independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

James Dempsey: Why Pixar pray that Planes will fly with audiences

At first glance it almost looks like a sketch thought up by The Onion or Saturday Night Live, but make no mistake, Planes is no parody.

August 9th will see DisneyToon Studios, a branch of the Disney Corporation that specialises in direct-to-DVD sequels and the occasional theatrical release, spin off a new version of Pixar’s Cars, except this time with planes.

 

Gone are the rooting’ tootin’ antics of racecar Lightning McQueen, only to be replaced by Dusty Crophopper, a crop-duster with lofty ambitions to race against a broad collection of racial stereotypes anthropomorphised as articulate aircraft. The first of a confirmed trilogy – Planes 2: Fire & Rescue is already in pre-production – Planes will come to cinema screens with the full 3D polish in the height of the summer blockbuster season, a new low for a studio that seems to be in a creative tailspin.

 

While Pixar’s name is not directly attached to the project, its fingerprints are all over it; DisneyToon is essentially run by Pixar top brass, with Edwin Catmull acting as President and John Lasseter, director of both Cars features, the Chief Creative Officer.

 

Cars has always been the runt of the Pixar litter; at 74% on RottenTomatoes, its 2006 release was met with a cool reception by critics who’d previously lauded Pixar as the finest animation house operating today. 2011’s Cars 2 sank even lower, 38%, seeing the worst reviews ever for the people behind such modern classics as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Up. Why then would the House of Mouse choose to revisit a creative failure?

 

“We had a great time exploring the world of Cars over the course of two films,” outlines Lasseter in a press release, “so it seemed only natural for us to see where our imaginations would take us in a film where planes were the main characters.” So far, it would appear that the apex of creative imagination achieved in Planes is the casting of Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer, Goose and Iceman in 1986’s Top Gun, as the voices of a pair of fighter jets names Bravo and Echo.

 

No, there’s a far more obvious reason why Disney is expanding the Cars’ universe – merchandising. Since its 2006 release, Cars merchandise has sold on average $2b per year. Everything from foodstuffs, tissues, toiletries, furniture, apparel, sleeping bags and acoustic guitars. And now Disney Consumer Products Chairman Andy Mooney is hoping your son will want a Planes ukulele, amongst other things.

 

The Cars brand is a goldmine, seen by Disney accountants and marketing managers as a lifestyle brand for boys, the male equivalent of the Disney Princess. Combined with the Marvel Universe’s superheroes, to which Disney also owns the merchandising rights, Cars/Planes will be on the top of every boy’s Christmas list for the foreseeable future. And it’s not just action figures and mugs in the Disney stores, but branded products available everywhere. When asked what everyday goods can be suped up with a Cars logo, Mooney’s response was simple – “All of them.”

 

In deference to Disney and Pixar, they don’t call it show business for nothing. Production costs continue to rise annually, while DVD sales fall. Many of the other Pixar titles don’t offer much scope for merchandise spin off potential; Wall*E takes place on a rubbish heap, and features the Barbra Streisand-starring 1969 film musical Hello Dolly – just what every little boy dreams of on Christmas morning. Ratatouille is about a rodent haute-cuisine chef, while Up is about an elderly widower coming to terms with his wife’s mortality.

 

But a well-publicised tenet of the Pixar brand is that the studio won’t make sequels unless the story is as good as the original. And from the looks of it, Planes doesn’t break that rule. It may prove to be just as good as Cars and Cars 2.

 

If Planes proves as successful as studio executives are hoping, DisneyToon intends to consider building a whole franchise around trains and boats as well. Rumours of a Steve Martin voiced “Trains, Planes and Cars” 2015 release, started by me, are probably now in pre-production.

 

Follow James: @James_Proclaims

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