I took my then four-year old son to see Disney's (not Pixar's) Planes in theaters last year and found it to be one of the worst films of 2013. Everything about it was born out of cynicism. Originally designed as a direct-to-video knock-off of Cars -- arguably the worst Pixar film when it was first released -- the movie was pushed to theaters in August of last year with Disney's usual marketing push selling it as "from the world above Cars." The merchandise was ubiquitous, the movie garbage. Except for the slick but wholly uninspired animation, everything about it seemed a step below Saturday morning, from the offensively generic script to the voice cast of nondescript also-rans including Dane Cook, Teri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer and Stacy Keach.
Despite being a complete failure as a movie, Planes was, as expected, a big success as a piece of corporately branded product. So it's no surprise that just one year later, Disney (not Pixar) has rushed Planes: Fire & Rescue into theaters. While it's still not exactly a "good" movie, it does represent a step up in quality over the original.
So why is Fire & Rescue an improvement over Planes? After all, the major character arc is the same. In the first film, Dusty had to get over his fear and become a successful racer; this time, he has to get over his fear and become a successful fire fighter. As a character, Dusty is a total blank and impossible to care about, not helped by Dane Cook's voice work (even his attempts to sound earnest come off as smug). But at least the sequel surrounds him with better, funnier, more interesting
The animation is much more sophisticated, too. The switch from flat 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 scope gives the film better vistas, particularly during some of the impressive firefighting sequences. Director Roberts Gannaway (taking over for Klay Hall) proves to be a more ambitious filmmaker, making formalistic choices that at least give it some style and energy beyond the
The screenplay has way more jokes "for adults" than the last one -- lines like "Kick his Aston Martin!" or "Oh yeah, they're real" in reference to a female character's wing flaps are supposed to make the grown ups laugh, apparently because they can feel proud of "getting" the somewhat dirty jokes that go over kids' heads (let's call this the Shrekification of animated films). Luckily there are only a few of these kinds of jokes which, along with a handful of disgustingly cloying pop country songs on the soundtrack, represent the movie at its pandering worst. Everything else can best be described as "inoffensive." That might sound like I'm damning the movie with faint praise, but what I mean to do is praise it with faint damnation.
Of course, I'd rather he watch Cars than either one of them. I'll even take Cars 2.