By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop July 17, 2014 at 8:00PM
Planes: Fire & Rescue bears the same relationship to the Pixar films it tries to imitate that carob does to chocolate: it’s a bland, unsatisfying substitute, devoid of the qualities that make the real thing memorable.
After winning numerous air races, Dusty Crophopper (voice by Dane Cook) returns to the little Midwestern town of Propwash Junction: He’s no longer just a crop duster, he’s a hero. But his high-speed antics have damaged his gear box, and the mechanics can’t find a replacement. If he pushes himself too hard, he’ll crash. When he pushes his torque past the lmiit, he has an accident that sets the Propwash airport on fire. Aged fire truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook) is humiliated when everyone realizes he’s too old to deal with an emergency. Unless they can find someone to back him up on the safety squad, the airport will remain closed and the annual Corn Festival will flop.
Dusty volunteers to go for training as a SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) at Piston Peak, a remote mountain resort/fire station where he runs into a new set of characters, as unendearing as the planes from the different countries in the first film were. (What happened to Rochelle, the French plane he flirted with?) Dusty’s pursued by man-hungry Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen); hears outré platitudes from Windlifter (Wes Studi), a helicopter whose blades look like eagle feathers; and gets no-nonsense, tough love training from Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a stern disciplinarian with a troubled past. Once again, the filmmakers deploy a fleet of little forklifts in an attempt to reproduce the comedy the Minions bring to the Despicable Me films.
Most of the story by Bobs Gannaway and Jeffrey M. Howard feels like a reprise of the first film, in which Dusty came from behind to win the race and save the day. Overcoming his initial troubles, Dusty comes from behind ot complete his training, save a bunch of cars and trucks from a devastating fire, and earn grudging praise from Blade. He risks his life to rescue two nice old RV’s retracing their honeymoon, crashes, awakens form his repairs with a new gear box, and returns home to his friends, ready for another unnecessary sequel.
All the characters jabber endlessly, with leaden puns, predictable emotions and Morris-the-Explainer speeches. As Dipper, Bowen tries to recreate some of the inspired zaniness of Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory in Finding Nemo, but succeeds only in being annoying. Blade Ranger is Skipper from the first Planes and Doc Hudson from Cars, but the figure of the heroic mentor haunted by an incident in his past grows less interesting with each incarnation. Windlifter’s pseudo-Native American mumbo-jumbo comes across as distatefully stereotypical.
The protracted loop-the-loop flying sequences are sometimes vertiginous, but never exciting, and the thrilling aerial scenes in How to Train Your Dragon 2 simply eclipse them. Director Bobs Gannaway juggles three separate perils in the fiery climax, but never conveys a sense of urgency or menace. Earlier scenes of the cast fighting smaller fires merely impede the plot’s faltering progress.
Fire and Rescue isn’t the kind of terrible film that makes viewers snap at each other over coffee afterward: It doesn’t make a strong enough impression. The film runs 83 minutes, and 73 minutes later, audience members will have trouble remembering much about it.
Although it’s not a Pixar film, Planes: Fire & Rescue is designed to look like one. It’s sad to see Disney taking the short term profits the toy planes will earn over preserving the enviable reputation for creating top-quality animation Pixar has always enjoyed.