It is an ongoing mystery that the weakest of all Pixar's would-be franchises -- that would be Cars -- has already spawned a sequel and now this aeronautic spinoff.
Then again, this is likely a case where the quality of the movie takes the jump seat next to more important considerations such as: How many toys can we sell?
In the case of Planes, the answer is: Plenty.
No. 1 on your toddler's future Christmas list is Dusty Crophopper (voiced without a trace of gee-willikers naivete by Dane Cook), a humble crop-duster with aspirations to be a racer.
His dream is nurtured by his best pal Chug (Brad Garrett), a plebeian fuel truck and only tolerated by Dottie (Teri Hatcher), a fork-lift truck who also functions as Dusty's personal mechanic. The obligatory withholding father figure (see also: Paul Newman in Cars) is Skipper (Stacy Keach), a grounded Navy Corsair initially content to discourage Dusty from afar.
When Dusty gets a chance to qualify for the upcoming round-the-world flying competition, he leaves the crops behind for a crop of lightly-sketched character stereotypes from around the world, including a stiff-upper-lip British plane named Bulldog (voiced by John Cleese), tough-but-feminine Indian flying machine Ashani (Priyanka Chopra), a determinedly romantic Mexican Zorro-wannabe known as El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) and even a French-Canadian eyelash-flutterer named Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Dominating everybody is the arrogant champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), an aggressive jerk not above cheating to get to first place.
If this sounds like a direct-to-DVD kind of knockoff, well... it was. Not that we're judging. Toy Story 2 was likewise designated for the home-video market until Pixar realized they had a classic on their hands worthy of theatrical release.
Planes doesn't really warrant the upgrade however, although it does have some exciting flying scenes, realized by director and flying enthusiast Klay Hall. The movie also earns a few bonus air miles with some exotic locales (Dusty and Ashani do a romantic aerial tour of the Taj Mahal) and a few genuinely funny moments mostly courtesy of Alazraqui's comic reading of El Chu, which includes a ballad-y rendition of the disco hit I'm Just a Love Machine, one of the movie's rare moments of inspiration.
On the downside, a flashback to Skipper's wartime experiences are a tad too grim for the crowd. And the stereotypes are not so much irreverent as irrelevant.
British Bulldog? Really?