In Movies & TV Reviews

The heroes of "Planes" are back - whether you asked for them or not - in "Planes: Fire and Rescue," now playing.

"Planes: Fire and Rescue" is an improvement, but only technically

On almost every conceivable level, "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is a clear improvement over its predecessor. Then again, much of this is merely by default.

Last summer's bargain bin Disney production "Planes" was meant to be exactly that: a bargain bin, direct-to-DVD little ditty that, thanks to some enterprising minds at Disney, somehow made its way to the big screen – and, thanks to a sneaky, deceptive marketing campaign that made it appear like a lost Pixar film it most certainly wasn't, even made money. It's a success story only Disney could love.

Thankfully, "Fire and Rescue" is a step above, if only because the movie was actually made for big screen consumption this time. Gone is the stiff, antiseptic joylessness of the first film, now upgraded to mere bland competence. If "Planes" was like eating cardboard, "Fire and Rescue" is slightly more digestible cardboard. So progress?

The sequel continues to follow the adventures of Dusty Crophopper, who, in the last film, managed to overcome his lowly small-town crop duster origins (and, possibly even more debilitating, the fact that he's voiced by hack comic Dane Cook) to become a champion air racer. His motley crew of Propwash Junction friends (returning voices Teri Hatcher, Brad Garrett and Stacy Keach) soon discovers, however, that Dusty's gearbox is irreparably damaged. Until a replacement for the rare part is found, air racing is off the table.

Thanks to a safety mishap, though, Dusty finds something to bide his time: He enters into the world of aerial wildfire attack in the hopes of helping out his rusty old hometown fire truck (Hal Holbrook). Under the strict tutelage of a gruff veteran helicopter with a past (voiced by Ed Harris), Dusty learns to battle fires – as well as the conceited park superintendent, a shiny Escalade fittingly named Cad and voiced by John Michael Higgins – and meets a whole posse of new toys friends, including the aggressively flirty Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen of "Modern Family") and a Native American helicopter.

The first ten to 15 minutes of "Fire and Rescue" provide some reason for optimism for anyone in the theater over Saturday morning cartoon age. The animation, for one, is a drastic improvement. Gone are the empty, texture-less visuals of before; now, the bizarro World of Cars (the new odd revelation for this film: There are no birds, just little wooden model planes) has a bit more life, and the flying sequences have some zip to them.

It still looks like a hand-drawn pocket flipbook compared to the breathtaking elegance, detail and natural wonder of something like "How to Train Your Dragon 2," but at least it actually looks up to the level of a modern animated theatrical release this time though.

The story has more going on as well. In the early going, there are hints of a heavier story in "Fire and Rescue," with Dusty and Holbrook's aged fire truck trying to come to terms with their respective physical limitations. The script totally backs away from these dramatic ideas and themes by the end, but it's certainly a step forward from the first film's glorified sightseeing tour with a generic sports underdog tale accumulating drag.

So sure, "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is an improvement. It just doesn't feel that way while watching it. Even with a shiny new coat of paint and a few new story tricks, there's no hiding that this vehicle is still plagued with a debilitating case of stalled out blandness. After hinting at weightier emotions and storylines, Jeffrey M. Howard's screenplay goes back to generic, predictable underdog beats, acted out by personality-devoid hunks of talking transportation.

The movie desperately calls out for something exciting or thrilling to happen or for a compelling, fun character to emerge and cut through the audience's apathy. Help, however, never arrives. By the end, the "Planes" franchise still feels like off-brand entertainment, safely going through motions without any creative energy or imaginative spark (it is a movie about planes extinguishing those sorts of things, after all).

There's not much relief to be found in the film's sense of humor either. Forget fossil fuels; the World of Cars franchise runs exclusively on puns, most of which rival the kind of groaners you'd typically find on popsicle sticks or Laffy Taffy wrappers. The sponsor for a big race is Redbulldozer. One of Cad's high profile guests is Boat Reynolds. The gang sneaks together to watch old TV episodes of an Erik Estrada-led helicopter cop show called "CHoPs," recorded on a VHS copy of "Howard the Truck." Actually, my apologies to Laffy Taffy and popsicles; at least your bad jokes come packaged with tasty sweets, not bland baby food.

To be fair, "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is kids' fare exclusively, but as Pixar and many others have proven – most recently, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" – kids deserve better than mere flashing colors with no pop or personality. It may provide those well under ten with modest entertainment; for everyone else, it'll make fine background noise for napping.

Theaters and showtimes for Planes: Fire & Rescue Rating:


Photodavie | July 21, 2014 at 2:12 p.m. (report)

When I was little this kind of cr@p went straight to video. Now, anything can make a few million if released to the BIG screen. Especially horror films and cartoons. It just shows how there is no quality cinema released in the summer anymore. All the studios dump their bad films now and wait until Dec 25th to release their best films (in 2 theaters) so they are fresh in viewers minds for the academy awards. As a film fan, I wish I could simply hibernate from April through October to avoid all the horrible cinema that is released. OH! Can't wait for Expendables 3! ugh.

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