Movie Review: “Planes 3D”



“From above the world of Cars…” is the teaser from the promos, intended to remind potential viewers that “Planes” is another view into a beloved universe created by the folks at Pixar. This teaser ends up being rather unnecessary – since everything about the movie, from the cow-tractor cameos to the underpinnings of the storyline cherry-picks liberally from the “Cars” franchise. As it happens, while the world was created by Pixar, the movie was created by DisneyToon – originally intended as a direct-to-DVD production and then shifted to a theater release.

The movie centers on Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook of “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Luck Chuck”), a crop duster with dreams of becoming a racer. Dusty wants to compete in the “Wings Around the World Rally”, an around-the-globe challenge that would pit him against the world’s fastest planes. It’s a 7-leg challenge, stretching from New York City to Iceland, Germany, India, Nepal, China, and Mexico, before finishing back at the starting line in New York. In desperate need of a real trainer, Dusty and his trusty sidekick, the gasoline tanker Chug (“Everybody Loves Raymond” actor Brad Garrett), enlist war hero Skipper (Stacy Keach, a TV/movie veteran of everything from “Mistral’s Daughter” to “The Bourne Legacy”). The cranky Skipper is highly dubious that Dusty has what it takes to win, especially when it’s revealed that Dusty is terrified of heights and will only fly less than one thousand feet off the ground.


Dusty Crophopper

Dusty Crophopper


Nevertheless, Skipper trains him – and then off goes Dusty for a Rally qualifier. He manages to hold his own but initially fails to make the cut-off; however, thanks to the aerial equivalent of doping discovered in another racer, Dusty squeaks into the qualifying group and heads off for the Rally. It’s there that he meets a suite of racers from around the world – including the refined and sarcastic Bulldog (“Monty Python” icon John Cleese), the amusing and sweet El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui of “Reno 911!”), and the dastardly and arrogant Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith of “Wreck-it Ralph” and “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble”).


Dusty and Ripslinger

Dusty and Ripslinger


Dusty squares off against a field of talented and much faster planes, trying to prove to himself – and to others – that a simple crop duster can manage to be something more. As Dusty explains while wistfully examining the Rally’s course on a world map, “I’ve flown thousands of miles and never been anywhere.” He struggles with his own limitations as much as others struggle with them, but the more he competes the more he’s able to stretch even his own idea of what he can and can’t do.

The only problem with “Planes” is that, as much as it’s a new production, there’s little about it that’s truly original. The concept of a young hotshot in need of guidance from someone more seasoned is territory well-mined in the relationship between Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson in the first “Cars” film. Keach’s gravelly voice makes the cantankerous Skipper a gray, aerial Doc, and the green villain, Ripslinger, was very much Chick Hicks with a propeller. Even the idea of a multi-leg, around-the-world race between a mouthy, arrogant nemesis and the good guy was well-covered in “Cars 2”.


Chug and Dottie

Chug and Dottie


The only real original bits came with El Chupacabra, especially around his romantic intentions towards Rochelle, a French Canadian plane voiced by the ever-talented Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Seinfeld” and “Veep”, among many others). The rest of the movie seemed very much a recycling of “Cars”-world motifs and storylines, sometimes with the roles reversed, but ultimately so similar that this wasn’t so much “from above the world of Cars” as it was just “from Cars”.

A cute tale with only a small amount of scary bits in it, “Planes” is a perfectly fine film for kids. The run time is just about 90 minutes, so it’s a quick enough film for viewers of all ages. Also, I saw this movie in 3D and while I’m sure it’ll be available in 2D, there’s something to be said for seeing this with the additional depth that 3D brings.

While this movie used some of the same technologies routinely employed by Pixar and even had some Pixar heavyweights in lead positions (like Executive Producer John Lasseter), this was a Disney-made movie. Clearly, the cross-over worked well from a technical execution standpoint; the renderings were nicely done, with good texture on the trees, grass and other items that have variable surfaces. The smooth surfaces of cars and airplanes tended to look too shiny and unreal – but this is how things looked in “Cars”, as well, so I’m less likely to think that a limitation of the DisneyToon team. As an approximation of a Pixar flick not from Pixar itself, this is very decent work.

