Planes Review: A 2013 Animated Film By Walt Disney Studios

Planes_FilmPoster.jpegRating: (For Television Viewing) BB/ 60%

Summary: It’s A Plane, Indeed, But no Pixar. It’s A below Average Disney Theatre Release That Was Meant for Television, Where It Manages to Be Passable… I Saw It on TV.

Director: Klay Hall

 
Planes, Walt Disney Pictures’ spinoff to Disney Pixar’s Oscar-nominated 2006 venture ‘Cars’, takes place ‘above the world of cars’, according to the film’s tagline. As the film involves planes, it’s obviously set in the expanse of the skies. When Alfonso Cuarón to set his latest film ‘Gravity’ in space, certainly ‘far above the world of planes’, he envisioned something mighty to do justice to the backdrop. Planes, on the other hand, flies safely and steadily from its take-off to its landing without having a vision to do justice to the skies or its studios.

 
When Disney bought Pixar, the collaboration engendered some of the most illustrious, adventurous and memorable animated films in history. Each film had a common core audience: kids. But the family values infused in their stories along-with the top-notch animation gave Pixar a universal audience, and so may find even a fifty-year old war veteran possessing a DVD of Wall-E or Up! What differentiates Pixar from the studios such as Dreamworks (which is now picking up greatly in terms of the quality of its storytelling, especially with films such as Kung Fu Panda 2 and How to Train Your Dragon) is the ‘Pixar moments’.
You see this in every great Pixar film.

 
In Ratatouille, it comes when Anton Ego takes a bite of Remy’s Ratatouille and is taken back to nostalgic memories from his childhood. In Up, which has some of the most emotionally intense moments of any Pixar film, it comes when old man Carl finally gets to Paradise Falls, sits down on his favorite couch and opens Ellie’s Adventure Book. In Monsters University, which is one of the weaker Pixar efforts, it comes towards the end when Mike finds out about his teammate Sullivan’s skullduggery in winning the Scare Games. These are moments of profundity which successfully round up everything which the film wants to convey and elevate it to a status where we take not only the animation but also the film’s storytelling with seriousness. It is Pixar’s achievement.
Planes lands after its 90 minute travel with not even one Pixar moment to boast of.

 
The film is an underdog story with a universally accepted (therefore predictable) message that ‘One should never stop dreaming’. A great underdog story with far more originality, fun, wit and snazzy and panache was Gore Verbinski’s Oscar winning non-Pixar film Rango. That was about Rango, a pet chameleon, who becomes a county sheriff after accidently killing off a dreaded predator tormenting the county’s inhabitants. This is about Dusty, a crop-duster (planes commonly used for spraying insecticides over crops) with admirable flying skills who qualify for the ‘Wings Across the World’ racing championship, to everyone’s surprise, after the plane ahead of him in the qualifier is disqualified for using ‘illegal fuel enhancements’ (an obvious reference to the smartass steroid-users in sports).

 
Dusty is a rookie, albeit a passionate one. In the film’s opening scene, we see him flying at lightning speed alongside fighter jets, only to learn it’s one of his daydreams. He hates his current job and trains himself to become a racer by following the guidelines in ‘Air Racing for Dummies’ (another easy reference). He has only one pal Chug, the fuel truck, to support him; his forklift mechanic pal Dottie thinks he’s gone crazy. In Cars, Lightning McQueen’s companion Mater proved to be so memorable that he got an entire sequel – ‘Cars 2’ – for himself. Chug, on the other hand, is so unmemorable I had to hunt down Wikipedia to get his name. There is absolutely nothing distinctive about most of the ensemble in Planes. There’s Doc Hudson’s poor man Skipper, an unapproachable World War veteran with a secret, who trains Dusty for the championship. There is a forklift named what? (checking Wikipedia)… Dottie who warns him about his over-ambitious dreams.

