Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Roberts Gannaway

Stars: voices of Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Wes Studi, Hal Holbrook, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Fred Willard, Brad Garrett, John Michael Higgins, Cedric the Entertainer, Barry Corbin, Dale Dye, Patrick Warburton, Rene Auberjonois, John Ratzenberger, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller.

To say that this rather unnecessary sequel to Disney’s Planes is much better than its predecessor is to damn it with faint praise. After all, Planes was one of the lazier animated films imaginable from the Disney studios. All the producers did was take the template of Pixar’s far superior Cars and superimpose aeroplanes over its structure. Thankfully this sequel, which was written by Jeffrey M Howard, who also wrote the original, takes the characters and story in a new and more interesting direction.

Planes: Fire & Rescue takes up the story several months after the events of the original, with our hero Dusty Crophopper (again voiced by Dane Cook) still continuing his winning ways. But then he blows a valuable piece of his gearbox, which unfortunately cannot be replaced. This spells the end of his racing career. At the same time, the airport’s fire safety measures are not up to scratch, as the rusty old veteran fire engine Mayday (voiced by Hal Holbrook) is too old to be effective. If improvements are not made then the place will be closed down. Dusty decides to embark on a new career as a fire fighting craft to try and save his airport and his friends.

He heads off to the Piston Peak national park where he will learn the fire fighting trade under the strict guidance of the legendary fighter helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris). Dipper (voiced by Julie Bowen, from tv’s Modern Family, etc) is an unabashed fan of Dusty’s exploits and fawns over him. Meanwhile, Windlifter (voiced by Wes Studi) and Blade, who used to be a television star before turning to fire fighting, have their doubts about Dusty’s ability.

The fledgling firefighter struggles to adjust to his new environment, but he gets a chance to show his mettle when an out of control forest fire rages through the park and threatens the opulent Grand Fusel Lodge. Luminaries like the clueless Secretary of the Interior (voiced by a perfectly cast Fred Willard) are at the lodge to attend its grand opening.

This animated film also acts as a sort of well intended homage to those daring firefighters who parachute into raging forest fires to try and control them. The rescue missions and the fire fighting action adds more drama and excitement to the material this time around, making this film stronger than its predecessor. The director is Roberts Gannaway, a Disney veteran who has helmed a number of direct to DVD sequels for some more popular classics, like Stitch, and Timon And Pumbaa, a sequel featuring some lesser characters from The Lion King.

Planes: Fire & Rescue has some visually spectacular animation, particularly with the depiction of the national park and the natural wilderness, and the 3D process actually adds to the excitement of the fire fighting sequences. And Todd Toon’s sound design impresses with its recreation of the fury of a forest fire raging out of control, and it may be a bit too scary for younger kids.

But basically the digital animation, much of which was done in India’s Prana studios, is substandard compared to some of the recent classics of the genre. The film deals with themes of teamwork, loyalty, courage and sacrifice, but the plotting is rather formulaic and the film holds few surprises.

Planes: Fire & Rescue is aimed at a broader audience with cheeky and clever puns and lots of the usual pop cultural references that will go over the head of younger audiences; for example one character is named Boat Reynolds, which admittedly tickled my fancy, and there is CHoPs, a parody of a popular 70s tv show that replaces the highway patrol with helicopters and renames the show, with former star Erik Estrada cheekily voicing a role.

There is a good vocal cast that includes the likes of Brad Garrett, John Michael Higgins, Cedric the Entertainer, Barry Corbin, Dale Dye, Patrick Warburton, Rene Auberjonois, John Ratzenberger, etc. Some characters from the original film appear briefly, including Stacy Keach’s gruff coach Skipper and Teri Hatcher’s well-meaning Dotti. Cook brings an earnest and boyish quality to his reading of Dusty, while Harris brings some gravitas and authority to his role as the veteran fire fighter. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (Ben Stiller’s parents) voice a couple of RVs that are supposedly celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary when they become trapped by the fire raging out of control through the national park.

Planes: Fire & Rescue is one of the lesser entries from the Disney Toon stable, which is best known for its direct to DVD animated films, like the Tinkerbell series. But basically the whole concept of planes and automobiles performing human functions has grown a little tired, especially now that we have had four films set in the so-called Cars universe.



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