You can guess the plot of Disney’s Planes—it’s just Cars 2 with wings, an international romp that pits a humble country bumpkin against a fleet of literally jet-setting competitors in a race around the world. With pit stops in four continents, more cultural stereotypes than the Eurovision Song Contest, and a scene where a French-Canadian flyer gets serenaded by mariachis in a pagoda, it’s a great way to teach the kiddos about the rest of the planet while reinforcing the ideas that British planes don’t cry, Mexican planes love telenovelas, and Indian planes giggle shyly while being followed around by blushing forklifts wearing saris.
Will crop-duster Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) make like Rocky and smoke his competition with a little help from his friends, which include a moronic fuel truck (Brad Garrett) and a stern World War II fighter plane (Stacy Keach)? Take a guess. But even though Planes wouldn’t know the word “suspense” if a skywriter puffed it into the air, the questions it raises are bizarrely fascinating, at least to adults. (To the kids’ credit, an hour in I heard one bored tyke whine, “Mom, can we go to the library?”)
Let’s start with the basics: Who is Dusty dusting crops for? With no humans in Planes‘s apparently post-humanoid world—look up Jon Negroni’s startling one-world Pixar Theory, in which the Cars epoch follows the Wall-E collapse of primate civilization—growing corn, unless perhaps for biofuel, is a miserable task that would only make sense as a Sisyphean punishment. Our hearts leak transmission fluid when Dusty complains, “I’ve flown thousands of miles and I’ve never been anywhere.” But what if he’s done something terrible to deserve it?
Thirty minutes in, as Dusty finally wheels down the runway to begin his uplifting adventure, it’s natural if your wandering mind might also ask when a plane becomes sentient. If we’re assuming a human-like timeline, and also believe that life begins at ignition, then Dusty’s most wizened ancestor can only hearken back to 110 years of history. Yet, how thrilling to muse that maybe instead it’s the raw material—not the motors—that are alive, and the iron ore destined to be forged into these Planes and Cars has been self-aware since it was burped from a volcano. And that, with regular oiling, it may live on for millennia, perhaps even bearing witness to the collapse of the sun. How awe-inspiring be this machinery, almost godlike in its scope and scale! How much it owes its powerful offscreen deity, the Unknown Welder! And how ironically human is its dull day-to-day existence! As Dusty’s underdog quest to finish first fuels an international media frenzy, other planes are content merely to watch along on television. (Are the TV sets also alive? Will we get a movie about them?)
It’s at least clear that Dusty and his high-flying friends have read their Victorian science journals—or, lacking hands, listened to the books on tape. Planes‘s society has full faith in Social Darwinism. Though Dusty can touch the clouds, he’s allowed no upward mobility. Instead, he’s mocked for his innate blueprint—as a wisecracking forklift (voiced by Sinbad, seriously) jokes he’s built for seed, not speed. Even his friends find his dream of fast flight insane. And he’s got it easy. If a heap of bolts is unlucky enough to get assembled as a forklift, it’s forced to spend eternity in servitude as a plane’s lord or lady-in-waiting, towing its masters to the tarmac, buffing them with microfiber cloths, and, at best, delivering a plucky speech when the boss is too frightened to fly.
Lowest of all are the tractors, who are quite literally a lesser species. On Dusty’s farm, they’re treated with the benevolent condescension of a kid who rides the short bus; in Mumbai, we realize that they’re actually more like cows. “Many believe that we will be recycled as tractors,” coos Dusty’s crush, the aforementioned Indian plane Ishani (Bollywood star and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra).
By the time Planes gets to this scene, if your restless toddler hasn’t already dragged you out of the theater, there’s a good chance you might be thinking about death. Yes, planes can die. But it’s hard. They’re immune to disease, seemingly immune to old age, and impossible to drown. The best way to murder a talking plane appears to be explosives, or, like the T-1000, smelting it in lava. Hewing to Disney tradition, Dusty’s parents are nonexistent or dead, yet I kept hoping Dusty’s dad would apparate, à la Hamlet’s father, in the form of a ghostly data recorder. And as a final philosophical paradox, following a bit where Dusty gets decked out with a new propeller and wings, it feels imperative to know at which point in a RoboCop-esque rebuild does a plane stop being himself—and how a kids’ movie about accepting yourself reconciles having the lead character get a cockpit-to-rudder makeover. It’s like if The Little Mermaid not only ended with Ariel keeping her legs, but also getting liposuction and a nose job.
Before these near-immortal flying machines conquer the planet, here are humans worthy of mention: director Klay Hall, for trusting that kids want to see a cartoon obsessed with radials and trajectories and graph paper; the animators of the gorgeous 3D confetti battened between propellers at the race’s starting line; the casting genius who gave voice cameos to Top Gun‘s Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer; and writer Jeffrey M. Howard, for naming a character Fonzarelli. Can a plane jump a shark when it’s already in the air? To Disney, that question is moot. It’s so certain that Planes will make a mint in toys, if not in theaters, that it’s already slated a sequel for next summer. And allegedly next on the assembly line: Trains and Boats. All aboard? Do we have a choice?