Review: PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE Rescues Spin-Off Franchise
Having not seen last summer's Disney's Planes ("From the world of Pixar's Cars!"), I went into its fast-tracked, pre-ordained, computer animated sequel with two questions: 1. What happened in the first movie? And 2., How can that possibly matter?
After seeing Planes: Fire & Rescue, the questions remain, albeit sans my original sarcasm. Not only did I take on the task of reviewing Fire & Rescue ignorant of the first Planes, but I didn't particularly care about that. Having heard that Planes is trite and uninspired at best, and an obnoxious airborne redux of Cars 2 (of all things!) at worst -- a reviewer friend of mine panned it as a "junk food movie" -- I figured perhaps it's best to let the sequel stand on its own two wheels.
The impulse proved correct: Apparently, never before in cinema history has it been more true that viewers are better off skipping the original, and hopping straight into part two. Beyond Star Trek. Beyond Hulk. I have this on good authority from EVERYONE in the auditorium whom I spoke to after the show. The upward quality curve flown by this most forced of all spin-off franchises had the audience genuinely impressed. I almost wish I could share in their comparative experience. Almost.
I was also informed, for good measure, that the story has virtually nothing to do with the first Planes. An opening Rocky III-style montage informs that Dusty (voice of Dane Cook), a crop-duster turned racer, has had a pretty good run in his new profession. But, too much racing has caught up with our hero, and next thing he knows, he's been diagnosed with a bad heart - er, I mean gear box. He's told in no uncertain terms that if he pushes his dial into the red, he will crash. And so, in need of a new occupation, he opts to become a much-needed replacement firefighter for his airstrip. To do that, he needs training. So he heads to a national park to seek the tutelage of Blades (Ed Harris), a crusty old chopper with a secret or two in his past.
Dusty is too much of a hotshot, and too proud to tell Blades the truth of his medical condition - er, mechanic's report. In training, when Blades is trying to push Dusty's endurance, he holds back to avoid the dreaded crash, and continuously misses the mark. It turns out that there's far more precision and skill to fire fighting than Dusty realized, but he's bound by fear that his bum ticker could cost him his new profession before he's even qualified to do it. By the time the actual fire crisis of the film arises, Blades is no closer to trusting Dusty's abilities than he is. Literal do-and/or-die moments abound. (In 3D.)
Fire & Rescue is naturally at it's best when the animation is allowed to cut loose as the planes soar into action as opposed to when they're grounded and talking, leaving animators with the Cars dilemma, desperate to innovate ways that characters with no hands can perform the most mundane of expected human tasks. (Picking something up, touching someone else, pouring a drink, etc.)
Planes: Fire & Rescue is a testament to the fact that we've arrived in an age when a needle-dropped AC/DC song doesn't feel glaringly out of place in a Disney movie, like perhaps it should and most certainly would've only ten years ago. Props to director Bobs Gannaway and his music team for letting the entirety of "Thunderstruck" play beginning to end, and in a sequence where it's actually pretty perfect accompaniment. Also found among the nuggets included purely for grown-up recognition are nods to "CHiPs", the Howard the Duck movie, and a small array of awkwardly course humor that qualifies as just safe enough to get through the prudes' filters. (A female plane drops a well-endowed landing gear near Dusty, commenting "Oh yeah - they're real".)
All of that in mind, it's fair to consider Planes: Fire & Rescue (a lesser quality "Disneytoons" branded endeavor, as opposed to the instant "classics" that come forth from the high-end "Disney Animation Studios") an entertaining surprise of a movie. This isn't high-end material from the mouse house to begin with, (even if it a ticket is the same price), the most obviously cut corners showing in the character realizations. It suffers from the same shrieky stream of over-enunciated dialogue put forth by the same variety of extroverted quippy cuckoo chatterboxes found across the board in movies of this ilk. Sarcasm is their default, they don't breathe between sentences, and I'm often convinced that they're participating in a loudness contest that's being judged just off screen. Such an irritating soundscape, sans visuals, betrays it as contemporary youth-targeted animation.
But that's to be to be expected. What isn't to be expected is what makes Planes: Fire & Rescue truly fly. This being a children's film, the fact that every twist and turn is completely predictable to a seasoned viewer such as myself is beside the point, as is the common knowledge that nothing that bad is going to end up happening.
The climax of the picture had my six year old daughter gripping my arm, quite tightly. And considering the blazing inferno that was devouring the woods onscreen (3D cinder and ash! Fire everywhere! A red sky of apocalyptic proportions!) as our ill-equipped and still-in-training hero consciously opts to go the distance, perhaps sacrificing himself to stop it, I can't say I blame her. Smaller children were being carried out of the auditorium at this point, due to the sheer tension of it all. The plot circumstance combined with the well-established 3D obstacle course, visually playing like a first person roller coaster ride of doom, is enough to send any kid on edge.
Mission accomplished, Planes: Fire & Rescue! My kids had a blast, and I didn't have such a bad time myself.
The film opens wide in theatres across North America on Friday, July 18.
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