Well, well, well. What have we here? Why, it’s a little blog called “365 Films a Year!” where once upon a time I wrote hundreds and hundreds of film reviews.
And now I’m back. At least for today. Because I feel the need to talk to you about a little film called Planes, which opened today. (But this isn’t really a *review*, as you will see.)
Now, to understand why I needed to write about this film, you need to know its history. Planes is a spinoff of the Disney/Pixar “Cars” property. If you were reading this blog back when I actually watched 365 films in one year, you’ll remember that I *loved* Cars. It is, in fact, still my favorite Pixar film. But my love of the film did not follow through to its spinoff media. The first “Cars” short, Mater and the Ghostlight was well made and pointed to great expandability for the franchise.
Unfortunately, what followed was a series of extremely silly and only occasionally truly engaging shorts called “Mater’s Tall Tales”, followed by the biggest disappointment of all, Cars 2. (A film which, though still entertaining, seemed to forget everything that made the original Cars work.) Cars 2 was the first Pixar film to receive generally negative reviews and it missed the $200M standard that Pixar film usually attain. Cars was hardly a critical darling, had solid but not spectacular box office and lost the Oscar to the forgettable Happy Feet. (Remember that one? Didn’t think so.)
So, why make a sequel? One simple answer: toys. The “Cars” die cast car line is one of the most successful toy lines to emerge in the last decade, still holding down peg space seven years after its inception. So a new movie (with its opportunities for new characters/product) was in the offing whether there was a compelling story or not.
And that’s where Disney Animation chief John Lasseter’s well documented belief in putting story first actually hurt Cars 2. In the hands of a less scrupulous producer/director, Cars 2 would be a by-the-book rehash or, at best, a formulaic extension of the story. But Lasseter had to find the “important” story to tell and, in doing so, pushed the narrative so far outside the realm of Cars as to be unrecognizable. (Lasseter was wont to say that Cars 2 is a spy picture that happens to feature cars, instead of the spy *parody* it probably should have been.) So, instead of a solid, but unoriginal, sequel, we got an ambitious drama that bears no resemblance to the film that spawned it.
But it sold toys. Even to me. I didn’t care for Cars 2 that much, but I did like the characters and I bought several (very expensive) Lego sets based on *both* films. So with the toys still selling, we had not seen the last of this universe, even if Lasseter was unwilling to make a Cars 3. The answer, to Disney, was to look up in the sky. The idea behind Planes was born.
Planes would take place in the “world of Cars”, but be about…well…airplanes. It would also be produced, not by Pixar, but by Disney Toon Studios, which means one thing: straight-to-video. Disney Toon Studios had not had a theatrical release in years and even their home video output had been reduced to the Tinkerbell films. “Planes” was to be their next home video series.
But, just as had happened with Toy Story 2 all those years ago, the Disney brass felt that Planes was turning out too well to just ignore the potential income from a theatrical release. Now, if Planes had been initially intended for theaters, I’m sure Lasseter would never have given it to Disney Toon Studios. As it is, it’s probably for the best that it didn’t land in the lap of the often-too-high-minded folks at Pixar.
Because Planes is the film that Cars 2 should have been. Yes, it’s formulaic. Yes, it’s predictable. Yes, it rehashes themes from the original film. But it’s fun, engaging and, if it isn’t quite on Pixar’s level, it looks really good on the big screen.
But the critics *hate* it. They were disappointed with Cars. They disliked Cars 2. But they *hate* Planes. They hate it because it’s “derivative”. They hate it because it’s “safe”. They *really* hate it because it was created to further the toy line.
The problem is, none of those things should be automatic negatives. Yes, truly original material should be celebrated. But “original” is not synonymous with “good”. The Human Centipede was original. Casablanca was not. (No, I’m not saying Planes is as good as Casablanca. Stick with me here.) The point is that formula works. That’s why the formulas are…formulated. There are good formula films and bad ones. But read those reviews of Planes. Most of them (even the positive ones) will call the film derivative. It is. So what? Films aren’t made for critics, who watch far too many films for their own good. They are made for regular people who often just want to be entertained for an hour-and-a-half or so.
And they aren’t even consistent about this issue. Somehow Planes being derivative is *bad*, but Star Trek Into Darkness‘ stealing plotlines, characters and actual scenes and dialogue from The Wrath of Khan is barely worth mentioning. This is, of course, because the critics have focused on nuTrek’s “newness” (meaning everyone is young and acts nothing like the original versions of the characters) as compared to its many, many thefts from earlier (and better) works.
To me, *consistency* is much more important than originality when it comes to follow-up films. “Fidelity to the source material” is how I put it. For instance, NuTrek (because it was not a true “reboot” and has hooks into the original series) is *not* faithful to the series that spawned it. Even if it *was* well made, it’s “newness” would not forgive it’s lack of fidelity to the source material. Star Trek V, for all its many faults, fits into the real Star Trek universe. I’ll take “V” over “Trek ’09″ any day. Cars 2 fails not just because of its plotholes and outlandish storyline. It’s because it feels nothing like Cars.
Planes does feel like Cars, and that’s a good thing. It *is* unabashedly of the (“safe”) world of Cars and was made for its primary audience (children). And critics *hate* that. They don’t like films for children that adults can enjoy. (Cars) They like films for adults that kids can tolerate. (Ratatouille – which was much higher rated and much less attended than Cars)
And, finally, why should it matter *why* a film was made? Old Hollywood used to make films for lots of reasons; to make use of expensive sets to save on expenses (The Most Dangerous Game) or to promote a specific actor (The Wizard of Oz). These films weren’t made for some great artistic purpose. But they are often great films. It is ultimately up to the creative team behind a film, not the executive who green-lit it, whether a film accomplishes its goals.
But audiences know what they like. Into Darkness underperformed. Audiences loved The Great Gatsby. Critics didn’t care for Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel. Of course, there are films like The Avengers and The Lone Ranger that can still bring audiences and critics together, but the disparity seems to be getting greater and greater between what the media considers good and what audiences actually enjoy. As the Oscars become more and more irrelevant (as popular films become less and less likely to win), audiences become jaded and trust critics less and less. (As I once said, if the critics couldn’t shut down “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”, they are now toothless.)
In the final analysis, whether a film is good or not is *entirely* subjective. A 26% on Rotten Tomatoes does not make a film bad. Your not liking it does.
Me? I liked Planes. Your air miles may vary.