"Planes: Fire & Rescue" was in production before 2013's creatively starved "Planes
" had officially openedquite a sign of faith for a Pixar-less aeronautical spin-off of 2006's lyrically beautiful "Cars
" and 2011's offensively misguided "Cars 2
." Though a mid-sized hit upon release, "Planes" was but a derivative, faded shadow of John Lasseter's auto-centric original. When it was over, it was all but forgotten. In building a hastily produced sequel, somehow director Bobs Gannaway and writer Jeffrey M. Howard (2014's "The Pirate Fairy
") must have had the wise foresight to work harder and improve upon all the things that were about to fail in their predecessor. The story's message isn't yet another retread of the "be yourself" adage, the tone and pacing are gentle and never forced, the computer animation is more detailed in all the light puns, sight gags and Easter eggs littered throughout, and the charactersincluding hero Dustyare endearing and better focused. It's still a wispy entertainment in the long run, but at 83 minutes (76 not including end credits) it doesn't overstay its welcome and should play well for younger children and Disney enthusiasts.
When his reductive gearbox fails, crop-dusting champion air racer Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) is suddenly faced with the devastating prospect of never being able to compete again. With over-the-hill fire engine Mayday (Hal Holbrook) unable to do his job as well as he used to and the town of Propwash Junction facing closure because of it, Dusty steps up to save the day. Shipped to Piston Peak National Park for certification training, he befriends quirky, lovestruck air tanker Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen) and struggles with taking direction from stern leader Blade Ranger (Ed Harris). Dusty is determined to make something of himself even if it means fighting fires rather than racing, but with either profession comes the danger of pushing himself too hard. As forklift mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher) warns him early on, if he puts too much stress on his engine and goes into the red, he will crash.
Even at roughly an hour and fifteen, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is slightly developed and isn't quite sure where to go in the midsection once Dusty joins the aerial firefighters. When it finds its way through the thickening smoke and flames, however, it dabbles in unusually sensitive themes revolving around mortality and the importance of adapting to one's limitations. Dusty was positioned as a classic-case underdog in "Planes
," but he, like most of the other sketchily conceived characters, didn't jump off the screen. This isn't the case this time, his earnest determination in the face of a sudden handicap instantly earning the viewer's rallying support. Voicing the adorably oddball Lil' Dipper, Julie Bowen (2011's "Horrible Bosses
") is an inspired standout, so good that it is a shame she isn't used as often as she could have been. Real-life married couple Anne Meara (2006's "Night at the Museum
") and Jerry Stiller (2007's "The Heartbreak Kid
") are also sweet, if brief, additions as an elderly, still-very-much-in-love couple of RVs vacationing at Piston Peak's newly opened Grand Fusel Lodge.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue" culminates in a big action climax involving an out-of-control wildfire that threatens Piston Peak and forces Dusty to sacrifice his own safety to save others. This may sound like the film is heading for a dire conclusion, but not to worry; the ending that director Bobs Gannaway devises is a fitting, pleasantly upbeat capper. Toss in a random reference to "Howard the Duck" and a zippy music montage set to, of all things, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," and what prospective audiences have here is a family film that thinks outside the box when it could have more easily settled for mediocrity. Gloriously animated with a preference for woodsy, mountainous landscapes (just make sure it is seen in the 2D format where the colors shine their brightest), "Planes: Fire & Rescue" outdoes itself when stacked next to the underwhelming "Planes
." The extra care doesn't lift the picture to a level of greatness, per se, but it does make it worth seeing.