My head can rattle off numerous problems with Planes: Fire and Rescue. It’s storyline and character twists just recycle the first Planes movie. Several of the plot twists that aren’t recycled are still predictable from a mile off. It relies a bit too heavily on paper-thin stock characters, if not extremely stale ethnic stereotypes. It unnecessarily makes its major female character a romantic foil to the lead, and then doesn’t do a very good job at it. It relies on a few too many fart jokes.
That’s what my brain says. My gut says to blazes with all of that, because I really liked Planes: Fire and Rescue anyway.
Planes: Fire and Rescue starts with racing plane Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) learning the hard way that a failing gearbox may put a premature end to his racing career. A brief fit of pique causes to a small disaster at the Propwash Junction airfield, and the resulting investigation leads to an urgent need for a second firefighter at the airfield to supplement the aging fire truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook). Feeling somewhat guilty for his actions, Dusty volunteers to get certified as a firefighter himself, sending him to the Piston Peak Air Attack Base and its motley band of fire and rescue aircraft for training. Led by the gruff Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), the team includes Windlifter (Wes Studi), a stoic Native American heavy-lift helicopter; Dipper (Julie Bowen), a seaplane and racing fan with a crush on Dusty; a quintet of ground-based smoke jumpers (led by the sassy 4×4 Dynamite (Regina King), with the rest flashing by too fast to catch); Cabbie (Dale Dye), an old military cargo plane who airlifts the smoke jumpers to fire sites; and Maru (Curtis Armstrong), the entertainingly feisty expert mechanic forklift who keeps everyone and everything in top condition. Cue the training montage, Dusty’s fear being his biggest obstacle to his success, a few “getting-to-know-you” scenes with the quirky supporting cast, a secret about Blade Ranger, and a really big forest fire for the climax that pushes everyone to the limit and beyond.
There are “where are we going?” movies, where the pleasure is in the surprises, and “how are we getting there?” movies, where the pleasure is in the journey. Just as with Planes (and the Cars movies they spun off from), Planes: Fire and Rescue definitely falls into the “how are we getting there?” category, where being predictable isn’t a downside if you enjoy the ride enough. I thought the ride in Planes was just fine, but Planes: Fire and Rescue manages to do one better by streamlining its cast a bit and raising the stakes significantly. One of my favorite sequences in Planes was the aircraft carrier sequence, with its military cast spitting rapid-fire specialized lingo and moving with an intense purpose that stood in stark contrast to Dusty and his racing companions. Planes: Fire and Rescue feels like Dusty gets to spend an entire movie with those guys, except they’re firefighters in a forest instead of fighter jets on a carrier. Even if Planes: Fire and Rescue recycles the “overcome your fears” plot from Planes, the fear in this movie is potentially fatal to Dusty rather than an inconvenient phobia, and the consequences of failure are lost lives instead of a lost race. Seeing that same plot played out again even makes the original movie seem a little more trivial in comparison. Even if the climax of the movie involves the same confronting and overcoming of fears that formed the climax of Planes, watching Dusty pull it off here is even more exhilarating because of what’s at stake.
As with its predecessor, the best part of Planes: Fire and Rescue is the flying sequences, starting from the absolutely stunning opening flight between Dusty and Skipper (Stacy Keach), followed by a beautiful cross-country flight and then the many firefighting flights Dusty takes with the Piston Peak fire crew. If the aircraft of Planes were all about speed, the ones in Planes: Fire and Rescue are about sheer horsepower. Dipper may not be as beautifully streamlined and aerodynamic as Ishani, but you can practically feel her engines working as she skims a lake surface to refill her drop tanks and lift off again. One also gets a exciting sense of power from the thunderous thump of Windlifter’s rotors or Cabbie’s dual prop engines.
Fire has been rendered well in CGI for some time, but the fire effects in this movie are both beautiful and very believably dangerous. There are several large forest fire sequences sprinkled throughout the movie, all of which plant the viewer right smack in the middle of massive conflagrations and really communicate the peril that they present. One of the most impressive sequences in the movie sends the Piston Peak firefighters through a massive firestorm, mating frighteningly convincing images with amazingly well done sound design, especially when air turbulence threatens to fling the planes out of the sky while the roar of the flames drowns out radio chatter. There may not be as much variety in the flying sequences in Planes: Fire and Rescue, but as with the overall plot, the higher stakes can make these flight sequences much more compelling.
Planes: Fire and Rescue also has the distinction of being the first movie that I think warrants the extra money for a 3-D ticket. For once, the movie didn’t seem too dark through the 3-D glasses, and the extra depth is really put to good use during the aerial sequences and the massive forest fires. The smaller, quieter scenes are also interesting to watch in 3-D, feeling as though the toys were alive and talking right in front of you.
That’s not to say that I’m willing to give the movie a complete pass. I still love Teri Hatcher’s small but significant performance as Dottie, Propwash Junction’s resident mechanic, and I really enjoyed Curtis Armstrong‘s energy as Maru. Beyond that, though, the voice acting is solid but relatively unmemorable. I’m also a little annoyed that Planes: Fire and Rescue insists on giving Dipper a crush on Dusty, propagating the trend of defining a female character through her attraction to the male lead. TV shows like Kaijudo or Slugterra rightly dispense with this trite stab at characterization, and allow their leading ladies to stand on their own two feet rather than waste time making goo-goo eyes or playing will-they-won’t-they games. It would have been even more radical if the movie had swapped the genders of Blade Ranger and Dipper, making her the grizzled veteran mentor and him the wacky buddy who’s not all there. To the expected argument that most veteran forest firefighters are men, 1) these are aircraft, not people, and 2) so what? I also found it much easier to accept the Native American stereotype for Windlifter by pretending that Wes Studi was just reprising his role as the Sphinx, the parody of those stereotypes from Mystery Men. I just wish I didn’t have to pretend so hard. Carlos Alazraqui was funny enough as El Chupacabra in the last movie to overlook the exaggerated Mexican stereotype; it’s a harder task to overlook Windlifter in this one.
I suspect I will again be in the minority in genuinely liking and enjoying Planes: Fire and Rescue, and I continue to wonder what it is about these movies that shuts down most of my critical faculties. I also suspect for some parents, going to take the young ones to see Planes: Fire and Rescue is a foregone conclusion. I still think you can get a good amount of entertainment value out of Planes: Fire and Rescue even if you’re past the age when you dream of being a firefighter, or can get hours of enjoyment just by spreading your arms out and running around the living room saying, “Zoom!” However, as with many shows from Hasbro Studios, the best defense against accusations that a movie is just a glorified toy commercial is to make a really good movie, and I think Planes: Fire and Rescue clears that bar handily.