Planes: Fire & Rescue might rightly -- if unexpectedly -- be called the Empire Strikes Back or Godfather 2 of the burgeoning Disney franchise.
And not because the sequel to the studio’s 2013 animated entry into a world of anthropomorphic aircraft (itself a spinoff of Pixar’s popular Cars series) leads the story into darker territory. It actually does, in some ways, but certainly not to the grimmer, dire conclusions of those two bar-raising sequels, this still being family fare. The similarities come in how the second film builds on the straightforward premise of the original (which was roundly and quite fairly criticized as a simplistic airborne Cars rehash) and tweaks it in surprising and altogether believable ways, plumbs more interesting depths and delivers an even more entertaining and enlightening excursion than the original.
It’s by no means a masterpiece on the order of Frozen or the iconic Pixar slate, but director Bobs Gannaway's Planes: Fire & Rescue is a surprisingly superior second act for Dusty Cropphopper (voiced by Dane Cook), the plucky one-time crop-duster who in the first film realized his dream of becoming a respected air-racer. If Planes was a pleasing but fairly vanilla first entry, the sequel’s storyline is far more flavorful: Now a world-famous racer, Dusty is faced with a debilitating injury – or mechanical failure, depending on how you look at it – that threatens not only to sideline his career but actually bring him plummeting down to earth in a potentially fatal crash.
Simultaneously, Dusty’s hometown Propwash Junction finds itself in need of a new firefighter when the venerable fire truck Mayday (Hal Halbrook, in an effectively charming and poignant marriage of voice actor and role) requires a major upgrade after a fiery disaster at the airport. Dusty steps up and volunteers for fire and rescue training, even as he fears flying too fast might lead him to his own explosive end.
This effectively allows Dusty to move away from the cute but somewhat dull supporting cast of the first feature and introduces him to a better-realized fleet of repurposed firefighting aircraft to bump fuselages against – including the laser-focused veteran leader Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), the starstruck and slightly delusional super-scooper Dipper (Julie Bowen), the taciturn airlift helicopter Windlifter (Wes Studi) and their miracle-working mechanic, the forklift Maru (Curtis Armstrong). But the twist also places the hero in a much more dangerous and dynamic environment. The stakes are higher, both literally, in the near-constant battles against forest fires in the national park Piston Peak, and figuratively, as Dusty is no longer a character questing Lightning McQueen-style for glory: He’s a wounded hero trying to figure what to do with the rest of his life. That personal struggle playing out against the blazing backdrop of fire danger results in a much more rewarding storyline.
The film also benefits from aerial action that’s even more exciting, well-executed and impressively displayed – in CinemaScope this time around. The flight sequences were one of the first film’s stronger elements, but Planes: Fire & Rescue soars rings around them. It’s hard to imagine the intended audience of heavy equipment-obsessed youngsters not being captivated by the dazzlingly wing work of the on-screen heroes.
Part of the established behind-the-scenes story of Planes is its origin as a straight-to-video Cars tie-in from Disneytoon Studios (not Pixar) that may have had less creative expectations placed on it even as it was upgraded to a full-on feature. Although many critics found it far less charming than Cars, and viewed it as a somewhat-cynical exercise in selling more vehicular merchandise to boys, others recognized a degree of quality in the execution, if not creative ambitions, and audiences certainly responded to it. Thus the simultaneously developed sequel was fast-tracked to film, and seemingly spent more beneficial time in the hangar before leaving the tarmac. It’s still several degrees away from the quality of the first Cars, but even without the Pixar pedigree it reflects an increasing degree of charm and story strength, and its humor is more sly and clever (Blade Ranger’s backstory has some amusing elements, and John Michael Higgins’ Cadillac cad is reliably funny throughout).
But perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the film is its handling of Dusty’s dilemmas, and the ultimate transformation of his character. Previously he was an earnest, ambitious plane who longed for a little glory. But life has taken a more serious turn and, while he’s rightfully scared and a little reluctant to accept his new limitations, he actually begins to soar away from the perks of fame to a more noble path of service, responsibility and potential sacrifice. The film offers not only a tip of the hat to the real-life first-responders who battle blazes on a daily basis, it suggests that the role of a hero is a finer calling than that of an idol.
In real life, as in the film, many of the airborne vehicles that fight fires across the nation are repurposed aircraft, and in many ways Planes: Fires & Rescue has repurposed a seemingly underwhelming sub-franchise into something a bit brighter, a bit more entertaining and with something a little more substantial to say under the roar of its propellers.
Planes: Fire & Rescue opens today nationwide.