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Disney tries to make non-Pixar "Planes" soar. Will people notice the difference?

If critics could force the Federal Aviation Administration to ground "Planes," they probably would. Most are not happy that the aeronautical animated spinoff of Pixar's popular "Cars" franchise, which opens today and was originally a straight-to-DVD Disney release, might be causing the public to think it is in the same league as such high-end family fare as the "Toy Story" films and "Finding Nemo."

It's like confusing Costco's house- brand Kirkland with artisanal luxury goods.

Right now, the reaction to the less polished adventure made by DisneyToon Studios about a lowly crop duster who aspires to win a globe-spanning race against world-class competitors stands at a weak 25% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Typical is this assessment by David Hiltbrand of The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Disney has been such a beacon of quality and imagination in pop culture that it's disenchanting, even at this late date, when it releases something as generic as Planes."

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But the more important question when it comes to the actual box office: Are parents concerned that, despite its tagline ("From above the world of Cars") and similarly designed characters, that "Planes" is not Pixar-produced?

According to a survey by Fandango, 66% of early ticket buyers for "Planes" say they do not care whether or not the movie is from Pixar. Their main concern is its connection to the "Cars" franchise, with 93% declaring themselves fans of the previous vehicle-themed movies. With a "Planes" trilogy already in the works, Disney apparently isn't worried, either.

Tara McNamara, Fandango's Film Mom and editor of KidsPickFlicks.com, which compiles the opinions of young critics, suggests that unlike Pixar's Oscar-worthy output, "Planes" appeals to kids first, then adults. And moms and dads might be fine with that. "Planes's story is not a sophisticated one, but it's peppered with jokes for parents as well as ESPN-type race coverage for dads."

McNamara is also OK with it being shown in theaters, something Disney has attempted previously with other straight-to-DVD titles such as "The Tigger Movie" and "Return to Never Land," but not on such a grand scale. "The scenic animation is spectacular and only a big screen will do it justice," she says.

Animation expert Bill Desowitz, a contributing editor for Animation Scoop at Indiewire.com, survived his own "Planes" ride without many bumps. "I was pleasantly surprised. I was not expecting much, but I thought it was a lot of fun for what it was. Certainly, they are leveraging the Pixar brand to its fullest, but why hide the fact that it is a 'Cars' spinoff?"

Hollywood.com box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian doesn't think Disney is necessarily trying pull a fast one, but simply taking advantage of summer's least-competitive month—even if "Planes" is going up against not just another kid-friendly title, "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," but also Matt Damon's return to the action zone with the sci-fi thriller "Elysium."

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"August is a slow-down month, and it's a way to put a Pixar-style film into a period when the marketplace usually gives up on the family audience," he says. "Like it or not, if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, maybe it is one. The subtleties of a brand are lost on the average consumer. If it delivers, it doesn't matter. It is a win-win for everyone."

Dergarabedian says that estimates show that "Planes" is on course to land a three-day take of $25-$30 million—pretty good for Pixar lite.

Perhaps even more telling, says McNamara, is that advance sales for "Planes" on Fandango "are neck-and-neck with 'Elysium' for the weekend. Middle America's taste in entertainment is often underestimated, and Middle America loves 'Cars.'"

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