Film Review: Planes: Fire and Rescue

Action-oriented animated sequel that, in blockbuster fashion, offers well-choreographed set-pieces in place of an interesting story and characters.

Pixar has always had a complicated relationship with the Cars franchise; on the one hand, it's generally regarded as their least successful property from a creative standpoint, with Cars 2 in particular earning a studio that could once do no wrong some of their worst reviews. Commercially, though, the series remains a powerhouse and not even in terms of box-office grosses; for almost a decade now, kids have demonstrated an unabated appetite for ancillary Cars merchandise, from toys and bedsheets to lunchboxes and school supplies. As long as those products keep flying off the shelves, Pixar is more or less obligated to keep adding new characters and content to the franchise as opposed to leaving it in the rearview as they have with less profitable standalone outings like A Bug's Life and Up.

And make no mistake, merchandise is the engine driving the ongoing expansion of the so-called "World of Cars," which now features planes, trains and other vehicles alongside the original's automobile-centric cast. To give Pixar plausible deniability about being involved with the continued milking of this cash cow, the company's overlords at Disney have handed off the expanded universe to another production arm, DisneyToon Studios, the outfit that makes most of the direct-to-DVD sequels to the Mouse House's legacy favorites. (Their less-than-auspicious filmography includes Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, Kronk's New Groove and—perhaps the most unnecessary sequel of all time—Bambi II.) Planes: Fire and Rescue follows directly on the heels of last summer's Planes, a movie intended for a DVD-only premiere which flew into theatres at the last minute to take advantage of a dearth of late-summer kiddie fare. That strategy paid off in a $200 million worldwide box-office haul, thus earning this hastily made sequel a more prominent release date and ad campaign.

For their first venture into Pixar territory, DisneyToon stuck close to the Cars template, retuning the story of a championship racecar who learns how to be an ordinary jalopy into the story of an ordinary crop-duster who learns how to be a championship racing plane. Perhaps because Fire and Rescue came together in a hurry, it doesn't so much possess a full narrative arc as an extremely basic premise. Having improbably won the around-the-world race depicted in the last film, amiable everyplane Dusty (Dane Cook) is…um, flying high—that is, until he learns that his racing days might be doomed thanks to an equipment failure that may be unfixable. In order to help out a friend—and because he's gotta do something as the movie's hero—he decides to try his wings at a new profession: wildlife firefighter.

Making the flight to a gorgeous national park (that's managed to stay pristine despite the steady stream of carbon emissions from its four-wheeled, oil-guzzling visitors), Dusty receives a crash course in combating wilderness flame wars under the tutelage of gruff rescue helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris). He also befriends Blade's outfit of blandly characterized eccentrics, ranging from sunny Super Scooper Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen) to wizened heavy-lift copter—and unfortunate Native American stereotype—Windlifter (Wes Studi). While occasional conflict is provided by the vaguely villainous Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins), the greedy proprietor of a lavish lodge nestled within the park's rolling hills, maybe five minutes of the movie's brief 84-minute runtime are given over to anything resembling a plot. Instead, what dominates the proceedings are the extended firefighting sequences and bits of comic business involving existing and newly introduced vehicles, all of which are no doubt available for purchase at your favorite local and online retailers.

Considering the second-rate storytelling on display in the first Planes, very little was likely lost in co-writer/director Bobs Gannaway's decision to glide over that in Fire and Rescue. And not for nothing, but few professions are as visually dynamic—or as popular amongst kids—as firefighting and, to their credit, Gannaway and the rest of the animation team do go all-out in the planes-vs.-flames set-pieces, handily lapping the perfunctory racing sequences in the previous movie. An opening dedication pays homage to the men and women who battle real-life forest fires and the movie does a fine job showcasing both the thrill factor and fear factor that accompany this line of work. (Coming out of the theatre, my seven-year-old screening companion, who had spent the entirety of the flame-bathed climax applauding every one of Dusty's close saves, nixed a career as a fire and rescue pilot because it looked "way too dangerous.") Still, the pronounced absence of unexpected, resonant plot points and endearing, layered characters—two hallmarks of any Pixar favorite—speaks to how much of this "World of Cars" brand extension is about merchandising rather than storytelling. Will kids be entertained in the moment by Fire and Rescue? Sure…but they'd almost certainly dream up more imaginative stories just playing with the toys.

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