If it looks like a Pixar, and barks like a Pixar, it must be a Pixar, right? Well, no: “Planes,” which looks exactly like “Cars 3” with wings, is actually produced by DisneyToon Studios, working off a concept created by Pixar honcho (and “Cars” director) John Lasseter. “Cars” was certainly not Pixar’s most inspired work to begin with, albeit huge with kids,and “Planes” is a fairly dreary exercise in franchise expansion. (Sure enough, it’s the first in a planned trilogy.)

“Planes” follows the story of a spunky little plane called Dusty Crophopper, who is — you guessed it — a crop-dusting plane who dreams of one day being a racer. He’s tired of being what he was designed for, a reliable worker, and wants to be the flashy hero, to surpass his limitations, and triumph in a race against all the better-built planes who ridicule him. If this sounds a bit like “Wreck-it Ralph”, well, it is, but minus the zany sense of humor that energized that film.

Director Klay Hall
Run Time 92 minutes
Language English

Dusty is schooled in the art of aerial racing by a retired World War II fighter plane, Skipper, and attended to by his tarmac friends Chug the oil tanker and Dottie the forklift. As in “Cars,” this is a world where the only lifeforms are vehicles with big googly eyes on their windshields, which is still a rather hard concept to get one’s head around.

At any rate, Dusty, despite his fear of flying, enters the big round-the-globe race where he must face off against a wide variety of ethnic-stereotype aircraft, including Latin lover-boy El Chupacabra, stiff-upper-lip Brit Bulldog and exotic love-interest planes Ishani and Sakura. (Which begs the question: Exactly how do planes, um, well, “have relationships”? I imagine it has something to do with the joystick.)

The film’s message of playing fair, standing by your friends and never accepting limitations is pretty bog-standard for a kids’ film these days and can’t be faulted, but that’s about it. On the other hand, it’s more than a little troubling to see even children’s animated films begging for and receiving Pentagon cooperation, which “Planes” did, for what reason I cannot fathom when you’re dealing with animated carriers and fighter jets, not real hardware. It really says something when a filmmaker can enlist a team of current and retired military personnel to advise on the details and accuracy of one single scene, but can’t be bothered to bring in any writers or comedians to help out in the jokes department, where help was sorely needed.

Apparently “Planes” was initially intended to be a direct-to-video release, and while the animation is up to snuff for a theatrical release, the 3-D certainly is not, bearing every sign of having been added ex-post-facto; I’d be hard pressed to describe how it was any different from a normal 2-D animated film.

The other telltale sign of its direct-to-video origin is the utter lack of humor (at least in the Japanese dubbed version). DisneyToon has mostly been responsible for the Tinker Bell franchise to date, so that should give you some idea of the target demographic for “Planes”; this is cute and harmless enough to pop on the DVD player for the kids, but any adults present wouldn’t want to sit around and have to watch it.

For a chance to win one of three yo-yo and sticker sets, visit jtimes.jp/film.