 
Once Dusty reaches the event, he finds himself pitted against an assortment of world-class planes from different cultures (!): there’s 1) a plane representing Asia named Ishani, voiced by Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, who is one of the few characters I would want in the planned sequel 2) Ripslinger, a brash former champion whose green paint coating might remind us of Car’s antagonist Chick Hicks but whose attitude and characterization makes him seem like a wannabe villain 3) Bulldog, a pompous English veteran racer who’s vaguely similar to retiring veteran Strip Weathers from Cars 4) Rochelle, a petulant French-Canadian plane and 5) El Chupacabra, a horny Mexican (STEREOTYPE!!) plane who has hots for her. A multi-cultural environment means you get scenes highlighting some aspect about each culture. Here we get a pretty Americanized perception about everybody. Ishani being ‘The Indian’ is mysterious, with a ridiculous sitar sound playing during her scenes. She shows him the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World situated in Agra, on their way to the Himalayas. The Taj Mahal we see here is again a mysterious structure standing in the middle of lush verdurous scenery instead of the tourist spot it actually is. The major question that ran in my mind was “Who was its maker?”. Neither cars nor planes nor trucks nor trains have hands, and forklifts are too tiny to build structures so huge. Monsters and Robots could but not these machines. It’s a question that’s been running in my mind ever since I saw the stadiums and buildings in Cars. Probably the mightiness and ‘mystery’ of Taj Mahal really got me wondering how many liberties these films could take.

 
Here, another liberty. The film, unlike most Pixar and Disney stories we are familiar with, is the first to have the narrative haphazardness characteristic of masala Bollywood films. In masala Bollywood, you’d get to hear things like: ‘The film has a mix of everything: drama, action, comedy, romance!!’ and the makers keep their promise by stuffing portions of everything into these critical turkeys but box-office glories. In Planes, you get a dose of tired gags from the supporting cast between every flight. At one point, the film unexpectedly brings in a romantic courtship scene between El Chupacabra and Rochelle. When Dusty and Ishani fly around Taj Mahal, you’ll recognize the tune of ‘Dam Dara Dam Dara Mast Mast’ playing in the background especially if you’re an Indian and/or a big fan of Indian films and music. No problems here, and I like the fact other cultures are being explored, but the song choice is poor and only inserted because ‘she’s the Indian girl, remember. So, nothing but Indian music’. And the lyrics are just too romantic to be placed so early into the film unless they are Romeo and Juliet, which they are NOT.

 

The film is best suited for television, the medium it was originally intended for before Disney and Pixar got greedy and released it in theatres worldwide as part of Disneytoons Studios. . In fact, John Lassetter, the executive producer who wrote the concept of Planes, was the director of Cars, and traces of the latter film are seen so often in this film I had to remind myself twice that the director of Planes wasn’t Lassetter but Klay Hall (Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure). The animation is not at par with the best of Disney-Pixar and there isn’t much uniqueness in the story or the characters.

Fortunately, I saw it on VOD at home, where it just manages to be passable. Lucky Plane!

Review of Monsters University, a Pixar Animated Film Directed By Dan Scanlon; A Prequel to Monsters Inc

Grade: BBB / 70%

Summary: Until the interval, your eyes don’t open with the usual sense of wonderment while watching Pixar movies. Post intermission, they do, oh yes they do!

A timid clownfish who travels hundreds of miles in search of his son and an amnesiac regal blue tang who guides him along. A rat who can cook teams up with a prestigious chef’s illegitimate son who can’t. A trash compactor robot on Earth who falls in love with an advanced robot visiting from outer space to inspect for signs of life. A grumpy old retired widower who flies along with his entire house to Paradise Falls and a tubby little sprightly boy scout who is accidentally carried along. These are some of the unique pairings that have wonderfully driven Pixar Animated Studios to Oscar glory. Now consider this : a green little monster who knows each and every way to scare but can’t actually scare anybody, and his mighty college companion who can frighten one to death but is a one-trick pony. Does this Pixar pairing seem unique enough to hold up to its predecessors? Not really…

That’s problem number one Pixar’s latest venture Monsters University has to overcome. Problem number two: the movie is a prequel. Pixar is hardly known to make prequels or sequels; its only super successful franchise is the Toy Story Series, which began in 1995 and has continued with two hugely acclaimed sequels, the third part being nominated for the prestigious Best Picture at the Oscars. The other known franchise is Cars, whose sequel Cars 2 could barely score among critics (I adored both the films though).

This seems to be the decade of sequels of Pixar; on one hand, Monsters University comes ten years after the brilliant Monsters Inc, while on the other, Pixar classic Finding Nemo continues its legacy with Finding Dory, to be released in two years. Sequels or prequels is equal to familiarity, and we always expect Pixar to give us something new and original. Nobody bothers when rival studio Dreamworks clings to its green ogre Shrek to make money, but we have come to expect much greater things from Pixar, so the thought of watching its memorable characters do another act disconcerts us because we’ve seen the best already.

