Disney's Planes Is a Weirdly Accurate Depiction of Flying

Other than that whole talking-aircraft thing, of course. A pilot reviews the Cars spin-off.


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."

Roger that.

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.

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.

The reason behind those inside gestures and accurate details may have less to do with the producers' desire to appeal to a pilot audience, however, than it does the simple fact that Klay Hall, the film's director, is the son of a Navy pilot from Dayton, Ohio. He says he grew up around airports drawing airplanes—a fact he credits for leading him into drawing and animation. Not for nothing is the mentor in the movie a Navy fighter plane.

All that accuracy doesn't mean the film is perfect. The best Disney films hit us deep in our emotional cores—dealing with loss or separation from a parent, rejection, loss of childhood security—or require a hero's journey of internal emotional growth on the part of the main character. In Planes, there is no such primal emotional tension, and Dusty doesn't really have to learn anything or grow internally in order to prevail. It is simply a story about about a plane who, as Dusty says, wants to prove he can be more than he was built for.

On the other hand, what this film does best—and that no other aviation film has done quite as well—is present planes and flying not as they are, but as kids imagine them to be. To a four-year-old, an airplane is a magical machine that can do anything. When kids point up at airplanes overhead or 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. After all, if an airplane can defy gravity, anything is possible. Who cares how?

One of the reasons many pilots are drawn to flying, in fact, is that the act of soaring above the earth, even while paying attention to airspeed instruments, reconnects them again with that feeling of possibility; with the idea that, as aviation pioneer Beryl Markham famously wrote, "no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it."

Because of that, I think the film will speak strongly to kids. Will it inspire them to become pilots? I suppose it might. The day after the film's premiere at EAA's AirVenture (for an audience of more than 12,000), I came across a young boy named Nate, kicking a ball around with his father in an area of the show where pilots were camping with their airplanes. Nate was a very proud four years old, and his father said they'd driven up to the show from Chicago in order to see the movie. When we asked Nate if the ball was his favorite toy, he shook his head. He ran into a tent, and came out holding a small "Dusty" airplane, which he then contentedly zoomed and soared to places only his imagination could see.

It's possible that one day, Nate will take those dreams into the sky, himself. Or perhaps, like Klay Hall, he will find himself soaring with another passion. I don't think it's all that important whether Nate grows up to fly airplanes, as long as he grows up retaining his belief in all the possibilities and freedom and life that flight represents. Can a movie like Planes help reinforce that belief? I hope so. In real life, planes and flying have a remarkable way of helping people remember the importance of notions like dreams, possibilities, and grabbing hold of life with two hands. If Planes, the movie, is able to mirror reality in even that one way, it would be accuracy enough.