The good news is that Planes: Fire and Rescue continues Disney's recent trend towards an almost retro-styled approach to its films that embraces the early Disney roots of innocence and simplicity.
The bad news is that Disney hasn't quite figured out how to give such a return a truly entertaining pay-off.
Planes: Fire and Rescue is for the most part an improvement upon Planes, a film that could have easily gone straight-to-DVD with a weak story, unimaginative vocals, and animation that couldn't help but make you wonder if we'd stumbled back into the 70's.
Planes: Fire and Rescue, on the other hand, at least has the decency to serve up an emotionally involving story, massively improved vocals, and 3-D imagery that actually makes you a little bit happy to fork over the extra couple of bucks for those funky lil' glasses.
This doesn't mean that Planes: Fire and Rescue is a strong entry from Disney. In fact, it's still one of Disney's weaker of its recent films and it's almost heartbreaking to see the name Lasseter attached to it. But, if we're being honest the name Disney automatically ups our expectations and for most studios this would be a fairly decent effort.
Set inside Piston Peak National Park, Planes: Fire and Rescue brings back the previous film's main protagonist, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a former cropduster who has returned home to Propwash Junction a now internationally famous air racer. He's home to help publicize the famous Corn Festival, but he learns that his recent winning ways may have taken a permanent toll on his plane and his racing days may very well be over.
It shouldn't be a complete surprise that it doesn't take long before we encounter a fire inside Piston Peak and the fire proves to be too much for Mayday, a local fire and rescue truck brought gorgeously to life by Hal Holbrook. Unfortunately, with Mayday proving to be inadequate to meet the Corn Festival's firefighting needs, the entire festival may be squashed unless a back-up plan can be put in place. That back-up plan involves Dusty becoming trained as a SEAT, a Single-Engine Air Tanker, who can drop flame retardant on a fire should the need arise. Dusty meets up at the Piston Peak Air Attack Base with Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a fire-and-rescue copter, Dipper (Modern Family's Julie Bowen), a rather flirty air tanker, and Windlifter, a heavy lift helicopter with a slow and steady presence also featuring terrific vocal work by veteran Wes Studi. The film's villian, park superintendent Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins) is a major self-promoter whose siphoning of funds away from fire-and-rescue will prove to be his undoing.
Planes: Fire and Rescue is filled with lots of impressive and even menacing, at least menacing on a kid-friendly level, fire scenes that are brought even more vividly to life in 3-D imagery. Recognizing that most kids are pretty much in awe of firefighters, Planes: Fire and Rescue amps up both the sincerity and the respect quite a bit and makes you feel like you're smack dab in the midst of its numerous action sequences.
The film features a more involving story and far more satisfying animated sequences than did Planes, and while there's still an argument that this could have just as easily gone straight-to-DVD it should prove pleasing enough for the youngsters seeking out a bit more of an adventurous animated experience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic