Less than a year after the first Cars spinoff Planes, DisneyToon Studios has released its sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue. Where the previous movie was originally intended as a straight to home video product (which showed in several aspects of the final film), this one was always headed for the big screen — and, thankfully, it also shows in several aspects of the final film.

planes2-1Dusty, a crop-duster turned racer, discovers he may never get to compete again due to a worn down, hard to find part. In a fit of denial he accidentally causes a fire at the airport. When inspectors discover their firefighting force isn’t up to code, the town’s annual festival is in danger of getting shut down unless a new firefighter can be trained.

The story, while perhaps too predictable for adult audiences, was at least more compelling than the rehash of a wannabe Lightning McQueen that passed for a script in the last outing. A big part of that is down to the subject and setting. It seems odd that firefighting hasn’t been used more often as the topic of major animated films since the fighters themselves are always popular with kids. And outside Yogi Bear, national parks haven’t been mined as animated backdrops much either. Both helped give the story a fresh feeling even if the script itself wasn’t so original.

While there were moments of genuine humor, unfortunately too much of the comedy relied on puns, crude humor, and jokes for the grownups. Thankfully, the wordplay ended for the most part after the first 10 minutes. And truthfully that can be forgiven. It is a kids movie after all, and the Cars/Planes word is rife for that kind of humor. The crude bits and jokes meant to go over kids’ heads is less forgivable, and just comes from lazy writing.

Surprisingly, the switch from standard widescreen to CinemaScope was actually a good move and not a gimmick. The wider aspect gave the planes more space to fly, made the national park setting more grand, and the massive fires more menacing. And the animators ran with that extra space. While still maybe not up to Pixar or WDAS standards, the artistry was defiantly as polished as anything else out there and well above home video fare. (Though maybe a few too many goofy visual gags for my taste!)

planes2-2What’s harder to do — and this is even true of Pixar in their Cars films — is make the characters seem unique. There appears to be only so many different ways you can draw a vehicle with eyes for windows. After awhile they all start to look the same so you have to start adding silly accessories to them, like giant hats.

The voice acting this time out was better than last time, but nothing to be wowed by. Most of the voices were effective but not really noteworthy. The only exception was Hal Holbrook as Mayday, the old and rundown firetruck. Of all the characters in the film, his was the only one that had any emotional punch — like he actually was the person he was playing and not just acting out the lines in front of him.

Another aspect of the film deserving of some praise was the use of music. Sometimes pop songs feel tacked in to animated films, but two were used really effectively here: Spencer Lee’s inspirational Still I Fly and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Both hit the right tone, worked within the plot, and were woven into the film itself nicely. Mark Mancina’s score, while not exactly memorable, was impactful when necessary and in the background when appropriate — in other words it did its job.

I get the Planes franchise. The Cars toys are still extremely big sellers. The spin-off movies keep the characters and ideas coming. These are money-makers, pure and simple. And that should be allowed without complaint. But the whole thing is just a little too perfectly produced. Last time he was a racer, so we get racing toys. This time he’s a firefighter, so we get a whole new slew of toys with new outfits and accessories. Does anyone expect him to still be a firefighter in the next film? Good for business? Absolutely! But artistically, it all feels a little too mass produced and marketed.

But as a critic I need to put aside all that for the moment and look at it as just a film. And there I have to admit Planes: Fire & Rescue is better than a lot of movies made for “purer” reasons. Kids will love it. And it was a definite improvement on its predecessor. At the very least you’ll get to spend a mildly amusing hour and a half with your kid — just be ready for them to want to buy the toy afterwards.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Planes: Fire & Rescue
July 18, 2014
83 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Roberts Gannaway