After making a tin-eared debut with last year’s “Planes,” an earthbound pileup of lame jokes and ethnic caricatures, Disney’s “Cars” spinoff franchise gets a bit higher off the ground with “Planes: Fire & Rescue.” Largely ditching the funny accents in favor of an earnest but emotionally effective salute to the everyday heroism of America’s firefighters, this formulaic small-fry entertainment still doesn’t possess the story smarts to justify a bigscreen upgrade for a property that was conceived with home formats in mind. Nonetheless, there are honestly stirring moments to be found in the movie’s heartfelt tribute to the virtues of teamwork, courage and sacrifice, and in its soaring 3D visuals. Box office returns should land in the vicinity of the first pic’s $219 million worldwide haul; merchandising revenue and other ancillary streams look as unstoppable as ever.
Having realized his dreams of stardom on the international racing circuit in the first film, Dusty Crophopper (again voiced by Dane Cook), a single-propeller plane who resembles a 50/50 bar with wings, is literally flying high when “Fire & Rescue” opens. But after he experiences some engine trouble during a routine test flight, his four-wheeled mechanic friend Dottie (Teri Hatcher) peeks under the hood and offers a grim diagnosis: Dusty’s gearbox is practically kaput, and with no chance of repairing or replacing it (the part is so old, it’s no longer in production), his racing days are effectively over.
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When a fire accidentally breaks out at their airport, Dusty and friends look to Mayday (Hal Holbrook), a wheezy old fire truck whose faltering equipment makes it harder to extinguish the blaze than it should be. When the airport is subsequently shut down due to non-compliance with safety regulations, Dusty is inspired to do his part to help save the day — and find a second-chance career alternative to racing — by joining an elite squad of aerial firefighters. Together these brave flyers are tasked with protecting the beautiful and historic Piston Peak National Park during wildfire season.
The character dynamics are familiar but effective: In addition to dodging the amorous attentions of one of his teammates, a starstruck air tanker named Dipper (Julie Bowen), Dusty must accept the demanding leadership of Blade Ranger (Ed Harris, the go-to actor for telling you how it is), a surly helicopter who’s not convinced the new celebrity in their midst has what it takes to be a great firefighter. And so, like “Planes” and the “Cars” movies before it, “Fire & Rescue” becomes a sly riff on sports-movie conventions, as Dusty must learn not just the most strategic way to drop a tankful of bright pink flame retardant (the visual detail here is especially lustrous), but also the importance of swallowing his pride, accepting his limitations and working as a team when lives are at stake.
Those lives, of course, belong not to humans but to machines — whether they’re cars fleeing en masse from a soon-to-be-burned-down hotel (called the Grand Fusel Lodge, natch), or a pair of lovelorn RVs who find themselves trapped on a burning suspension bridge, the site of a long-ago romantic date. This surreal style of auto anthropomorphism will remain, for many, a bizarre and troubling existential riddle, the stumbling block that prevents full surrender to this clearly man-made yet completely man-free vehicular universe. By this point, anyone still paying attention to the “Cars” and “Planes” movies would probably do well to set any lingering reservations aside and accept this cartoon world on its own nonsensical terms, even if the extreme, borderline-obsessive realism with which it has been conceived and designed is what often makes it difficult to do just that.
In writing their script, director Bobs Gannaway (a longtime Disney TV helmer making his feature debut) and returning “Planes” scribe Jeffrey M. Howard were inspired by the fact that crop dusters were in fact used in wildfire air attacks — a historical snippet that establishes a foundation of verisimilitude for the picture’s impressively staged setpieces. The animation here is nearly flawless in its detailed rendering of a woodland setting, from the shadows that creep up on a forest at sunset to the way a river churns and surges its way around sharp rocks. Most impressive of all is the fire, beautifully realized by the f/x team in a production that makes more extensive and visually sophisticated use of said element than any previous animated feature. A sequence in which Dusty and friends fly through a cloud of smoke and ash, directly into the path of a fire that has consumed an entire valley, is a marvel to behold, fully matched in its subtle intensity by the atmospheric crackle of Todd Toon’s sound design.
If the stunning Yellowstone/Yosemite-style backdrops and Mark Mancina’s supportive score (supplemented by songs from country star Brad Paisley and Spencer Lee) give “Planes: Fire & Rescue” a classic American feel that harks back to the first “Cars” movie, then the elemental simplicity of the conflict here (plane vs. nature) lends it a surprising measure of dramatic accessibility. Watching sentient hunks of metal race each other and exchange wisecracks can get tiresome pretty quickly, but seeing them perform selfless acts of great individual and collective bravery can be unexpectedly, ridiculously moving, particularly when the stakes are so harrowingly realized.
There’s more than a flicker of subtext here about death and mortality, particularly with regard to Mayday’s sense of having outlived his usefulness, which only makes the tacked-on happy ending ring all the more false. Until that contrived resolution, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is a slight but improbably successful example of a movie that, despite its profusion of chrome and steel, somehow succeeds in touching something human.