PLANE DANE: Comedian Dane Cook plays Dusty, a crop duster who dreams of life beyond his fields.
Concept: Disney Enterprises; Dane Cook: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Disney Enterprises

We get a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get Disney’s Planes, the vaunted studio’s latest animated wonder, off the ground.

Stand-up comedian Dane Cook was on a first date at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, enjoying a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert celebrating Pixar — songs and scores from the Disney-owned cartoon company’s Toy Story series, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and other modern, computer-generated classics. Backstage that evening, John Lasseter — who creatively oversees all films from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios and Disneytoon Studios — cornered the comic, and Cook still recalls every detail of their impromptu chat. “You know,” the animation executive told him, “I’ve got something in mind for you. I can’t really discuss it right now, but I’ll hit you up in a couple of months.”

Talk about a good first date.

As it turns out, Lasseter is a big fan of the popular comedian’s puckish persona. Lasseter had recently taken his son on a cross-country road trip where they bonded while listening to several of Cook’s comedy CDs. At the Hollywood Bowl, Cook could hardly believe his ears as Lasseter teased him with the job offer. A longtime ’toon enthusiast who had previously “dipped his toe” into animation by voicing his own Web clips, a Duck Dodgers episode and amateurish TV bits called “shorties,” he was ecstatic to learn that the Disney/Pixar power broker had been eyeing him for a project. “The next thing you know, I’m there in the recording booth,” recalls Cook, “cannonballing into the deep end of Disney.”

Lasseter needed Cook to provide the voice for Dusty, the lead character of Disney’s Planes, the new animated feature film from Disneytoon Studios. The movie — which harkens back to Pixar’s 2006 movie Cars, one of the company’s biggest hits thanks to the billions of dollars it made in worldwide merchandise sales — originated from a project that Lasseter and Disney’s Planes director Klay Hall were working on about trains and the Wild West. Lasseter was struck with the idea of making a film featuring planes, which aviation buff Hall was excited to explore. 

While Cars focuses on a rookie race car hoping to win the “Piston Cup” championship with the help of a rusty tow truck, a veteran auto champ and others, the plot of Disney’s Planes centers around Dusty, a crop duster who competes in an international race with the aid of airfield allies, including a mechanics truck and an old-time Navy fighter. As in the Cars world, Disney’s Planes features anthropomorphic machines with big, expressive eyes set in their windshields, accurate details of each vehicle’s real-life counterpart and heartwarming emotion running through the story.

Fun Fact: Some of the airplane designs in Disney’s Planes are original, while others are modeled after real aircraft. Dusty’s look was inspired by the Air Tractor 502, the Cessna and the Air Dromader.

Early on, it was decided that the film’s main character would be a prop-plane rather than a more modern jet craft. Hall explains, “The studio has never animated an airplane movie. There are jets everywhere in the picture — the opening sequence features two Navy F-18s” — and a cute nod to Top Gun — “but we didn’t want an entire movie about a jet race. Instead we wanted to embrace the propeller racers, because prop-driven airplanes are popular worldwide, whether in Reno, Nev., or the European GeoRacers. We split the characters between vintage aircraft still capable of going 500 miles per hour and the new ‘carbon-fiber crowd,’ flying modified, lighter-weight racers — the Ferraris of the sky. They mix these two classes up all over, and that’s what we chose to embrace.”