technical failure.
No matter how much his competitors try to take advantage of each other to win the race – because that’s what competitors often do, since it’s a race after all – Dusty never lets them turn him into a dick. As a moral that’s more than a little simplistic, but I’d rather our kids put Dusty Crophopper on a pedestal than a snail who gets superpowers and uses them for personal gain and nothing else. (Yes, fine, Turbo also helped a taco stand drum up business, but that was incidental to his goals and you know it.)
The rest of Planes, beyond the effective underdog story and laudatory morals, is about as straightforward as you can get. The characters are a cornucopia of clichés, from the douchey racer who will stop at nothing to win, to the wise old expert who gave up the game years ago (and who is incidentally the exact same character type used in the original Cars, not that it’s worth remembering these things). Dusty’s competitors are defined by their nationality more than any actual characteristics to speak of. The seemingly overweight sidekick (well, he’s chubby for a plane at any rate) gets bonus points for having the outsized dignity of a Mexican wrestler – “I swish my cape at you… Now you are shamed” – which helps elevate his tacked on romance with a French-Canadian jet to above-average comedic and dramatic heights, since now it’s a subplot about romantic pride, not the usual neurotic shame this type of character typically has to overcome.
Look, there’s just not much to Planes, really. Our hero has a little raw talent, he hones it through respectable training montages, he teaches his competitors a thing or two about good sportsmanship, and all the obstacles are more or less overcome. The animation is nice but lacks the level of detail you would normally expect from a Pixar movie, which again, this is not. But despite Pixar’s lofty credibility Planes manages to outdo both of their Cars movies at every turn, just by making a little sense. Although it is weird that there’s a World War II flashback in a movie about a weird post-apocalyptic future where vehicles gained sentience, killed us all and usurped our culture.
Seriously, why were all the cars, planes and boats trying to kill each other anyway, and when are we going to see that movie? They could call it Carsablanca. Or The Dirty Datsun. Or Inglourious Aston Martins. Or Saving Private Scion. Or Grave of the Pontiac Firebirds. Or The Great Escalade. Or Mrs. Minivan. Or…