Watching a movie about airplanes is often a cringe-worthy event for a pilot, because Hollywood tends to take so many liberties with accuracy for the sake of drama. One time on the set of one of these movies, I asked the director if he knew that real planes couldn't actually do the thing he was having them do in that scene. "I'm not really concerned with you and the six other people in America who know that," he answered. "I'm concerned with making it exciting for the rest of the audience."
So I should note, up front, that Disney's new animated film Planes has planes doing all sorts of things they don't do in real life—beginning with talk, laugh, cry, scheme, feel bad, and cheer. Race planes also can't really fly the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans on a single tank of gas, reach New York from Mexico in a couple of hours, or get rescued "alive" from the depths of the ocean by net-wielding Navy helicopters. And it probably goes without saying that few forklifts are really that skilled in airplane maintenance.
What's more, at the risk of being a huge spoilsport ... I regret to say that in the real world, the only way a cropduster could ever beat a field of race planes—no matter how well it flew—is if every other plane dropped out of the race. There are a lot of aeronautical reasons behind that, but it involves the laws of physics, which aren't easily bent, even by the most fervent talent or desire.
All of that is, of course, completely beside the point. Animated films aren't about reality. At their best, they entertain and connect with kids on other levels, sparking their imaginations while teaching them worthwhile lessons about humans, social relations, and life. So perhaps the surprising thing is just how much accuracy Planes contains among all that fantasy.
Part of Disney's (and to an even greater degree, Pixar's) formula for success is their ability to produce animated films with dual appeal: The kids get a fantasy movie, and the adults get a fast-paced banquet of inside adult references and jokes that makes a single film entertaining to both audiences. Planes is no different. Punctuating its main story line are pop-culture references and inside nods to all kinds of groups, including its precursor Cars (the tractors return), older movies (the film opens like Top Gun, and even brings back the voices of Goose and Iceman), the movie industry ("spoiler alert!"), and high-tech culture ("Hey! That was my fly-Pad!" one crew member complains when a racer smashes it with his landing gear. "Don't worry, there'll be another one out in two weeks," the racer replies).
What was odd, as a pilot watching Planes, was realizing that the movie was also giving a nod and a wink to pilots and aviation-history buffs. That, in Hollywood film making, is new. For example, the movie incorporates clearly recognizable elements from the real Red Bull Air Race World Championship (which combines aerobatics with timed races around inflatable pylons). When Dottie the forklift/mechanic rattles off a list of problems that Dusty, the main character, will encounter if he pushes his engine and speed to race, the list and terminology is real. So are the commands given by the JFK airport-tower controller (speaking in President John Kennedy's voice and accent) about the "Canarsie approach" Dusty is supposed to be on.
When kids stretch their arms out and run down hills, pretending they can fly, they're not envisioning airspeed instruments and flight-management systems. They're envisioning freedom, possibility, and a limitless horizon.
There are nods to history, as well. Bulldog, the British race plane in the "Wings Around the Globe" competition (voiced by John Cleese), is clearly a DeHavilland DH.88 Comet—a real British race plane that won the 1934 MacRobertson Trophy race from England to Australia. The Mexican racer El Chupacabra is a Gee Bee R racer that Jimmy Doolittle won the 1932 Thompson Trophy race with, 10 years before he led his famous B-25 bomber raid on Tokyo. And within the other cartoon race-plane designs are recognizable aerobatic, race, and experimental airplane designs and components from planes that a person can go see at local airports—or at the the EAA's huge, international AirVenture fly-in convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the producers held the film's first public screening last week.