Professionally and explicitly crafted to distract your kids with its mix of personalities, peril, and personal-growth drama, “Planes: Fire and Rescue” is another entry in Pixar’s least renowned but most profitable franchise, the talking-vehicles universe that came spinning out of 2006’s “Cars.”
This time, it’s plane-with-a-heart-of-gold Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook, surprisingly likable when invisible) at front and center, as he learns his racing career is over due to a gearbox flaw that renders him unable to push his engine too hard. This bad news comes just as Propwash Junction, Dusty’s home base, requires a new certified fire-fighting vehicle to keep its airport open, and so Dusty, in search of purpose, figures he’ll get certified; how tough can it be?
Early on, Dusty and Propwash Junction are preparing for their big annual community celebration, and a happy talking car notes, “It’s going to be the biggest Corn Festival ever!” If this is, in fact, a sly aside from director Roberts Gannaway (who co-wrote with Jeffery M. Howard), it’s both appreciated and as subtle as “Planes: Fire and Rescue” gets. Dusty puts himself under the tutelage of forest firefighter Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) but soon finds that it takes more than just showing up to fit in with Blade and his team.
Disney, of course, is the studio that traumatized generations of kids with the the burning forest sequence from “Bambi” back in 1942, and “Planes: Fire and Rescue” updates that kind of peril and awe, now with 3-D computer-generated animation, to real and terrific effect. There is, of course, a subplot about a new resort in the path of an oncoming fire, and the greedy, vain resort owner (John Michael Higgins) who doesn’t want it to be evacuated for the big weekend; picture “Jaws” with talking vehicles.
Once-proud racer Dusty eventually learns about duty, honor, and sacrifice, and it’s a pleasure to hear plain-spoken dialogue in Ed Harris‘ voice, even if that voice is coming from a wide-jawed helicopter: “Life … doesn’t always go the way you want it to.” And even with all of the spark-billowing chaos and smoke-spewing fearsomeness of the forest fire sequences, they’re less scary (and weird) than some of the series’ other missteps, like when “Cars 2” featured vehicle-on-vehicle homicide, or the PTSD-plagued war veteran craft from the first “Planes.”
To be fair, all kid’s movie characters end up as merchandise; credit to Disney, then, for figuring out how to slap googly eyes on vehicles and earn a pretty handsome mark-up with minimal work. And as it is in the merchandising aisle, so it is on the big screen: “Planes: Fire and Rescue” is precisely long, competent, and entertaining enough to be sold, and sold well.
Cook’s characterization of Dusty as the plane-next-door works, even selling the sad moments when Dusty furrows his wipers and shrugs his wings. Other vocal standouts include Harris (of course), animation stalwart Patrick Warburton, and Wes Studi and Curtis Armstrong.
The plot leaves the female vehicle characters with less to do than even “Planes” did, which is regrettable, but it does show female characters serving in harm’s way, firefighting as part of the team, so it could be worse.
“Planes: Fire and Rescue” is pretty simple, but it’s never simplistic; things work out great for Dusty, but that’s all part of the kid-movie experience. This movie hardly rates as first-class animation, but it gets in, gets the job done, and moves on both swiftly and well.