“Disposable” never applied more aptly to a movie than it does to Planes: Fire and Rescue. Believe it or not, that’s actually a big step up from the first Planes, which wore its cheapness like a badge of honor. This one doesn’t actually have the gall to cut away from sequences that are clearly too expensive, or reuse the same model over and over again. The seams can still be seen – the background characters are a little fork-lift heavy – but they’re less overtly lazy than last time. The setting carries some visual pizazz, the characters look more distinctive, and the story moves from beginning to middle to end with a more definable purpose. All of that raises it significantly above its predecessor in the raw quality department.
The bad news? Planes: Fire and Rescue still basically goes through the motions. In a righteous world, this would exist only as a straight-to-DVD knock-off, suitable for babysitting bored children when their parents get desperate. It’s another little-guy-with-pluck story, overcoming the odds to succeed at his dream despite the naysayers in his way. In this case, that little guy is a sentient plane from Pixar’s bizarro Cars franchise. Having attained his goal of becoming a first-rate racing plane, Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) suddenly finds himself out of the game thanks to a faulty gearbox. At the same time, his beloved hometown gets shut down because fire and safety measures aren’t up to code. In order to make things right, he signs on with a fire and rescue crew at a distant national park to get certified as a rescue plane. Led by the curmudgeonly Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris), they take him down the badly worn trail from “you’re not good enough for this” to, “my God, he might just save us all!” The very young might not notice, but even older children are apt to pick up on the threadbare nature of the story.
Happily, Fire and Rescue adds a little dramatic tension to the mix, something the first film couldn’t manage at all. We roll our eyes at the clichés, but the pacing keeps us at least moderately interested. The visual look too, goes a lot further than the first Planes. I may never get over how weird and borderline creepy this world is, but they keep it of a kind with the earlier Cars films, and the national forest (patterned vaguely after Yosemite) provides plenty of pretty scenery to zip through. (As an especial inside joke, it includes a lodge based on Disneyland’s Grand Californian Hotel, itself based the famous Ahwahnee Hotel.) Cook gives Dusty a sufficient amount of pluck and Harris grumbles like a pro, which is enough to skate around some rather crude ethnic and gender stereotypes in the supporting cast.
And the action itself is sufficiently gentle to keep the target audience from freaking out too much. Fire proves a nice foe – generic, relentless and very scary in the right circumstances – without having to rely on scarier villains. (Walt Disney used the same trick to much more potent effect in Bambi.) The whole film has that easy, quiet quality too, and even if it doesn’t offer anything truly memorable, no one will suffer any permanent damage to sit through it.
Of course, once upon a time, Pixar wouldn’t have settled for such meager praise. They were the gold standard for movies of any sort – animated or otherwise – and while Disney has formally transplanted this to the House of Mouse, Planes: Fire and Rescue still stems from that very proud tradition. To see it settle for such second-tier status only cements Pixar’s gradual loss of ground to the remainder of the animation pack. Whether they gain it back is anyone’s guess, but efforts like this – vaguely reliable and forgotten as soon as the credits roll – aren’t a good place to start.