If you’ve seen trailers for the animated children’s movie “Planes” coming out on Friday, then you’re probably aware that it’s a spin-off or extension of the “Cars” franchise. “Come on,” you may have said to yourself, shaking your head sadly. “Is there no depth to which Pixar will not sink these days, with their great works nothing but a pleasant memory? Seriously Pixar, what’s up?”
And you would be justified in your disappointment…except Pixar isn’t actually producing “Planes.” The film has nothing to do with Pixar, being made entirely by parent company Disney in its low-tier “DisneyToon Studios” branch, which typically makes direct-to-video sequels. We’re talking classics like “Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time” and “Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch” here. As a result, this represents the beginning of what is likely an unpleasant precedent, being the first bit of “Pixar universe” appropriated for an entirely different product by Disney. It’s just one more step in the overall watering down of what was once a studio known for unassailable quality in animated features.
It’s fitting that Disney would choose to leech off the “Cars” setting for a movie like this, given that “Cars” is far and away considered the overall weakest series of films that Pixar has yet created. At the time of the first “Cars,” some people (myself included) were willing to give them a pass, saying “This is just Pixar making a film for its younger audiences this time around.” We felt vindicated in that assessment when “Cars” was followed by two very good, more mature films, “Ratatouille” and “WALL-E.” The one experiment with “Cars” felt like an aberration.
Today, though, that isn’t the case. With Pixar getting increasingly sequel-happy (“Toy Story 3,” “Cars 2,” “Monsters University,” “Finding Dory”), we see can’t help but get a view of the seedy underbelly of a company we long pretended just didn’t have one. As it turns out, they also have to make money, and selling lots and lots of branded “Cars” toys is a pretty good way to make money.
Disney clearly thought so as well when they decided to take “Planes,” which was scheduled for a direct-to-video release, and instead put it on the big screen across the country. They’re very confident people will buy it. How confident? The film is already known to be the first part of an announced TRILOGY of plane films. The second already has a release date for next July.
One of the biggest things that Disney is of course banking on selling the series is the connection to “Cars,” which many young kids love. They’ve gone out of their way to make this look and sound like a Pixar movie, even though it’s coming from entirely different people. They even got John Ratzenberger to do a cameo in traditional Pixar style. As a result, I would bet that if you asked 100 parents on the street who made “Planes,” the majority would tell you it was from Pixar.
This is certainly no good for Pixar’s overall reputation, which has already been tarnished and scuffed up from their glory days in the mid-2000s when they could apparently do no wrong. More than anything, it’s a scary precedent to think that Disney might interpret the success of “Planes” as an invitation to spin-off every other film in the Pixar library. A few years from now, you could be looking at DisneyToon versions of “The Incredibles Go to Hawaii” or “Ratatouille’s Big Barber School Adventure” released in theaters. And that is not a world I want to live in.
The only way to avoid something like that might be if “Planes” were to bomb at the box office, but I doubt it. The Disney marketing machine is likely too strong to fail at marketing this kind of movie, especially to young kids. Those children will likely be playing with “Planes” toys for the next decade as a result, just as “Cars” became this generation’s “Thomas the Tank Engine” of product tie-ins.
What do you think, sirs? Is there anything Pixar can do to disassociate itself with this kind of thing and regain a little cache?