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Earlier today, Entertainment Weekly posted a chat with John Lasseter about the way things are divided between the three different animation companies that all work now under the broader umbrella of "Disney." Walt Disney Feature Animation has always been the crown jewel for the studio, and many of the biggest landmarks in the company's history have been thanks to the efforts of WDFA. Pixar, which began as an independent studio, now operates with what seems to be some autonomy, but considering Lasseter is part of everything now, I'm not sure I see why they bother with the distinction. I'll be honest... what I think of as Pixar is really just a loose collection of very talented people who, when collaborating, represented one of the best story departments in the industry.
Then there's Disney Toons, and I would imagine the people working there must feel a bit like the red-headed stepchild, especially when the main message of the press materials so far has been "We started work on this as a direct-to-video quickie, but it looked nicer than we expected, so we decided to squeeze out a few bucks in the theater first."
Is that fair? Is that what you should carry in with you if you go to see "Planes"?
After all, the marketing has emphasized that this all takes place in the world of "Cars," and there's even a very strange branding credit at the start of the film that reads "World Of Cars," which implies that Disney is planning to explore more corners of this incredibly strange world, and that "Planes" is just the beginning. If that's true, I'm sure the accountants at Disney are already giggling at the thought of all the money they're going to be making, because these movies appear to be pure crack for kids.
I've watched my own kids as they've absorbed "Cars" and "Cars 2," and when they tell me how much they love the movies, I just smile and happily let them play the films again. I confess that these are the only films in the entire Pixar portfolio that I genuinely don't understand. Sometimes I think people think I'm kidding when I explain why the movies confuse me, but I'm not. I genuinely don't get the world of these films, and that seems doubly-strange when you look at how careful every other Pixar film has been to establish the ground rules for whatever reality it is that we're watching.
Is it ridiculous to think that a rat could learn to cook fine French cuisine? Sure. But in the world of "Ratatouille," we're shown how the ridiculous becomes real. The world of "WALL-E" may not be the world we live in, but we can see how it got there from the world we recognize right now. The "Toy Story" films may not spend a lot of time explaining the exact mechanics by which the toys all know not to move or speak in front of humans (and we may never learn why Buzz, who doesn't think he's a toy, still follows those rules anyway), but at least they nod to the fact that it is a concept that has to be acknowledged. The world of "Cars" and "Planes" makes no sense at all unless we pretend that all of this is taking place after some sort of incident has made every single human being disappear from the planet. Humans had to exist at some point, because everything in the world, including all the talking cars and planes, still appears to have been designed with human beings in mind. The more I try to engage with "Cars" or "Cars 2" or "Planes" in a logical manner, the more I realize that no one associated with the film even remotely tried to justify what we're watching. These are films that are about the way things look, not the way things work, and it drives me completely bananas.
Thankfully, my kids remain just as charmed by this world as they were the first two times, and they probably couldn't articulate any real difference in quality between the "Cars" movies and this new entry. I'm surprised how interchangeable the film is with "Turbo," which DreamWorks Animation released last month, but I guess I'm at that point as a parent where the template they're using for these films no longer holds even the possibility of surprise for me. Heavy on the ethnic stereotypes? Sure. Underdog story about an unlikely racer? Yep. Bad guy in the race who has to eventually be shown up? Of course. Lots of celebrity cameos that will mean absolutely nothing to the kids watching? Totally. I think the only real difference is that "Turbo" has a richer color palette, and "Planes" plays a few of its beats a little darker.
The voice cast includes Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Carlos Alazraqui, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Sinbad, Brent Musburger, and Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper, the crop dusting plane who decides he has to enter a race around the world. The script by Jeffrey M. Howard is perfectly functional, and I think he does a better job of playing off of the international nature of the race without being offensive than "Turbo" did. Here, the various stereotypes are pretty gentle, and the cast does a nice job of grounding the characters. Director Klay Hall also takes full advantage of the inherent beauty of flight and the skies around the world, and he makes the most of any environmentally driven sequence. There's a "Perfect Storm" beat when Dusty finds himself flying low out in the middle of a stormy Pacific that's pretty impressive, and in general, the film is very pretty. I suspect that for most parents, you'll find this to be a sedative, but a pleasant one. There is never a second that Dusty's fate is anything but certain, and the linear nature of every scene plays more like a list of set-ups and pay-offs than anything actually earned or organic, but we are talking about films about a world made up of nothing but talking machines.