For fans of “Cars” and that universe, this is a fun, brief diversion. If you’re looking for something original and breathtakingly new from Disney, this won’t really get you there…but maybe the upcoming sequel (“Planes: Fire & Rescue” – advertised at the end of the credits) will provide something new for Dusty and Co.


2 out of 4 stars


“Planes 3D” opens nationwide on August 9, 2013. This movie is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested) for some mild action and rude humor.

Movie Review: “Monsters University 3D”

Monsters University


In a time when sequels and reboots abound, Pixar decided to breathe a little new air into the “Monsters, Inc.” universe with a prequel to explore how Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) became friends. When we first saw Mike and Sulley in “Monsters, Inc.”, they were an unbeatable “Scare Team” at Monsters, Inc.: a company that harnessed frightened children’s screams to generate power. “Monsters University” opens with a fresh-faced Mike as an elementary school student on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. It’s on this trip that Mike falls in love with the idea of being a “Scarer”, and he’s encouraged by one of the hot-shot scarers to go to his alma mater: Monsters U.


Mike Wazowski arriving at MU


Fast-forward a few years, and Mike is now a retainer-mouthed freshman at Monsters University, majoring in Scaring. His roommate is the terribly insecure Randy (the character of Randall, reprised by the remarkable Steve Buscemi), whose chameleonic powers are exceeded only by his creepiness. As Mike attends his first scaring class, he’s introduced to the most powerful person on campus: Dean Hardscrabble (played delightfully by Helen Mirren). The Dean has a warning for all potential scarers: failure to pass the semester final exam will result in expulsion from the Scaring program.


Mike Wazowski vs Dean Hardscrabble


Mike hits the books, while classmate Sulley spends all of his time partying with the alpha fraternity, RΩR (pronounced “Roar Omega Roar”), led by BMoC Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion). Come the final, Mike knows all the theory forwards, backwards, sideways and down but lacks the technique to pull off a true scare. Sulley, riding the coattails of his father’s legacy, has the roar without any of the book-smarts. It’s easy to see where “Animal House” provided ample material for Pixar; there’s even an (accidental) guitar-smashing moment that’s vaguely reminiscent of Bluto’s run-in with a guitar during the Delta House’s toga party.


Oozma Kappa Fraternity


When the two are dropped from the Scaring program, Mike blames Sulley and charges out on his own to win back his shot at being scary through the “Scare Games” – an inter-fraternity scaring challenge that’s some kind of Pan-Hellenic nightmare tour. Requiring a Greek sponsor, Mike and Sulley join up with OK – Oozma Kappa – the misfit fraternity that’s clearly chronically under-recruited and undesirable. This is where the movie mines the “Revenge of the Nerds” oeuvre rather liberally, with results as satisfying as those when Lambda Lambda Lambda went up against the Alpha Betas in the Greek Games.


Roar Omega Roar


There are still challenges left for Mike and Sulley, but most of those revolve around the pair’s complex relationship: built first on mutual dislike that eventually turns into respect and true collegiality. You see the delicate machine of their Scaring Team come together brilliantly by the end of the film, and the pair really learn how to leverage each others’ strengths to win – together.


Scare Games


While Mike and Sulley’s story is satisfying from a perspective of “Ah, this explains everything“, it’s not exactly original – and that’s really the only issue I have with the film. I came out of it having definitely enjoyed myself, but it was all too easy to see where the filmmakers had taken a bit too much inspiration from teen/college/coming of age movies that came before – “Animal House”, “Revenge of the Nerds”…even “Carrie”. At least Dean Hardscrabble wasn’t the fool Dean Wormer was, but it’s impossible to imagine Helen Mirren ever playing the fool. “Monsters University” was an enjoyable and amusing film, but it lacked the originality and spark that so many prior Pixar films showed (including the original “Monsters, Inc.”).


