Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Planes: Fire & Rescue

by Patrick Bromley
Well, at least it's better than Planes.

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.
Dane Cook returns as the voice of Dusty Crophopper, now a world champion racing plane facing his mortality (that's right) when his gearbox begins to fail and can't be replaced. If Dusty pushes his engines and continues to race, he will crash and ostensibly die. It's a kids' movie! When Dusty causes an accident that starts a fire at Propwash Junction, he decides to train to become a firefighter plane. Upon meeting a whole group of new toys characters, including potential love interest Li'l Dipper (Julie Bowen) and Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), the leader of the firefighters with a mysterious past, Dusty must learn how to follow orders, fight fires and push himself to save lives without sacrificing his own in the process.

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 toys characters. Julie Bowen scores some actual laughs (!) as the high-strung water scooper nursing a massive crush on Dusty, while Ed Harris makes everything he touches better by being Ed Harris. Even Hal Holbrook lends some pathos to his brief voice role as Mayday, an old and barely functioning firetruck. The movie also boasts some good voice work from Curtis Armstrong (never a bad thing), John Michael Higgins, Bryan Callen and Wes Studi, all of whom create actual characters instead of just cash a paycheck. Corri English from Holliston also supplies a voice, automatically making me more inclined to like it.
The stakes are higher. Watching Dusty attempt to put out raging forest fires and save lives (including his own) really calls attention to how hard it was to give a shit about him winning a race in the first Planes. Rather than just being a shitty retread of Cars, at least this sequel carves out its own space -- even if it sometimes falls back on repeating beats from the first movie. The script is lazy at points, replacing Planes' curmudgeonly mentor plane with a secret past played by Stacy Keach with a curmudgeonly mentor plane with a secret past played by Ed Harris...though it does set up one halfway-decent CHiPS joke, complete with an Erik Estrada cameo.

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 point draw-and-shoot approach of the first film. It looks and feels less like a cheapie cash-in, as though some of the folks at Disney realized they ought to put some money into this thing so it at least resembles a real movie.

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.
Does the opinion of an adult man even matter when it comes to a movie like this? Maybe not, as it hasn't been made for me. But seeing as we live in a period in which so many animated films (especially those from Pixar, which the Planes movies so slavishly imitate) can be enjoyed and admired by all audiences, it's no longer enough to say "Who cares, it's made for kids." Of course my son loved Fire & Rescue, but that doesn't mean anything. He loved Planes. He clearly has no taste. I'm working on that. I'd rather he watch Planes: Fire & Rescue than the original Planes, because at least this time I didn't hate sitting through the movie.

Of course, I'd rather he watch Cars than either one of them. I'll even take Cars 2.


  1. Blade Ranger is the name I use when I play Coachella

  2. Did Patrick seriously just call Stacy Keach an also-ran by lumping him together with Cook, Hatcher and Cedric from the first "Planes" movie? TV's Mike Hammer an also-ran? Sacrilege!

    1. I like Stacy Keach. His career is not what it used to be. For proof, check out Full Moon Features' Ooga Booga.

  3. Did Patrick seriously just refer to himself as an "adult man"? :P