When you think "Disney animation," some images that swirl to mind might include The Little Mermaid spiraling and singing under the sea, a frantic Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Beauty and the Beast waltzing under that grand chandelier, or Aladdin flying high over the sultan's palace on his magic carpet. Because of films as outstanding as these, it can feel like a profound disappointment when Disney offers up something that's little more than cute and competent children's entertainment. But here we are: a sequel to a spin-off that was originally intended to go straight to DVD.
It's easy to be cynical about Planes: Fire & Rescue, but honestly, I walked into its screening with an open mind. In part because I'd genuinely enjoyed The Pirate Fairy, the most recent release from DisneyToon Studios, a branch of the animation studio that works mainly on straight-to-DVD releases. But for all its earnestness and pluck, Planes: Fire & Rescue is a slapdash bit of entertainment, that may delight young children, but will surely bore--and possibly depress--their parents.
Taking off where Planes left off, Planes: Fire & Rescue has cropduster-turned-racer plane Dusty Crophopper as a world-heralded speed star. But, after a weird glitch of his gearbox, he gets the devastating news that the part cannot be replaced or repaired, meaning he'll never be able to go fast enough to race again. Ten minutes in, and this sequel is killing the dream that the first movie was all about achieving. It's a surprisingly mature plotline that then demands Dusty find new meaning and purpose in his life. A convoluted plot point involving a surprisingly lengthy discussion of health and safety codes (yes, in a kids movie) leads Dusty to his next vocation, which as the title implies is becoming a firefighter. So, he must go to train with a firefighting team called The Smokejumpers, offering a new cast of colorful characters, who are unfortunately mainly populated by tiresome--and sometimes offensive--stereotypes.
Dane Cook reprises his role as Dusty, and once more throws his signature energy into the voice work. Ed Harris lends sneering gravitas to Blade Ranger, the leader of the Smokejumpers who is essentially any hardened leader from any war or sports movie ever. Julie Bowen offers a bubbly and dippy performance as Lil' Dipper, a firefighter whose main function is to instantly fixate on Dusty. She's a desperate psycho fan girl who is forcing a romantic relationship onto him at every turn, earning more cringes from this critic than laughs.
John Michael Higgins gives a biting edge as an obnoxious SUV/greedy park superintendent called Cad. And sharp ears will pick out Regina King, Cedric the Entertainer, Brad Garrett, Hal Holbrook, Jerry Stiller, Fred Willard, and Patrick Warburton. But the character Wes Studi plays may--and should--raise eyebrows. As a chopper named Windlifter, Studi taps into the lame stereotype of a mysterious, nonsense-spouting Indian chief as his blades serve as headdress. Others mock him for his grim demeanor and enigmatic metaphors, and there's no clear reason why this racist cliché need be included at all. At worst, it's insulting. At best, it's lazy.
That's the greatest sin of Planes: Fire & Rescue. It's lazy. One example would be the referential humor meant to appeal to adults, like when CHiPs star Erik Estrada makes a cameo as a helicopter in the TV show CHoPs. This is the worst kind of humor--the kind where there is no joke, it's just playing to audience nostalgia for a brief but cheap moment of joy. While there are some genuinely funny character moments or puns, the humor of Planes: Fire & Rescue is mostly cheap, made up of silly stock characters and fart jokes. And yelling. Really, there is one character whose entire shtick is that he yells.
Basically, Planes: Fire & Rescue is exactly what you should expect from a spin-off sequel slapped together in less than a year. It just feels too rushed to be layered. Instead, it's a movie that races to be over. Character banter is revved up to allow for no breaths, or much thought. We're chucked into Dusty's depressing news about losing his dream, then hurled into his new path before it's even clear if it's one he wants. Finally, after much fire fighting and flying action sequences--that will likely thrill kids--we race to a finale where Dusty seems happy in his final choice, though his climactic choosing of it--arguably the film's most important moment--never really landed.
I can't help but wonder if kids want a story about how the hero who achieved their dream in the first movie is forced to face that his body is giving out on him, pushing him to a Plan B. It's a sophisticated theme I didn't expect from Planes: Fire & Rescue, and one that could have proved compelling to more mature audiences. But ultimately, this sequel--like its hero--runs on adrenaline not thought. And so Planes: Fire & Rescue feels sloppy and frustrating over fun and satisfying. Still, little kids--who are clearly this movie's target audience--will likely enjoy the goofy voices its actors make, as well as the POV shots that place them in the cockpit of Dusty and his friends and the soar and dove through fire and forests. For them, Planes: Fire & Rescue will probably prove a decent diversion for 83 minutes. But Disney can do so much more that it just stings when they don't bother.