Originally slated as a direct-to-video spin-off of Pixar’s Cars produced by DisneyToon Studios (Disney’s direct-to-video arm), Disney made the last-second decision to release Planes in theaters to generate additional box-office revenue and, ultimately, make it a bigger hit on DVD, where it’s likely to make most of its profits.
It’s easy to see this as a cynical ploy by Disney to capitalize on Pixar’s goodwill, and in part, it is, but it’s not quite as cynical as you might think. DisneyToon Studios exists to create these direct-to-video movies that are designed to appeal to very young kids, and movies that appeal exclusively to this demo tend not to do well in theaters because parents have no interest in suffering through them, and the young adult demo that drives box-office revenue also tends to steer clear. However, if you approach these spin-offs from the perspective of a young kid, instead of a viewer, their existence is not necessarily a bad thing.
Essentially, DisneyToon Studios takes a known identity (Lion King, Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, etc.), crudely creates a movie within the same universe using some or all of the same characters, brings in second-rate voice actors, grafts those characters into a very formulaic template, and strips the movie of anything that the original might have done to appeal to adults. That means no pop-culture references, no winks at the audience, no double entendres, and no pop hits on the soundtrack. Most importantly, the dramatic tension — what makes a movie interesting to an adult but “scary” to a child — is mostly stripped away.
It makes the movies an absolute snoozer for adults (in fact, I slept through half an hour of Planes and was disappointed to find myself awake before the third act), but kids from 4-8 get to enjoy a movie without any of the jokes that go over their head, or any of the tension that often doesn’t sit well with smaller kids. It’s why, when Slate asked kids what their favorite Pixar movies, Cars 2 ranked even higher than the original Cars and Brave — the scariest of the lot — was the second most poorly received (I specifically remember the screening of Brave that I attended had scores of anxious and/or crying children, including my own then four year old who was curled in my lap for portions of the film).
That’s a long way of saying that young kids will like Planes because it is not scary, because it lacks dramatic tension, because of the bad puns based on idioms familiar to kiddos (“For flying out loud!”), because planes fly really fast, and because the good guy wins in the end. A six year old does not give a sh*t that Robin Williams is providing a voice, or if Christina Aguilera is providing a soundtrack song.
Adults will dislike Planes for the same exact reasons young kids love it, but then again, DisneyToon Studios is no more attempting to appeal to adults than the makers of Zombieland were attempting to appeal to five year olds. It is as cookie cutter a movie as is possible: Underdog dust cropper enters a round-the-world competition with racing planes, overcomes his fear of heights, thwarts the bullying favorites, and wins the race. It’s the same movie we saw three weeks ago, in Turbo, only with 40 percent of the budget, none of the adult appeal, planes instead of snails, and Dane Cook instead of Ryan Reynolds (both films also opened with low $20 million weekends, which is a great number for Planes and made Turbo a bomb).
For what it’s worth, my six year old also preferred Planes to Turbo, while I found Turbo mildly amusing and completely checked out of Planes. While I’d certainly prefer animated fare that holds some appeal for adults, the experience is not designed for me. It’s designed for young kids, and in that respect, Disney’s cynical, exploitative, brand tarnishing gambit was a huge crowd pleaser.