Problem number three: this movie is set in a college. You’d ask what’s wrong about that? American Pie was set in college and it worked. But keep in mind why American Pie worked: it was an R rated comedy about the three-letter-word with a lot of four-letter-words used in their three-letter-word context. Monsters University is G rated, and it’s comedy involves watching the lunch lady serve garbage to students while freshers are given a totally positive picture during an orientation of Monsters University conducted by a hyper-cheery girl. There are jock monsters, geek monsters, blonde monsters, prep monsters and other monsters of different shapes, sizes and colours in this university led by a staunch female dragon Dean. Oh so familiar you’d think if these were actors instead of monsters, this film would have been instantly forgotten.

Some of the names are cringe-worthy too – the movie’s protagonist Mike goes to ‘Frighton’ Elementary School as a child. Its a take on the word ‘fright’, get it?Uhm… not so bright. Also, you’d be surprised during this film to find sequences that remind you of other films. There’s an ‘initiation ceremony’ that’ll take you straight to the Ring of Fire sequence from Finding Nemo. The first part itself with the monster introductions feels similar to another animated film Hotel Transylvania, which albeit spent too much time showing one monster after the other. Five problems or rather challenges already, and does Pixar manage to overcome all of these? Yes, to a large extent it does.

I’d probably use the word ‘redeem’ than overcome here; Monsters University redeems itself by getting back its Pixar magic post interval. Until then, your eyes don’t open with the usual sense of wonderment while watching Pixar movies. You want to be googly eyed like the protagonist Mike when he steps into Monsters University for the first time, but you are unfortunately squinting instead. When you see his initial rivalry with Sullivan, you feel like you’ve seen all this before. Even when actress Helen Mirren unleashes her Miranda Priestley cum Sister Aloysius as Dean Hardscrabble, you still wait longing for signs of Pixar again, feeling as though you’re watching a Dreamworks film that’s been mistakenly marketed as Pixar’s.

By the interval, I’d coined the term ‘Pixar’s blot’ for this film, because I found nothing to positively surprise me in this work. This term would not be used for this film at all, however, as the second half surprised me – in a big way.

The film wakes up and becomes altogether special once Pixar’s magic slowly fills in like the scare-meter used by students of Monsters University to record scare-levels of children. Once Mike makes a wager with Dean Hardscrabble to retain him into the ‘Scare Program’ (he is suspended from the same for creating a chaos during their exam) if he stands the winner of a college event called ‘Scare Games’, he teams up with four other not-scary-in-the-slightest fraternity guys and his rival Sullivan, who’s also suspended and joins their team Oozma Kappa only to get back into the program; when the team begs to understand each other’s strengths and capabilities, you begin to see Pixar’s flashing light that you were waiting for so long. There’s an unexpected surprise I won’t disclose here, and eventually the film’s broader themes seem to have the depth of Pixar’s earlier efforts. The only problem in the end is the first half itself, which although seems necessary after watching the whole film, has no moment of Pixar spark. That jumpy little lamp you see every time he logo appears (he’s Luxor Jr., from an earlier short film) was probably on low voltage until the interval. Thank goodness everything turned out right afterwards and it burned bright. But I constantly was worrying the little bulb would blow out, and I don’t want to get that that feeling again, not from Pixar.

Review of 2013 Pixar Short The Blue Umbrella, Directed By Saschka Unseld, Screened Before Monsters University

Grade: BB / 60%

My screening for Monsters University began with Pixar short called ‘The Blue Umbrella‘. Not surprising as Pixar is known for screening a short film before its main features, but Indian theatres never played one perhaps, until today.

A typically touching Pixar short on a blue coloured umbrella (with little eyes) enamoured with a red coloured umbrella-ina (also with little eyes) one rainy night, The Blue Umbrella is a familiar tale yet Pixar livens up this film with its little magical moments. Its not just about to umbrellas here, but about two people – the owners of these umbrellas – who meet for the first time, after the blue umbrella chases after it’s or rather his lady love, using the wind to move.

And the entire street -the drain pipes, the traffic signal, the street lights, the building windows –  witnesses this incident with their little eyes. When a car threatens to mangle the blue umbrella that’s helplessly lying in the middle of the road, the drain it’s lying on blows out steam so it can avert the accident.

It’s not Pixar at its best; for that you’ll need to catch ‘Geri’s Game‘, ‘Knicks Knack‘, ‘Lifted’, ‘For The Birds‘ and ”Presto‘. But you’d surely shed a tear or two at the very end because you’d find ‘The Blue Umbrella’ simple yet very heartfelt.