Dusty Crophopper knows his job. And it’s a good one. But in this world of living, breathing cars, planes, trucks and trains, he dreams of being so much more than simply a plane that dusts farm fields with vile-smelling vitaminimulch.
He wants to dive and cut, swoop and soar. Well … maybe not soar so much because he’s, ahem, just a little afraid of heights. But he wants to really fly. He wants to be better.
Dusty longs to fly among the P-51s and turboprops, zooming off in the renowned Wings Around the Globe air race. He may not be sleek and super-powerful like those other planes, but he’s got a good heart beating behind that spinning propeller of his. He also has good friends in the form of a fuel truck best pal named Chug, a forklift-mechanic named Dottie and an old war veteran flight coach named Skipper. They’ll help him through with all they’ve got. He just knows it!
He also knows it’s not going to be a glide in the park. There are plenty of aerodynamic reasons why he shouldn’t be able to compete. Plus, the returning air race champion, Ripslinger, is ready to pull every oil-spilling, wing-torqueing dirty trick possible to make sure that the trophy stays in his locker—and that Dusty limps back to the farm where he “belongs.”
Dusty sets a good example for kid viewers throughout. He diligently works hard to improve his skills, taking a seasoned pro’s advice and practicing every move. He faces his fears. He accepts his shortcomings but never gives up. And he also stays true to himself when the other planes become a bit more cutthroat in their competitiveness.
When an opponent springs a debilitating leak, for instance, Dusty instantly flies to the failing craft’s rescue while the other planes race on. In fact, the little crop duster’s example is so striking and consistent that he starts gaining some cheering fans. And even though Ripslinger sneers at Dusty’s actions, growling out, “We all know where nice guys finish!” eventually the other racers realize the wisdom of Dusty’s high-flying choices. They even choose to come to his aid—one plane saying earnestly, “It is honor to fly beside you!”
So it’s all about good friends, good competition and good effort in Planes. And that’s, well, it’s just plane good.
While in India, Dusty wonders about all the cow-like tractors everywhere. “They’re sacred,” another plane tells him. In fact, she goes on to inform him that “many believe we will be recycled as tractors”—humorously mirroring the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Later, when Dusty narrowly escapes a crash, he glides into a peaceful temple of sorts in Nepal and asks the religiously garbed forklifts there, “Am I dead?”
Dusty’s newfound friend, the Mexican stunt plane El Chupacabra sees a pretty plane and gushes, “She is like an angel sent from heaven.”
El Chup actually falls nose over tail rudder for that pretty Canadian plane—trying to woo her with what you might call plane words of love. Eventually, he gains her attention … and later shows up with lipstick lip-prints all over his cowl. In fact, the Canadian gal keeps pulling El Chup offscreen for another smooch or two. Dusty notices the sleek lines of some female racers as well. And in one case he says, “Look at the prop on her!”
There are a few moments of peril in the animated oil and fuel mix. Skipper (visually) remembers an air battle during World War II when all the rookie planes in his squad were sent spiraling and smoking into the ocean waters, battered by an explosive curtain of antiaircraft fire.
The race can get a little tense at times, too. One plane blows an oil gasket, for instance, and finds itself flying blind. Others crash. And Dusty faces freezing weather, a thumping attack by villainous flyers, and at one point is sent smashing into ocean waters by a vicious storm—bending, twisting and ripping his sheet metal.
At one point, Ripslinger and his single-prop thugs attack Dusty, grinding him into the rocky ground. Skipper flies to the crop duster’s aid, and the two friends assume a military-like posture while thumping and bumping into their opponents.
The talking planes use phrases such as “heck of a run,” “oh my gosh,” “holy smokes” and “dagnabbit!” They fall into a little name-calling with “suckers” “twits” and “idiots!” There’s also a veiled play on a crass real-world expression when Skipper cries out, “It’s time to lug nut up!”
Several times we see the race action from the perspective of something of a sports bar that’s filled with vehicles “unwinding” with containers of oil or fuel. Dusty also lands in a German establishment where a forklift Fraulein slams back an oil can and a beer stein.
There’s a running joke about Dusty’s crop-dusting roots and the fertilizer smell that hangs around him. Chug fills us in on why planes would take the time to raise crops, exclaiming, “Corn. It gives you gas!” Porta-potties are knocked over, revealing cars “sitting” inside. One plane ends up splattered with porta-potty oil sludge.
Jokes are made about the probability of Dusty dying during the race.
Set in the Pixar world of Cars—without the Pixar name attached—this barrel-rolling plane race feels, well, like a anthropomorphic flight that we’ve already taken. It’s a fairly stock story … only with talking planes this time around, and a few “What’s that smell?!” crop-duster bathroom giggles.
OK, OK. The characters are cute, and the keep-trying formulaic tale does purr along like a well-tuned engine. There are even some laudable morals dancing in between the whirling propeller blades.
Dusty, for instance, isn’t a fame-seeking sort who accidently gains superpowers or haphazardly stumbles into his heroic role. He’s quite simply a good guy with raw talent who wants to be better than what everyone expects him to be. He works hard for everything he learns. He chooses integrity over easy payoffs. And even after honestly winning his place in a race he’s dreamed about being part of for years, he’s willing to risk his gains to rush to a fellow flyer in need.
That’s the kind of a hero and friend who gives young viewers just a little extra to chew on while they’re strapped in their cinematic seat with popcorn in hand and tray table down. It’s the kind of “right stuff” that makes this simple animated underdog story soar just a little bit higher.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.