2013’s Planes was the underdog story of a little film no one wanted, one that was destined for a direct-to-DVD release, but, against all odds, found its way to theatres. The merchandising windfall ensured by a whole new class of vehicle in the Cars universe was no doubt reason enough for Disney to release a half-assed, miscast, and poorly animated spin-off to the big screen, but a timely launch window allowed Planes to make back its (relatively) inexpensive budget fourfold. Going up against another round of weak weekend competition less than a year later, Planes: Fire & Rescue further pushes the envelope for what the House of Mouse deems “theatre-worthy.” To damn with faint praise, there’s no denying that Fire & Rescue is, at the very least, a marginal improvement over its execrable predecessor.
The first Planes having so dogmatically delivered every beat of its “local plane makes good” story of a small town crop-duster achieving his dream of being a racing champion, Fire & Rescue begins with protagonist Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) completely out of runway in his chosen profession, so the film has to force him into starting a new one. Contriving a health crisis for Dusty and a management crisis in his hometown (ones that only further complicate the confusing internal logic governing the vehicles themselves, and their society), Dusty sets out to earn firefighter certification while the future of his racing career is left up in the air.
Trading the often-barren vistas of the first film’s race around the world for a Rocky Mountain national park, Fire & Rescue‘s biggest improvement is purely visual. While it still can’t hold a candle to the detail of Pixar or Disney 3D animation at their most lovingly crafted, Fire & Rescue has a more densely populated and appealing backdrop at its disposal than the original. The thick forestry makes for a more pleasant setting than Planes’ bland hangers and racetracks, whether it’s caught in a blaze during one of the film’s many firefighting scenes, or providing a nice view while the vehicles engage in static conversation.
The park fire brigade Dusty trains with comprises new classes of aircraft and construction vehicles, which you can cynically assume were introduced just so there could be new toys on store shelves. That cynicism is quickly justified by the film’s arc for Dusty, which once again depends on a crusty old-timer teaching him lessons about pursuing dreams and believing in yourself, just with Ed Harris voicing the hardened mentor this time instead of Stacey Keach. Trading in Planes’ bullying jock antagonist for an ambitious lodge-owning Cadillac, Fire & Rescue adds a few shades of Towering Inferno-style disaster flick to what is otherwise a beat-for-beat remake of the first film’s story.
At the very least, the characterizations of the other vehicles are a little less thoughtless than they were in Planes, as there are fewer grossly stereotypical side characters this time out. Fewer does not mean zero, mind you, as there’s a mystic Native American helicopter named Windlifter (Wes Studi) here to continue the franchise’s belief in diversity through cultural cliché. The female planes aren’t weirdly fetishized for their “aerodynamics” this time either, though the main new addition, a psychotic groupie voiced by Modern Family’s Julie Bowen, exists as a rolling joke, the punchline being “dame planes sure can be clingy, amiright?!”
In repeating the first film’s arc so thoroughly, just with fewer horrible characterizations to distract you, Fire & Rescue makes for a safely duller ride than the hyperactive original. Though the national park is a matchbox that goes up in flames every ten minutes or so, younger kids will likely grow restless during the story bits devoted to bizarre, “for the parents” gags, like an extended Chips parody (starring helicopters, so go ahead and fill in the mock-title for yourself), or a quick cut to a vessel named Boat Reynolds, two references that outdate many of the parents who will be in the film’s audience.
The underlying issue with the entire Cars-verse is that there’s still nothing about this world that actually makes it different from our own. The franchise is based on taking well-worn story types and characters, and simply replacing them with toys; flip them back to being human, and nothing changes. The writing is, therefore, a non-stop parade of puns and pop culture references, which when fired off like a belt-fed machine gun, inevitably hit on occasion. That doesn’t stop writer Jeffery M. Howard from pilfering himself, though. He recycles a number of jokes from Planes, as his wordplay well isn’t deep enough to avoid obnoxious tangents where characters shout at one another for no reason, other than because young children presumably equate loud with funny. Dramatics and morals are just as embarrassingly simplistic, with the film’s standing message of, “you don’t always get what you want,” quickly reversed to say, “actually, just wait ten minutes, and then you’ll get everything you want.”
Excised of some of its more risible elements, it’s hard to begrudge this film made for small children, and designed to sell them toys, for being just that; doubly so when other merchandise-moving franchises like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are targeting literal and emotional adolescents in much the same way. Still, this is opportunistic, mercenary filmmaking at its most calculated, such that the only way to prevent another Planes would be to not take your kids to it, and to stop buying the merch. Anecdotal evidence says that won’t happen anytime soon: at my screening, a mother offering to take her toddler to either Planes: Fire & Rescue, or the more complex and rewarding How to Train Your Dragon 2, was met with a resounding cry for the former. It’s true that kids can handle deeper, denser material in their animated films than what Planes: Fire & Rescue has to offer, but what they can handle and what they want are two different things. Expect the military-themed Planes: Top Guns sometime within the next 8 months.