I was not a fan of "Planes" from last year, calling it a cheap-looking spinoff from the "Cars" universe.
Produced in part by an animation studio in India, it was released not under the Pixar label, but Walt Disney Pictures, as if to telegraph to the world that this film would not have the inspiration and polish we've come to associate with movies like "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story."
The hurry-up sequel, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is still not up to the standards of the Pixar/Disney legacy. But it is notably better than the original, which essentially recycled the story of plucky young racer Lightning McQueen and translated it into the skies.
The new film goes in a totally different direction story-wise, and exists more in action/thriller territory. I wouldn't go so far as to use the term original. But at least director Roberts Gannaway, a veteran of Disney's straight-to-video arm, and his cast and crew have come up with something sufficiently different to justify its existence.
At a brisk 83 minutes, I found it engaging enough for grown-ups, and my 3-year-old was quite delighted.
The 3-D upgrade is rather unnecessary, as the animation isn't really detailed and textured enough to gain much benefit from additional layers. Depending on your perspective, this movie resembles really ambitious television programming or downscale filmmaking.
Dane Cook is back supplying the voice of Dusty Crophopper, a humble crop duster who somehow managed to win a race around the world against professional planes. He's now a bona fide celebrity, enjoying his quiet life in Propwash Junction in between more racing. (Sound familiar?)
But trouble turns up when his gearbox starts to come apart, and a replacement part can't be found. Unable to crank his engine into the red, it appears his racing days are over. When aviation authorities threaten to close down his home airport due to a lack of sufficient firefighting vehicles, Dusty decides to become certified as a SEAT -- single engine airborne tanker.
So he's off to a new locale, Piston Peak National Park, to take lessons in fighting forest fires from the great Blade Ranger, a fire and rescue helicopter with a taciturn demeanor (ably voiced by Ed Harris).
There's a new crowd of supporting characters to meet, too:
- Dipper (Julie Bowen), a veteran firefighting plane who takes a serious (almost creepy) shine to Dusty;
- Windlifter, a heavy-lift chopper with an American Indian background (Wes Studi);
- Cabbie (Dale Dye), an ex-military transport plane who drops the Smokejumpers, a gaggle of utility ground vehicles, into the middle of a fire;
- Maru (Curtis Armstrong), a mechanic tug who insists he can fix anything "better than new";
- Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins), the unctuous Cadillac park superintendent who's more interested in building and promoting his Xanadu-like country club than giving the firefighters the resources they need.
The action scenes are fairly compelling, with some good smoke/fire effects and sympathetic vehicles in peril (including Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as pair of romantic oldster RVs). And they don't go too heavy on the "life lessons" stuff, other than depicting the nobility of the firefighting profession.
There are a good number of clever jokes and throwaway lines, many of which will go over the heads of tiny kiddies but give their parents a smile. A truck in a bar complains, "She left me for a hybrid. I didn't even hear him coming!" Or the quip made by the firefighters about the fancy-pants Cad, "He waxes himself... daily."
Is "Planes: Fire & Rescue" high-quality filmmaking? Hardly. This is till rather rote entertainment better suited for streaming video and DVDs than a $10 movie ticket. But in a summer light on acceptable fare for small children, this will pass the time amiably. It cruises well at low altitudes.