From under the hood of Disney's "Planes" you can hear the worrisome sound of knocking and pinging. An opening logo places us in the "World of Cars," as in the Pixar film, and that studio's chief idea guy, John Lasseter, is this film's executive producer and story writer. But "Planes" is not a Pixar movie. It was originally intended as a home-video release from Disneytoon Studios, known mostly for nontheatrical follow-ups like "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea."
All of which helps explain why this big-screen production feels like a small-screen knock-off, though younger viewers won't care. If "Planes" were a reasonably priced download, you'd gladly use it to sedate your kids during a long car ride. As a theatrical, 3-D release, however, "Planes" will sedate you, too.
Everything about "Planes" is pure boilerplate, beginning with its story. Dusty (the voice of Dane Cook) is a little crop duster who dreams of competing in an around-the-world race. His friends include the dopey fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett) and forklift mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher), but it's the grizzled World War II vet Skipper (Stacy Keach) who helps Dusty conquer his fear of heights. In the race, Dusty will compete against various international stereotypes, including the U.K.'s crusty Bulldog (John Cleese) and Mexico's hotblooded El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui). Racing champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) is the villain -- arrogant, underhanded, etc.
Though capably directed by Klay Hall, "Planes" can't rise above the low-aiming script by Jeffrey M. Howard (both are Disneytoon veterans). The constant nods to "Cars" may help with brand recognition, but they also make the movie feel stale. Everything is overly familiar, from the characters' distinctive windshield eyes to the borrowed jokes about tractor cows. Broadening the movie's horizons, just slightly, is an Indian plane, Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), who develops an East-West romance with Dusty.
"Planes" is running so low on creative fuel that adult viewers may become distracted by weird details. For instance: In this all-mechanical world populated entirely by talking vehicles, jets and ships, who the heck is eating Dusty's crops? Your children, however, probably won't ask the tough questions.
PLOT A little crop duster dreams of entering an around-the-world race.
RATING PG (some rude humor)
CAST Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Teri Hatcher, Priyanka Chopra
BOTTOM LINE A dreary, point-for-point "Cars" imitation. Even last month's middling "Turbo" beats this by a mile.