The best one can really say about Planes: Fire And Rescue is that it isn’t awful. It is competently done, well animated, over quickly, and marginally better than the first movie. That isn’t much of an endorsement, but that’s all the film really deserves. It is an utterly uninspiring take on an inspiring profession, and it further erodes what little appeal the world of Cars had to offer. This is clearly a franchise on autopilot.
Since the first movie, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) has been living comfortably as one of the best air racers in the world. But then during a practice run, he feels something inside his engine break. He's told that his gearbox is shot, and that he can't really fly at high speeds anymore. Despondent, he crashes during a night run and causes a fire, which leads to their airport getting shut down. In hopes of getting it cleared for operation again, Dusty volunteers for firefighting training. He flies out to Piston Peak, where he joins an elite crew of firefighting vehicles specializing in containing forest fires. But with his gearbox still broken, Dusty is unable to push himself hard enough to get through the training.
The story drifts aimlessly through a variety of potential stories, never really committing hard enough to one to develop a theme. The one big character arc concerns Dusty and his faulty gearbox and his growing fear of pushing himself, but that whole story doesn’t seem to be very well thought out. It’s a strange little arc that has the character justifiably afraid of doing something that could lead to his complete destruction. And the way the film magically resolves this issue indicates that the filmmakers didn’t really care about it much at all.
But the real failure of this movie is in its total lack of personality. It introduces a slew of completely forgettable characters, the best of whom could be summed up in one line. There’s the female plane who has a crush on dusty. There’s the helicopter who speaks like a movie Native American. There’s the big hero helicopter with a dark past who serves as mentor to Dusty. At their worst, these characters are interchangeable. It’s tough to remember, for example, any of the defining traits of the land based firefighting vehicles. One of them is loud, I think. And one of them is female. Apart from that, it’s hard to recall.
The animation is still pretty great, especially during the visually striking firefighting sequences. At this point, however, more is expected of the animated film, and the movie’s aesthetics are looking pretty dated at this point. The voice acting is passable, but unmemorable. Dusty could really have been voiced by anyone, with Dane Cook’s performance really lacking any distinguishing feature. Ed Harris is perfectly okay as his gruff instructor, but the actor, like the rest of this vocal cast, is basically kept to one note.
It could be worth noting that the original Planes wasn’t even meant for the big screen. It originally intended to be a direct-to-video sequel, with all the lower expectations that implies. It never quite felt right that it made it into theaters, the movie simply not living up to today’s animation standards. Planes: Fire and Rescue is probably a bit better than the first movie, if only because it doesn’t rely as much on racial stereotypes. But it still feels like a direct-to-video sequel, a bit of media meant to distract for a while and then be completely forgotten. It certainly isn’t worth the ticket.