The airplanes in Disney’s Planes movie that will be previewed on the big screen at Oshkosh on Friday, August 2, are animations. That means, of course, the airplanes in the movie aren’t real. The airplanes have mouths, and eyes and they talk, something I haven’t encountered yet in real airplanes.
But in an important way Disney’s Planes airplanes actually fly, which is a welcome change from the way aircraft of all sorts are typically shown in feature films these days. Planes is a movie for kids. Talking airplanes can hold the attention of youngsters, and tell a story, but these planes won’t mislead our kids and grandkids the way aircraft in other action movies do.
Once upon a time movie makers attached cameras to real airplanes to show viewers what it was like to fly. The very first Oscar winner for best picture, Wings, was such an amazing display of World War I era fighter aerial action photography that it blew away early talking pictures to win. Most movie experts agree it was the flying action sequences more than the acting or storyline that made Wings such a sensation. And there were more than a few mishaps during filming.
In more recent times aerial footage was a staple in the Bond movies. When that BD-5 jet flew through the hangar in Octopussy that was a real BD-5 flown by a real pilot, Corkey Fornof. The snake in the biplane when Harrison Ford was launching the Indiana Jones series of action movies was a real airplane—and I think a real snake.
For many pilots the all-time best flying action movie was Top Gun. The aerial scenes in that movie were spectacular, and extremely real. The flat spin scene was so authentic that Art Scholl was killed trying to capture the film. Art had cameras attached to a Pitts that would show the pilot’s eye view of the spin with absolute realism, so real, in fact, that something went wrong and Art was unable to recover from the spin before crashing into the ocean.
The first conversation I ever had with Harrison Ford about airplanes in the movies was before Six Days Seven Nights, an action feature he and a de Havilland Beaver starred in was about to be released. Harrison began by apologizing to me in a pilot-to-pilot way for some of the unrealistic aviation liberties that I would see in the film. He pointed out that total aviation authenticity often gets in the way of entertainment for non-pilots, and entertainment was the necessary objective of the movie. When I saw the movie I understood what he meant, but the flying scenes and views out of the cockpit were of a real DHC-2 actually flying. The movie script was pretty much a gagger, but the flying scenes came close to saving the day for pilots.
But in the past several years animation technology has forced real airplanes out of the movies. Real airplanes can’t make 100-foot radius turns between buildings while flying at 300 knots. But computer created aircraft can. Action movies over the past 15 or 20 years show all sorts of mostly rocket powered airplanes flying in ways that are simply not aerodynamically possible. The idea of sending a pilot like Art Scholl out to film actual airplane maneuvering has become laughable to the people who make an endless series of post-apocalyptic shoot ‘em ups.
The creators of Disney’s Planes movie have gone the other way. They have taken great pains to show that airplanes need airspeed and thrust to fly. The airplanes bank and turn at believable and generally realistic rates. The airplanes even takeoff and land, something other special effect aircraft don’t ever bother with.
The plot of Planes is totally unrealistic. Dusty, a crop duster that looks a lot like an Air Tractor, is afraid of heights, but wants to compete in an air race. All of us who fly know that the only sensation of height while flying is when we are low and close to terrain. And air races take place at absurdly low altitudes. But the movie creators do need a plot line and that’s it.
I don’t expect you to be enthralled with Planes but I am encouraged that if you take your kids or grandkids to see it at AirVenture in a few weeks they won’t be totally mislead by what they see. Though these Planes talk, and emote at least they sort of behave like real airplanes in the air. And that’s more than any of us can expect from other new movies that include aviation action.