Last summer's "Planes," while largely marginalized for being a quick cash-in on the lucrative "Cars" franchise, was remarkable in at least one respect: it was the rare animated feature originally intended as a direct-to-video premiere that positively soared on the big screen. And while it wasn't quite the box office juggernaut Disney had hoped for, it was still successful enough to follow through with plans for a sequel. That sequel, "Planes: Fire and Rescue," serves as a dramatic improvement over the original, introducing thrilling action sequences backed by actual stakes and an unexpected emotional dimension, all on top of upgraded animation and a greater emphasis on character. These "Planes" films, just on the virtue of their function as a synergistic cog in a very large machine, aren't the most creatively adventurous concoctions. But "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is about as good as one of these things can be: fun, intermittently thrilling, and visually sumptuous.
At the start of "Planes: Fire and Rescue," back in Propwash Junction—the planes-only version of Radiator Springs in the "Cars" films—Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is having something of an existential crisis (er, as much of an existential crisis as an anthropomorphic airplane can have). In the last film, Crophopper followed his dreams, going from a lowly crop duster to the winner of an international air race. Now he's something of a celebrity, bringing an unprecedented amount of fame and attention to his pokey small town. But something is amiss: he has been stalling if he pushes his engine too hard, jeopardizing his ability to race. It turns out that his engine is malfunctioning and the critical component necessary for his repair is hard to find.
After Dusty causes a small fire at the local filling station, it's deemed that Propwash Junction is out of date in terms of its safety codes. So Dusty sets off to the nearby national park to get trained in how to be a fire-fighting plane, which will help out his hometown and give him something to do. He's joined by a new bunch of colorful characters like Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen), an aquatic plane that scoops up water from the adjacent lake, a Native American-style helicopter named Windlifter (Wes Studi), an ex-military transport named Cabbie (Dale Dye) and the leader of the team, a rescue helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), which is the second best character name of the year after Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) from "Transformers: Age of Extinction."
The new characters are introduced through a boisterous action sequence set to the tune of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" that does a lot to establish the mood and tone of "Planes: Fire and Rescue." It's a thrilling sequence both because of it's freewheeling attitude and because the visuals are so much deeper and more dramatic than the last time around. When the planes unleash a red-hued fire retardant, it falls through the air like fine sand, dousing the fire that rages underneath. When the flames billow, and in 3D they really billow, you can practically feel your skin getting gingerly toasted.
While the midsection of "Planes: Fire and Rescue" sags somewhat, overburdened by a busy plot that involves the greedy owner of a local lodge (played by an extra-slimy John Michael Higgins) and the continued, frenzied search back at Propwash Junction for Dusty's replacement part, it never completely stalls. There's ample time devoted to character development, with Dusty's internal struggle to not exactly give up his dreams of being a world class racer, but to transition those dreams to something more earthy and selfless, getting adequate attention. There's also, somewhere in the middle of the movie, the introduction of the idea that these planes can actually die, with Blade given the required tragic back story that is both heartily emotional while also, somehow, managing to squeeze in a "CHiPs" reference (complete with an Eric Estrada cameo).
Unexpectedly, the introduction of mortality, which before this has always been hinted at in the "Cars"/"Planes" universes but never addressed directly, adds a whole lot of dramatic depth to an otherwise quite frivolous exercise, and makes everything sadder and more weird. It increases the stakes of the rip-roaring finale, where the big lodge (and the surrounding areas) are threatened by a rampaging wildfire, and makes you actually care about the characters. Considering how, for all its brightly colored zippiness, the first "Planes" was awfully forgettable, it can't be overstated how much this means, not only to this film but to the continuing franchise (a third "Planes" and "Cars" are both in the works). A little danger goes a long way, especially in a children's film, and this somewhat risky storytelling development is tremendously appreciated.
On a technical level, too, "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is leaps and bounds beyond what was accomplished in the first film. In addition to the particle effects, which we've already mentioned (and there are a bunch too – smoke, fire, water, the grainy retardant), the animation has been smoothed out and made more naturalistic. In the first film, the frame rate would seem iffy, so occasionally it felt like you were watching footage from some herky jerky old videogame. Here, there is no noticeable lag, with movements taking on an unheard-of level of fluidity (again: especially for something that was originally envisioned as going straight-to-DVD). Elsewhere, the character animation has been given more attention, and while it's still hard for giant winged aircraft to express a full range of emotion, the animators have come up with ingenious shorthand that gets the point across in a noticeably nuanced manner. There are also a few cool new visual flourishes, like a nifty, through-the-engine shot that wouldn't be out of place in one of the "Fast and Furious" movies.
Not that "Planes: Fire and Rescue" is a perfect movie. It's much cruder than the Pixar films, both stylistically and in terms of humor (there are a ton of fart jokes) and for the excellence of the supporting cast (particularly Harris), Cook's vocal performance is shamefully lightweight (he was a last minute replacement for Jon Cryer). It's not exactly top tier animation, but it's damn close. Director Robert Gannaway stages the action nimbly, and Jeffrey M. Howard's script is wittier than it has any right to be (sample dialogue: "She left me for a hybrid. I didn't even hear it coming.") "Planes: Fire and Rescue" swoops in and pulls off some occasionally thrilling family entertainment, and in the dog days of summer, that can feel as refreshing as being doused with chilly lake water. [B]