Disney has been such a signal beacon of quality and imagination in pop culture that it's disenchanting, even at this late date, when it releases something as generic as Planes.

The animated film has all the hallmarks of a straight-to-DVD project - inferior plot, dull writing, cheap drawing - perhaps because it was intended for the bargain bin at Target, Walmart, and Costco.

But for reasons that can only be mercenary, Disney has upgraded the film to major theatrical release, tacking on extraneous 3D effects.

Dusty is a lowly, single-prop, mulch-pungent crop duster with big dreams. Faster than you can say Sully Sullenberger - in other words, with precious little preface or justification - he's competing against a top-flight fleet of planes in a prestigious round-the-world race.

"You gotta be kidding me," one of the event's sleek participants says on seeing Dusty. "That farmer's going to race?"

If the aircraft look familiar - with their vaguely anthropormorphic windshield eyes and front-grill mouths and comfortingly '50s design - it's because Planes is a spinoff of the Pixar franchise Cars.

A weak spinoff apparently intended for a very young audience, because the forklifts, fuel trucks, and other supporting vehicles look like Playskool toys.

The toddlerish tone clashes with the reliance on technical terms ("he's pulling an aggressive 9.2 Gs") in the script.

Comedian Dane Cook voices Dusty (replacing Jon Cryer, who pulled out of the project). He's joined by a chorus of voices including Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, and Teri Hatcher. Pitching in in smaller roles are Val Kilmer, Sinbad, Anthony Edwards, John Cleese, and Brent Musburger (huh?).

The distressing part about Planes is that the film's attempts at humor are entirely derived from ethnic typecasting. There's a Mexican plane, a British one, Indian, French-Canadian, German, etc. They all have thick accents layered on top of sterotyped behaviors.

Why are foreign people so funny, Mommy?

Want proof that Planes is an obvious and rather dreary marketing tool? Before the film was released, two sequels were already in the works.

But the only reason to pay cineplex prices for this tripe is if you're absolutely desperate to keep the kids occupied for a few hours.


Planes *  (Out of four stars)

Directed by Klay Hall. With the voices of Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, and Teri Hatcher. Distributed by Disney.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Parent's guide: PG
Playing at: area theaters