Last year’s Cars spin-off starring Dane Cook as a cropduster with dreams of becoming a world-class racer came and went without much fanfare. Made by Disney rather than Pixar, Planes certainly had the feel of far too many of Disney’s straight-to-video sequels (despite the movie actually getting a theatrical release). I found the first film to be more than a little clunky, and certainly the weakest of any of the movies set in the Cars universe, but it still had enough charm and beautiful animation to keep my interest. Planes‘ sequel feels much the same with some uneven writing and cheap fart jokes. However, along with its impressive look, the sequel does celebrate the service of firefighters and offer a nice lesson for its target audience.
Planes: Fire & Rescue returns Cook as cropduster turned world-famous racer Dusty Crophopper whose career is put in jeopardy thanks to nonrepairable damage to the plane’s gearbox. In an attempt to help out an old friend, and keep the local airstrip open, Dusty signs up to train as with a fire and rescue team hoping to become certified as a firefighter.
The opening scenes involving Dusty’s accident and self-loathing, and the first of far too many fart jokes (let’s just say the film’s humor isn’t always a strength), bog the film’s start down quite a bit. Thankfully things pick up after a costly mistake caused by the cropduster forces Dusty to seek out expert firefighter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) and struggle to become a certified firefighter while dealing with the scant hopes of ever racing again. The movie’s message works but could have been improved if Dusty’s firefighting days felt a little less of the plane killing time by giving the Dusty more of a personal reason for joining the squad.
On the other hand, Ranger’s tragedy-filled backstory is a bit too reminiscent of Doc Hudson’s (Paul Newman) secret origins from the first Cars‘ film. However it does offer a couple of nice twists – most notably a pretty enjoyable CHiPs parody that casts Erik Estrada as the other half Blade Ranger’s former TV-team. Planes: Fire & Rescue isn’t a movie I’m likely to return to any time soon, but if the Blu-ray includes more of these CHiPs parodies, which the various firefighters enjoy in secret without letting on about their chief’s Hollywood past, it would certainly be a strong selling point.
Other new characters include the over-affectionate Dipper (Julie Bowen), the Native American Windlifter (Wes Studi) who speaks mostly in cliched Indian sayings and riddles, a old cargo plane named Cabbie (Dale Dye), the mechanic Maru (Curtis Armstrong) who prides himself in making things “better than new,” and a quintet of all-terrain vehicles known as The Smokejumpers (Regina King, Corri English, Bryan Callen, Danny Pardo, and Matt Jones). Bowen and Armstrong are given the most opportunities to shine, although the Smokejumpers manage to steal their moments over the course of the film as well.
As animated sequels go Planes: Fire & Rescue isn’t all that special and certainly not on the level of Pixar’s major releases, but it does have its moments and works as a B-list animated feature. From the screening I attended most of the children seemed drawn-in by the story, and those who enjoyed the first film are likely to have a similar experience here. And for anyone with a personal attachment to firefighting the movie is likely to resonate more than with most of the general public. That said, it’s certainly not a film you need to rush to the theater to see unless you and your children are simply looking for 83-minute summer escape they are likely to enjoy more than you will.