'Planes: Fire & Rescue' improves upon its predecessor, but that's not saying much
Planes: Fire & Rescue Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Roberts Gannaway
Screenplay: Jeffrey M. Howard
Starring: The voices of Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Hal Holbrook, John Michael Higgins, Teri Hatcher and Curtis Armstrong
Rated PG / 1 hour, 23 minutes
July 18, 2014
(out of four)
Showing marginal improvement over the worst animated film to ever wear the Disney label is an easily attainable goal, so if nothing else, Planes: Fire & Rescue kept its ambitions modest. It is, without a doubt, a noticeable improvement over last year's franchise starter. But the truth is, we're just debating degrees of badness here; Fire & Rescue is still, in the grand scheme of things, a subpar representation of animated cinema, and exactly the type of movie you'd expect from the direct-to-video pedigree of its filmmakers.
Perhaps the understanding from the beginning that the film would be a theatrical release is why things seem a bit more refined this time around. The first Planes was originally intended as a DTV release and it showed. Fire & Rescue may not be a whole lot better, but there's a substantial uptick in the sophistication of the film's most visually critical sequences. As opposed to its predecessor's rote compositions and cheap-looking point-of-view shots, the sequel takes greater advantage of its open-air canvas (not to mention its more detailed animation). As our anthropomorphized aviators fight fires inside a national forest, the camera deftly maneuvers around the flames, between the treetops, over and under the nearby waterfalls. The aerial sequences are engaging in a way nothing in Planes ever was.
But when we get back to the ground and we have to spend time with the characters again, we're right back in cringe-worthy mode, as we basically just get new iterations of the same old story points. It's alarming how much of Fire & Rescue is cribbed directly from both the first Planes and the first Cars entry (and neither film is much worth seeing in the first place, let alone imitating). The hotshot racer who has to humble himself in a new town. The wise old sage/mentor with the secret personal history. The characters and designs based on cultural or racial stereotypes*. This movie's got it all.
* Instead of a whole fleet of racing planes representing the most obvious stereotypes of the country they represent, the sequel offers just one such character - the wise Native American helicopter (voiced, needless to say, by Wes Studi) who speaks in deep symbolism with stilted English. Because obviously.
And at the center of it all is the utterly bland leading man plane, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), the cropduster-turned-racing champion with the kind of blank personality that sounds better on paper ("He's sweet and good-hearted, but he has big dreams!") than it comes across on screen. (Yes, the plague of completely uninteresting, edgeless male leads extends even to animated movies.)
After his heroic exploits in the Wings Across the Globe race (and we all totally remember those exploits, amirite?), Dusty is a world-famous racer, beloved by all in his hometown of, uh ... *checks Wikipedia* ... "Propwash Junction." But just as quickly as his racing career took off, it seemingly comes to an end, as he finds out his engine's gearbox is shot, and that the part has been discontinued, unavailable anywhere. (In the kind of world where planes are self-sufficient and apparently even get together to make baby planes, I was surprised to discover they're still so dependent on factory parts. One wonders if, in this world, Dusty could file some kind of suit against his original manufacturer. Isn't it borderline discriminatory to discontinue a part that so many cropdusters rely on for their very survival? But I digress.)
In a failed effort to prove he can still fly at high speeds even with the faulty gearbox, Dusty crashes at the local fire station and causes an explosion, which inadvertently exposes the inadequacy of the local fire engine, Mayday (Hal Holbrook), and forces the authorities to shut the station down until it can get its equipment in order and hire another firefighter. And so, needing a new path in life, Dusty volunteers to train in firefighting to help clean up the mess he started. He flies out to Piston Peak National Park to be trained by the gruff, all-business Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who of course is unimpressed by Dusty's racing credentials and equally unhappy with his propensity to flout discipline and disobey orders.
Drama is manufactured in the form of the grand opening of a fancy new lodge in the park, which has been over-booked by the aloof, fast-talking SUV Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins) and deemed a fire hazard by Blade, a fact Cad completely ignores. But there is no actual drama - we know it's only a matter of time before Dusty wins Blade over with an act of valor, and Cad gets his comeuppance, and Dusty's gearbox is miraculously fixed. Fire & Rescue comes alive only in moments, but almost entirely during the wildfire sequences - never in the story. Is this improvement? Sure. At this rate, by the time the fifth Planes movie rolls around, we might get something worth seeing.
One final remark. Planes: Fire & Rescue opens on a baffling note, somberly dedicating itself to firefighters everywhere, as if a bad animated movie about talking planes saving other talking planes from fires is really the place to do it. The film doubles down on that message with the inclusion of a crappy, faux-uplifting country song about firefighters during the closing credits, just to make sure we know just how much Disney totally digs firefighters. I suppose it's a nice gesture in theory, but in practice it comes across as a desperate attempt to give the movie a sense of meaning it doesn't actually have. Given that precedent, I fully expect Dusty to join the military for Planes 3: War on Terror so that the filmmakers can express their solemn gratitude to the troops while a bunch of culturally specific fighter jets make fart noises in the background.