I've noticed that with my kids, all films get an initial reaction of "Awesome." Then, over the next 24 hours, they will talk about a movie pretty much nonstop in a list of questions so long and so random that even BuzzFeed would be worn down by it, and by the end of that process, they will have their pretty much final stance on a film. Until they see it again. If they see it again. That's a sign for me that something has made an impression. There are many films Toshi sees once and never asks about again, and he liked them, but they pretty much just bounced right off. Allen's the same way. They've been watching the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movies recently, and they've seen the second one three times, and the first one just the once. With "Planes," Allen seems especially taken with it, and Toshi moved on before we even got home. This feels like it skews younger because of how carefully it follows formula. By contrast, both of the "Cars" films have gotten a fair amount of replay from them. I'm curious if that changes once this comes home. Both of the "Cars" films feel like they are much more sedate, which is part of the message of that first film. There's a quiet quality to it that marks it as personal work by Lasseter, a sincere appreciation of a part of American culture that is in danger of disappearing, and I don't think the first film gets enough credit for that. I'm willing to overlook how weird the mythology is in the first film because I think it actually is saying something that means something to a guy who I consider a genuine titan in the history of American animation. In the second film, I was forced to think about it more closely. I mean, Mater eats wasabi at one point by mistake. He's a car. In a world of cars. At a party that is being thrown by cars for other cars. There are no humans in sight. No organic creatures at all.
SO WHY IN THE HELL IS ANYONE SERVING WASABI IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I AM NOT FREAKED OUT THAT MATER ACCIDENTALLY EATS WASABI.
I AM FREAKED OUT BECAUSE WASABI WAS BEING SERVED AT ALL.
WHO IS THAT WASABI FOR?
AND WHY ISN'T ANYONE ELSE CREEPED OUT BY THIS?
Look, Disney's not trying to trick anybody. The name of the film is "Planes." That is about as close to calling your film "One Ticket Please" as you can get. That is filmmaking as ATM, in which studios have no choice but to greenlight a movie like that. If you know for sure that something's just going to mint stacks and stacks and stacks of cash for you, both in terms of the movie itself and especially in terms of merchandise, then that's the thing you back. You push all your chips to the middle on that. Disney has been clearly building out the holes in their empire recently, and their stewardship of The Muppets and Marvel and Star Wars in addition to everything we already think of as Disney pretty much guarantees that at least five of every dollars I spend on entertainment for me and the boys in the next ten years is going to go to Disney in some way. It is their world, and if they make a "Planes 2" or "Planes 3" or "Motorcycles" or "Jet Ski Family Holiday" or whatever other ridiculous version of this, they do it knowing full well that the kids they're making it for will keep doing so with a Pavlovian zeal, and how can I blame them for that?
When we went to see the film on Monday, it was Disney's premiere, held at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. I took both the kids, and there was a street fair type thing held on a closed-to-traffic Hollywood Boulevard before the movie. Every game that the kids played was designed to make every kid a winner, which meant that by the fourth or fifth game, I had two huge canvas bags with Target's logo on the outside, both packed full with stuffed animals and wind-up planes for the floor and candy-dispensing planes that were fans as well and t-shirts and a pool-toy version of "El Chupacabra," a plane who also appears to be wearing a luchador mask, which opens up a whole line of questioning that just makes me tired. And as we sat through the movie, I started laughing at one point at the sight of bunches of parents all around me, laps and aisles overflowing with Disney swag, the movie playing out almost like a catalog for the entire product line that we had all sampled so heartily before the movie began. Say what you will, but Disney knows how to get the hooks in early and deep. As we were walking to the car afterwards, Allen was reciting the names of the characters that had just been introduced, telling me which row they would be in when we went to Target. A foregone conclusion in his mind. After all, he had the starter kit right there in his arms. All he was asking, quite reasonably, was for me to buy all the rest of it as well.
Well-played, Disney. Well-played. Fair ain't got nothing to do with it.
"Planes" is truth in advertising. It is omnipresent starting today.