From a technical perspective, I have to say that this was a delightful view in 3D. I’m sure that it’s fine in 2D, but the depth and scale of both the characters and the Monsters University campus really stand out far more with the very well-done 3D. The voicework is fantastic, with the reprising actors (including Crystal, Goodman, and Buscemi) all turning in great performances.


The movie is rated G – raising the natural question: “Should I take my kids to see Monsters University?” I can’t speak for all kids, but for little ones that had no trouble dealing with the scare factor in “Monsters, Inc.”, “Monsters University” should be fine. I actually found this movie less scary than the first movie in the franchise, so I’d say this movie should appeal well to little ones and grown-ups alike. “Monsters University” is preceded by a really fantastic short film – “The Blue Umbrella” – providing ample reason to make it to the seats on-time.


3 out of 4 stars

“Monsters University 3D” opens nationwide on June 21, 2013. This movie is rated G (General Audiences).

Movie Review: “Oz the Great and Powerful 3D”

Oz the Great and Powerful

I’ll admit it: I came into this movie with expectations deeply tempered by all of the CGI-backlash fueled by recent big-budget box office flops. I’ve also seen prequels that couldn’t match up to the movie they were attempting to lead in, after the fact (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). Detractors beware: this movie actually really IS worth seeing. It’s also worth pointing out that, although this film will also be shown in 2D and IMAX, I really enjoyed seeing it in 3D. Sure, some of the 3D usage is a bit gratuitous (c’mon, they spent $200 million on the CGI!), but much of it is just so well done that I found myself marveling at it and really enjoying the added depth it gave to the picture rather than finding it distracting or overwhelming.

The movie opens in a boxed format and black-and-white tone that suggests you’re seeing something limited, something from the past that doesn’t quite meet current supersize, full color expectations. It’s the early 20th century, and dusty Kansas is receiving a visit from a traveling circus that’s home to a young con man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco – “Spiderman”, “Eat, Pray, Love”), who bills himself as Oz – a magnificent wizard extraordinaire whose powers require only that you believe (a constant thread in L. Frank Baum’s original story). As part of the early prequel setup, a sweet visitor from Diggs’ past runs through town, Annie (Michelle Williams – “Dawson’s Creek” and “My Week With Marilyn”), tries to goad him into committing by notifying him that she’s been offered the hand of Frank Gale. Diggs decides to let Annie go to a better future with a better man, but before he can truly finish saying goodbye he finds himself chased out by the circus’ strongman, intent on punishing him for taking advantage of a female member of the troupe. Diggs seeks shelter in a hot air balloon, taking with him only a few key belongings tossed up by his faithful assistant, Frank (Zack Braff – “Scrubs” and “Garden State”).

A tornado soon enters the picture, pulling Diggs seemingly to his doom. It’s here that the 3D effects start to pour in; the twister is far more terrifying than the one in the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” based on Baum’s tale (which I still find frightening to this day), with projectiles coming at Diggs from nearly every possible angle. His trip finally ends as the twister spits him out the top of the funnel and down he descends into a technicolor world that suddenly expands the picture to fill the entire screen: the land of Oz. The landscapes unfold in blistering bursts of color and sound that are lushly beautiful in a way that down-on-its-luck early century Kansas can’t match. He soon meets Theodora (Mila Kunis – “That 70’s Show” and “Black Swan”) and works his charms on her as she explains that he must be the one who will fulfill the prophecy that looms large over the kingdom: the wizard who comes to Oz bearing the very same name will be the one who frees it from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. As they begin traveling together, they come across Finley, a small flying monkey of the variant from the “The Wizard of Oz”, voiced by Braff in one of several multi-role turns evocative of the 1939 film.

Diggs and Theodora approach the Emerald City

Diggs and Theodora approach the Emerald City

Theodora brings Diggs to the Emerald City and introduces him to her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz – “The Mummy” and “The Bourne Legacy”), the King’s advisor. Evanora wastes little time in trying to drive a wedge between Theodora and Diggs, while she seduces him with the idea of wealth beyond his wildest dreams. All he has to do is go to the Dark Forest and kill the Wicked Witch. Diggs resists, but ultimately his greed wins out and he heads out on his quest. On the way to the Dark Forest, Diggs and Finley find Chinatown and rescue a young China Girl (Joey King – “Ramona and Beezus” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) who joins them on their quest. The witch Diggs has been sent to kill turns out to be none other than Glinda (also played by Williams), the Good Witch of the South.

