From time immemorial (not quite), Disney has been putting a human face on fuzzy animals. And inanimate objects. And -- a la "Cars" -- modes of transportation. But maybe because he's an aviation buff himself, director Klay Hall said that finding the personalities in "Planes" -- his new DisneyToon Studios adventure that opens Friday -- wasn't such a stretch.
"If you start out with each of the basic forms of aircraft," he said by phone from the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, Calif., "you can see within them visual characteristics that suggest certain traits. Some seem more timid; some suggest strength. And there's everything in between."
To develop their hangar-load of flying machines, Hall and his production team would go out, grab pictures of aircraft, match them up with performances by different actors, cut the dialogue with the airplane, and "go back and forth to see if the performance could resonate from that aircraft's character."
"That's how we narrowed it down," he said of the casting. "Plus, I'm a huge fan of standup comedians, and had made up a wish list of people who I wanted for this movie. In the end, I got everyone I asked for."
A crop of comics
"Everyone" includes Dane Cook, who voices Dusty Crophopper, the tiny flyer with big dreams (who also happens to be afraid of heights); John Cleese, as the veddy British Bulldog; Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life") as the fuel truck Chug; Cedric the Entertainer as the fertilizer-spraying tanker Leadbottom; Julia Louis-Dreyfus as ex-Canadian mail plane Rochelle, and Carlos Alazraqui ("Reno 911") as Rochelle's ardent pursuer El Chupacabra, a flamboyant racing plane in a lucha libre Mexican wrestling mask.
Others in the cast include Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach and Roger Craig Smith, all of whom bring more to their vocal performances than name recognition.
"Absolutely," said Hall ("King of the Hill," "The Simpsons"). "There's no stunt-casting going on. That's another mantra of John Lasseter: It's always got to be about the performance."
Lasseter is, of course, one of the founding fathers of Pixar, the company with which all animation today is ultimately compared, and the chief creative officer of DisneyToon Studios. In 2007, Lasseter announced that DisneyToon would no longer create direct-to-DVD spinoffs of existing Disney movies (home video sequels to "The Lion King," "Aladdin," etc.) and no longer make films that weren't connected to the Disney Consumer Products franchise (the toy division). "Planes" is certainly geared to the "buy-me-that!" demographic. Already, there are action figures, die-cast models, mugs, T-shirts, onesies, storybooks, a radio-controlled Dusty Crophopper, comforters, pillows and a tie-in with American Airlines (one of its jets makes a good-natured cameo during the movie's round-the-world race).
A big screen bonus
But "Planes" also has something not every DisneyToon movie gets: A theatrical release. Most DisneyToon films are directed at the home-video market, so its creators got a lift when the big-screen plan was launched.
"We're a little bit distribution-agnostic," said producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn. "We set out to make a movie that would be great, and getting a theatrical release didn't change anything. But it was a major turning point, and it occurred during our early testing. When we got through first screening, it was evident that people were resonating really well to the story, and that's where we felt the momentum shift."
As Hall put it, the response "illustrated how we were swinging for the fences from the get-go. The theatrical release was a luxury because it gave us a little more time to work a few things out. But it didn't mean we had to change anything."
Like a lot of contemporary live-action features, "Planes" is a mélange of multicultural characters: In addition to El Chupacabra and Bulldog, there's Dusty's love interest, the scheming-but-ultimately vindicated Ishani, voiced by the Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, who would seem to be aimed at enticing a subcontinent's worth of new Disney fans.
"We knew we were going on this global race," said Hall, referring to the competition Dusty tries to win against all odds, "and we wanted to be as true as possible to the ethnicities and cultures that were going to be in the film, getting out and going to locations and experiencing airplanes in that area not for any other reason than it embraced the race."
"It was organic to the story," said Balthazor-Flynn, "not for any other reasons."
Like any animated movie that's ostensibly aimed at kids, the problem with "Planes" would seem to be keeping parents from going stark raving mad, but as the movie proceeds, the jokes get more sophisticated. There's one gag in particular, about how Indian airplanes consider farm equipment sacred ("Many believe we will be recycled as tractors," Ishani says), which occupies an airspace way over the heads of the toy-plane set.
"We appreciate children, for sure," Hall said. "But we're making 'Planes' for ourselves, Traci and the team and I. We're making it for us. We never wanted to be crass or irreverent; there's no reason to go there. But you want to be laughing, because if you are, everyone will be laughing with you."
Our long love affair with flight
There's been no official statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, but "Planes" involves a lot of pilot-free craft, racing around the world without any assistance from air-traffic control. Ah, well: The movie exploits the same bravura image that has always accompanied men (and women) in the air, flirting with death and flying freely above the clouds. Here are a few lofty features (and one TV show) that have no connection, other than they'll give you a lift:
WINGS (1927) -- Winner of best picture at the first Academy Awards, the silent romantic adventure, directed by the great William Wellman, starred "It Girl" Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and the debuting Gary Cooper, whose career was made by this World War I epic. Wellman had been a fighter pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps during the war, hence the exhilarating urgency of the battle scenes.
FLYING DOWN TO RIO (1933) -- The first film to partner Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers, this harebrained musical produced by Merian C. Cooper ("King Kong") features a lot of flying, a lot of floating on air (courtesy of Fred & Ginger) and one scene involving dancing girls performing on the wings of a plane.
THE FLYING DEUCES (1939) -- One of the best of the Laurel & Hardy talkies, this one features a heartbroken Ollie and his pal Stan joining the French Foreign Legion, stealing a plane, crashing, and Ollie's being reincarnated as a horse. Not exactly "The Right Stuff."
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) -- Philip Kaufman's version of Tom Wolfe's novelistic history of the Mercury Mission stars Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey and Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, the test pilot whose personal ethos isn't quite embraced by the country's race for space.
THE FLYING NUN (1967-70) --
Thanks to her aerodynamic headgear, Sister Bertrille -- of the convent San Tanco in Puerto Rico -- is able to defy the laws of God, man and gravity, flying off each week to new adventures. We all landed safely, especially Sally Field.