Just 11 months after releasing the first “Planes,” DisneyToon Studios dropped a sequel on this summer’s movie audiences. “Planes: Fire and Rescue” is set in the same racing obsessed, sentient vehicle inhabited world as Lightning McQueen from the highly successful “Cars” franchise.
In “Planes,” cropduster and aspiring racer Dusty Crophopper overcame his fear of heights to score an improbable win in a race around the world. A montage at the beginning of “Planes: Fire and Rescue” shows Dusty winning a number of subsequent races, becoming something of a legend and hero.
On a visit home, a simple training flight leaves Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) in the care of the mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher). Dottie tells Dusty that his gearbox is deteriorating and that if he pushes his rpm it will fail and he’ll crash. Then she relays the really bad news: Dusty’s gearbox is out of production. No one has seen one in years, and she can’t fix him. Instead she installs a warning light so that if he pushes himself the warning will remind Dusty to back off.
This diagnosis leaves Dusty distraught. His racing days are over if he can’t push himself. He sets out on a night flight alone. His rough landing causes a fire that damages the airport and causes the safety officer to close the airport down until a second firefighter is on site to provide backup for the aging fire engine Mayday (Hal Holbrook).
Feeling guilty, Dusty decides to get certified as a firefighter. In that way he can save the Propwash Junction airport and give some meaning to his existence if he can’t race.
Mayday connects Dusty with Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a fire and rescue helicopter protecting a large park from wildfires. Training does not go well for Dusty. He discovers that fighting fires requires teamwork and sacrifice. The warning light repeatedly holds Dusty back from performing his tasks.
Complicated by a lack of funding, the fire and rescue team to do more with less. Short on help, Dusty is allowed to help work against a large fire that threatens the parks’ newly completed lodge and the visitors that have gathered there. It is left to Dusty to learn just what heroism and sacrifice are.
The first “Planes” was a disappointment. While the animation was good, the story suffered and the characters were cookie-cutter toy fodder. Given the rapid turnaround, I have to assume “Planes: Fire and Rescue” was in the works before the first returns were in from “Planes” opening weekend. I didn’t have much hope that the second installment would be any better.
While “Planes: Fire and Rescue” is hardly a classic, it is an improvement over the first film. At many points the scenery is enthralling and the characters in this film are much more interesting, both in presentation and history. Yes all the character stereotypes are there, but at least I didn’t mind that so much this time through.
This story was more compelling. There was some admission that being a racing hero was not the most important thing in the world and that every day other heroes go unrecognized. More subtly, the hero of the story doesn’t save everyone on his own, but his contributions make a difference.
“Planes: Fire and Rescue” sits firmly in the second spot behind the original “Cars” when ranking the four released films from the extended franchise. I guess we’ll have to wait until next summer to see if there is any momentum behind it, or if DisneyToon gives the franchise a break for a few years.