by Matt Levine
A disheartening number of children’s movies serve two primary functions: babysitter and merchandise peddler. The 2013 Disney quickie Planes—originally conceived as a direct-to-video cash-in on the success of Pixar’s Cars and Cars 2 (which were hardly paragons of innovation themselves)—provides an epitomic example. The story of a small but plucky crop-duster, Dusty Crophopper, who enters a globetrotting airplane race and learns to believe in himself (in other words, the same general story as 98% of kid-friendly movies), Planes was unfunny and lifeless, sparked only by capable computer animation. Clearly, the filmmakers were mostly concerned with adding aeronautical toys to Disney’s already copious merchandise supply, and many parents were presumably only looking for a brightly-colored distraction to subdue their children for an hour and a half.
Director: Roberts Gannaway
Producer: John Lasseter
Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard
Editor: Dan Molina
Music: Mark Mancina
Cast: Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Wes Studi, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Cedric the Entertainer, Danny Mann, Barry Corbin, Regina King, Anne Meara
US Theatrical Release: July 18, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
In Hollywood’s sequel-and-spinoff addled atmosphere, it was only a matter of time until this lame but profitable well was revisited. Hence, Planes: Fire & Rescue, which changes the setting and the storyline but provides the same lazily inspirational message. Dusty, basking in his newfound glory as world racing champion in the idyllic village of Propwash Junction, discovers that his gearbox has busted and may not be replaceable—his racing days seem over. More importantly (at least for now), Dusty and his bumpkin friends—among them a fuel truck named Chug and a dilapidated emergency vehicle named Mayday—discover that the upcoming air race in Propwash Junction may have to be cancelled due to inadequate fire-prevention and rescue equipment. After helping to put out a massive fire by toppling a watertower, Dusty decides to travel north to the Lake Tahoe-like locale of Piston Peak, where he hopes to train with the renowned fire-and-rescue helicopter Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) and become certified as an airborne firefighter in time for the impending Big Race.
So instead of overcoming his lack of confidence and rising to glory as an underdog racing champion, Dusty is forced to overcome his lack of confidence and rise to glory as a rookie firefighter. All snarkiness aside (as much as possible anyway), Fire & Rescue is an undeniable improvement over its paltry predecessor. There are a few subplots—primarily involving Blade Ranger’s tragic past and a slimy park ranger (which takes the form of a Mercedes Benz-like luxury sedan) holding an opulent gala on the night of a raging wildfire—but they’re thankfully brief and intermittently engaging, leaving most of the focus on the fire-and-rescue vehicles and Dusty’s bittersweet decision to abandon his racing fame for a nobler calling.
Maybe Fire & Rescue’s writers, knowing the sequel was destined for theatrical distribution, actively sought to raise the stakes this time around. Whatever the case, the life-and-death peril that constitutes the last half-hour of the story is considerably more involving than Dusty’s trite aspirations to glory in the first film. There’s a surprisingly morbid tone to some of Fire & Rescue, notably a bulletin board in the Piston Peak hangar that commemorates the Fire & Rescue gang’s dead comrades; Blade Ranger’s tale of loss and Dusty’s reckoning with the fact that he might never race again turn the film, at least occasionally, into a solemn story of mortality and change. The apocalyptic fire that spreads during the movie’s climax leads to some unexpectedly thrilling last-minute rescues, and allows the CGI animators to indulge a glittering black-purple-orange color scheme.
That being said, the movie’s treatment of character and comedy is undeniably juvenile. Its humor is comprised mostly of lame vehicular puns—repeated scatological jokes about tailpipes, a sleazy pickup truck that flirts with female cars, an RV named Harvey, etc.—and an extended parody of CHiPS, weirdly enough (Erik Estrada even voices a character). Even worse, aside from Blade Ranger’s overall melancholy and Dusty’s bleaker moments, the whole ensemble is a witless parade of stereotypes, from a female rescue plane named Lil Dipper who is infatuated with Dusty (“I like watching you sleep,” she creepily whispers to him at one point) to a Native American rescue copter named Windlifter, who speaks in faux-mystical platitudes and provides stoic wisdom. It would have been difficult to enliven the cliché-ridden script, but the cast of voice actors—most of them culled from C-list territory (Dane Cook, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, et al.)—certainly don’t do it any favors, as their performances often resemble a first-time read-through.
Despite its flaws, Planes: Fire & Rescue is an innocuous carbon-copy at worst. Parents dragging unruly children to a movie theater might find themselves unexpectedly entertained; even the film’s stupider intervals at least provide vivid animation and a sense of impending danger. Another element that many critics have lambasted—the incoherence of an alternate world in which anthropomorphized vehicles have apparently replaced all animal life on the planet—is actually somewhat amusing, allowing more contemplative viewers the chance to imagine a post-apocalyptic future in which machines become sentient and imitate their former human operators. (Such a subterranean subplot is certainly more unique and interesting than the by-the-numbers adventure story on display.)
True, Fire & Rescue pales in comparison to The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, not to mention the animated masterpieces that Pixar used to churn out regularly (Up and Wall-E are in a class by themselves); but in the annals of sappy yet harmless entertainment, there are certainly worse offenders. The sarcastic cynic in me wants to deride the film’s opening dedication to our nation’s firefighters (an empty tribute considering this movie has nothing to do with reality) and the horrendous country music that plays throughout, but the movie is so harmless that such criticisms seem almost irrelevant. Planes: Fire & Rescue excels at its two main functions, babysitting and selling toys. It does a passable job with its third priority—actually telling a distinct, entertaining story—despite the fact that such a factor almost seems like an afterthought.