Nobody thought Dusty Crophopper (voice of Dane Cook) could win a round-the-world race, but his spirit proved mightier than his engine. Now that that engine is damaged beyond the demands of sports racing, Dusty once again finds new purpose, joining a hard-working rescue team led by helicopter Blade Ranger (voice of Ed Harris, "Snowpiercer") just as a raging wildfire threatens Piston Peak National Park in "Planes: Fire & Rescue."
Cowriter (with "Planes's" Jeffrey M. Howard)/director Roberts Gannaway ("Leroy & Stitch") picks up Dusty's tale just as he's about to be the prime attraction for his hometown Propwash Junction's annual Corn Festival. After learning from Dottie (voice of Teri Hatcher) that the state of his gearbox means he can no longer 'red line' his power, Dusty tests his limits with a night flight that finds him coming in for a rough landing, one which starts a fire that old engine Mayday (voice of Hal Holbrook) can only put out by toppling a water tower. Faced with the festival being shut down for safety reasons if their emergency services are not upgraded, Dusty decides to become certified as a SEAT (single engine air tanker) to help his old friend.
He gets extreme reactions when he arrives at Piston Peak. Air tanker Lil' Dipper (voice of 'Modern Family's' Julie Bowen) recognizes him immediately, declaring herself his biggest fan, but Blade Ranger's not so impressed, especially when Dusty pulls back when he's been told to go full throttle. The Park, which is on the verge of its own celebration, the grand reopening of the Grand Fusel Lodge (heh heh), has its own problems, Park Superintendent Cad Spinner (voice of John Michael Higgins) having sucked 80% of its firefighting budget into the lodge's renovations, forcing Piston Peak mechanic Maru (voice of Curtis Armstrong) to make everything old new again (it's Maru who retrofits Dusty's landing gear into the pontoons needed to scoop and release water).
The animation takes a bit of time to pick up speed, favoring lots of early flying scenes set to generic song selections. Gannaway and his animators have done a great job illustrating the dangers and logistics of mountain set fire fighting (the fires themselves are photo realistic), but one wonders how much of this will be understood by the demographic the film is aimed at. We see the all terrain vehicles known as the Smokejumpers dropped via parachute to form fire lines with lumber and the precision needed to drop clay and water from the air. There are nods to such American landmarks as Old Faithful and the Native American Indian via the character of helicopter Windlifter (voice of Wes Studi). Another character, Maytag's counterpart Ol' Jammer (voice of Barry Corbin), is designed to evoke Smokey the Bear. The story's predictable, the park superintendent right out of the "Jaws" playbook, a glad-handing official who ignore warnings until disaster strikes. When Dusty meets a retired couple of RVs, Winnie and Harvey (voice of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller), looking to find the site of their first kiss on their anniversary, we just know they'll require a rescue in the one spot Dusty's gearbox can't handle.
The film has its mild adult chuckles that will go over the heads of tykes - a pickup truck with a pickup line and Blade's secret former life as the star of television's 'Chops,' 'Chips' in the air. The 3D animation is stunning when focused on scenes of nature and danger, but many scenes include notably flat backgrounds, like old style Hollywood backdrops.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue," dedicated to the firefighters who risk their lives, is a little bit better than its predecessor and a lot better than Pixar's "Cars" sequel. It's got heart, but it's not about to set the world on fire.
Robin did not see this film.
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