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You can be forgiven if you think "Planes," the animated Disney film opening Friday, is from hallowed animation giant Pixar, creator of "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo" and the like. It's not. The film was actually produced by Disney Toon Studios, and "Planes" was supposed to be a direct-to-video release, to land quietly on the shelves along with such films as "Cinderella III: A Twist in Time" and "Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie."
But "Planes" is being pitched as a spin-off of Pixar's "Cars" franchise, with the posters noting it takes place "above the world of 'Cars.'" And somewhere along the line, someone at Disney got smart, and realized they could throw the film into theaters, slather it in 3-D to ring up that extra-dimension ticket surcharge, and suck in millions of kids wearing Lightning McQueen T-shirts.
The plot is much like this summer's superior offering, "Turbo," and more than a little like "Cars," of course. A cropduster named Dusty who's afraid of heights competes in an around-the-world race, and must overcome his own fears and the dismissal of others who think he's not good enough because of his rustic background. There are good lessons there, of course, if clumsily executed in parts.
Here's what you need to know if you're taking your little pilots to see "Planes" in the theaters.
1. Is it worth seeing?
Going to waffle here and say "it depends." At press time, "Planes" had earned a sad 21% from review site Rotten Tomatoes, with critics using words like "uninspired" and "cheap and dull." But the intended audience isn't movie critics, it's kids with less refined tastes. Overall, our five-year-old enjoyed the film, but there were more than a few moments where we could see it wasn't holding her attention -- or those of older kids around her. If your child is fascinated by things that fly, or by racing, or simply adores the "Cars" universe of googly-eyed vehicles, the animation is fun. But this is a summer where parents are spoiled for choice when it comes to kids' movies. "Monsters University," "Despicable Me 2," and "Turbo" are all better films than "Planes," which has pretty much the same plot as "Turbo" anyway.
2. Should I pay extra for the 3-D?
Not if you can help it. All it does it make the film darker. The planes soar just fine without the glasses and ticket surcharge.
3. Is it appropriate for younger kids?
It's rated PG, but there's no violence or any really scary scenes, except for some bad weather and a few encounters with a plane who tries everything to win. You may want to take time after the film to discuss the film's reliance on easy national stereotypes -- the planes from other countries come straight from Central Cliche Casting. But for those concerned with nightmare-inducing scenes, "Planes" is tamer than the G-rated "Monsters University."
4. Will adults enjoy it, or just have to grin and bear it for the young 'uns sake?
"Planes" leaps to life during the around-the-world race, but it's also laden with wordy talk about the mechanics of flight and features a clunky sideplot about Dusty's mentor, a WW II plane who has a secret. There are a few spots where only adults will laugh -- tractors representing cows get tipped, a plane is named Fonzarelli for no apparent reason, the JFK Airport air-traffic controller has JFK's voice. When it gets dull, the adults can try and pick out the stars behind the voices. (Hint: Two fighter jets are voiced by actors from "Top Gun" -- no, not Tom Cruise!) And though it's not a Pixar film, Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger gets his cameo.
5. What's the best scene for the inevitable potty break?
Any of the numerous scenes where the planes start discussing their specific equipment and parts, or the lengthy bit where El Chupacabra, the Mexican plane, courts Rochelle, the French-Canadian plane. Cross-cultural romance was never so snoozy.
6. Is there a sequel coming?
There are two -- next up is "Planes: Fire and Rescue" in 2014. And if there aren't the inevitable model planes, pajamas, lunchboxes and fast-food toys, we'll eat our air-sickness bag.