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'Planes': Propelled by blandness

This publicity image released by Disney Enterprises, Inc. shows, from left, Dottie the forklift, voiced by Teri Hatcher, Fred the Firetruck, voiced by Marc Silk, Dusty, voiced by Dane Cook, center, Chug the fuel truck, voiced by Brad Garrett and Roper, voiced by Sinbad, in a scene from the animated film, "Planes." (AP Photo/ Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

"Planes" is the story of a plucky crop duster (voice of Dane Cook) who desperately wants to compete in an international air race and prove that he's capable of achieving great speed. That sounds a lot like "Turbo," the DreamWorks Animation feature released last month about a snail (voice of Ryan Reynolds) who desperately wants to compete in the Indy 500 and prove that he's capable of achieving great speed. And "Turbo" was a tad derivative of "Cars," the 2006 Pixar hit about a racecar (voice of Owen Wilson) desperate to win the Piston Cup and prove that he's fast enough to earn a splashy new sponsor.

Which brings us back to "Planes," a perfectly pleasant and perfectly bland DisneyToon Studios production that's actually a spinoff of "Cars" and its sequel, "Cars 2."

Is this what now qualifies as the circle of life in contemporary, family-friendly animation? Will every feature-length cartoon starring anthropomorphized slugs and single-engine prop planes blatantly borrow from one another, over and over again, until the movies we take our kids to see transform into a tangled rubber-band ball of pseudo-inspirational sameness that's too much of a hassle to pull apart because we just want to keep the little monsters quiet for 92 minutes? Because it sort of feels like that's what's happening.

"Planes" is okay. Its message about pursuing big dreams -- the only kind of dreams, by the way, that a crop duster with people eyes can have -- is uninspired but unobjectionable. It also features some genuinely exhilarating scenes in which the camera twists and barrel-rolls with Dusty (that's the crop duster) as he zips across the sky.

Still, this largely tedious story makes it impossible to forget what "Planes" actually is: a straight-to-DVD DisneyToons movie that's been gussied up in Pixar-esque clothes for a pre-back-to-school theatrical release designed to sell expensive 3-D tickets and send the kiddos straight to Target to buy "Planes"-inspired toys and merchandise. John Lasseter -- the chief creative office for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, as well as the director of such Pixar favorites as "Toy Story" and "Cars" -- serves as executive producer here. But as the film unfolds, one can practically hear the sounds of Pixar employees whispering, "Pssst: I didn't do it."

Even the youngest moviegoers could probably outline the plot points in "Planes" before stepping into the multiplex. First we meet Dusty, a determined cornfield sprayer eager to defy the odds and compete in the Wings Around the Globe race, which takes truly fierce propeller-spinners on a challenging course through Iceland, the Himalayas and Mexico. Then we meet crusty Skipper (voice of Stacy Keach), a veteran Navy fighter plane who becomes Dusty's coach and is a blatantly obvious retread of Doc Hudson from "Cars." Then we watch the race unfold, forcing Dusty to dig deep into his determination reserves in an attempt to triumph over a condescending rival (Ripslinger, not unlike Guy Gagne from "Turbo"). Then there's a huge midair collision and everyone dies.

Ha, ha, no! That's doesn't happen! Of course you know what's really going to happen, because this film is 100 percent devoid of surprises. It's the story of an underestimated underdog that's like every other kid-friendly, life-coachy story about an underestimated underdog. Dusty says he just wants to prove that "maybe I can do more than I was built for." Unfortunately, "Planes" doesn't strive to achieve that same lofty goal. It does exactly what it was built for and absolutely nothing more.

One and a half stars. PG. Contains mild action and rude humor. 92 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.