Diggs and Glinda

Diggs and Glinda

At this point, Diggs’ life takes a serious left turn. What he thought was up turns out to be down, and what he believed to be true turns out to be completely otherwise. The various characters sprinkled throughout played by the same actors (such as Braff’s Frank and Finley, or Williams’ Annie and Glinda) serve much the same purpose as those from the 1939 film, providing the same measure of support and guidance in each of the worlds without the protagonist really understanding why. Of course, knowing that Diggs remains in Oz until Dorothy’s arrival, you don’t expect him to wake and find them all standing above him. So, to that end, this movie serves as a point for you to search for the clues – how will they make the origin story?

Diggs and Finley

Diggs and Finley

Much to my enjoyment, several pieces from the original book live on in the movie: Chinatown existed in the book but never made it to the 1939 film, and Glinda is restored to her role as the Good Witch of the South (instead of the North). The Quadlings, who had little billing before, took center stage for the latter third of the film. The silver slippers (turned ruby for the 1939 film to help showcase the advance in color film technology) did not appear, that I was able to discern, but the measure of Diggs’ ingenuity in setting up the mechanisms to allow him to appear omnipotent to his subjects is explored well enough that you get the sense that he really is the savvy con man seen both in the book and the 1939 film.

Evanora and Theodora

Evanora and Theodora

So, what does the movie do well? The CGI and 3D are really the stars of the show. Oz is gorgeous, otherworldly and magical, just as you would expect if you’d read Baum’s work. King is lovely as the China Girl and Williams is as sweet and gentle as Billie Burke had been in 1939. Kunis and Weisz give decent performances, although some of the contrivances added to Kunis’ performance in the latter quarter of the film seem a bit forced and unnatural. Still, it all comes together quite nicely. The beauty of “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t the attempt to get the Oscar – it’s the aim to tell a part of a story we never really heard before in such a way as to fascinate and excite us. It’s escapism at its height, pulling us so far our of our reality that we fall into another world entirely, just like Diggs.

If the movie suffers from one down side, it’s a bit too much James Franco. He’s one of these incredibly frustrating actors who may have potential but seems to spend a bit too much time not feeling comfortable in his character’s skin. I had a hard time finding myself convinced that he was a slick con-man. It’s only towards the very end of the movie that he seems to be fully in command of Diggs, and perhaps that’s just because it’s only then that Diggs really sees how he himself is able to do what must be done. Still, it leaves too much of the film with Franco putting in a performance that doesn’t match quite as well as those of sweet, earnest King or the amusingly eager Braff. Keep an eye out for a late appearance by Bruce Campbell (“Evil Dead”); he’s a staple of director Sam Raimi (the “Spiderman” trilogy) and one of my favorite easter eggs in any Raimi production.

As for the question of whether this movie is appropriate for young kids, I’d have to say that it’s not really one I’d recommend for those under the age of 8. There are some scary scenes, especially towards the end of the film, and the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons might be enough to send a Kindergartner into a crying jag. Add the extra punch of really well-done 3D (which this really was) and it might be a bit much for the truly younger set.

Having years ago read the presumptive (and completely unrelated) literary prequel, “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire, and having walked out during the intermission of the eponymous musical (which I couldn’t have loathed more if I tried), I can say this is a decent enough take on the prequel concept without the political intrigue built into Maguire’s book. There’s plenty of setup without it all being over-the-top, and you could follow from this right into the 1939 movie without all of the drama and nerdy shouts of “CONTINUITY ERROR!” that occurred when Lucas decided to make prequels for the “Star Wars” trilogy.

Lastly, make sure you’re there for the start of the film. The opening credits take full advantage of the 3D in a way that’s just utterly lovely, and they’re not to be missed.

3-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Oz the Great and Powerful 3D” opens nationwide on March 8, 2013. This movie is rated PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.