The short of it: Planes: Fire & Rescue is a better made film than its predecessor on a technical level, but otherwise just as generic (in some ways, more so) on a storytelling level.
In the Planes sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue, we catch up with crop duster-turned global racing champion plane Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), who's now one of the more famous (if not the most famous) aeronautical racers in the world. However, all that high-velocity action has taken its toll on Dusty's gears - and when it turns out that his damaged gearbox is a model that has long been out of production, Dusty finds himself facing the possibility that he may never race again.
A new career opportunity for Dusty presents itself when it turns out that, in order to pass safety regulation standards, Propwash Junction Airport is in need of a second firefighting vehicle, to assist the elderly fire and rescue truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook). First, though, Dusty needs to get the proper certification from Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a seasoned helicopter who heads an elite fire and rescue team at the Piston Peak national park - but does Dusty have what it takes to battle wildfires alongside the best of the best?
Directed by Roberts 'Bob' Gannaway (Stitch! The Movie), Planes: Fire & Rescue represents an improvement on its predecessor in the technical department - meaning, unlike the first Planes installment, the sequel's visual storytelling qualities are more on the level befitting a theatrical release. DisneyToon Studios' computer animation is still nowhere near to reaching the level of tangible and/or expressive detail offered by Walt Disney Animation or Pixar Animation, but the film's overall cinematic language (use of montage, transitions, etc.) is more sophisticated than its predecessor's - and the handful of action sequences even offer some genuinely striking imagery. That said: 3D is not a necessity to get the full viewing experience.
Unfortunately, those gains in animation technique quality come at the expense of the plot and character development in Planes: Fires & Rescue. The Planes sequel moves away from the sports underdog formula of its predecessor into action hero territory, but winds up with a story that has less direction and focus as a result (which is saying something). Similarly, it seems that the relationship between Dusty and Blade Ranger is meant to anchor the story emotionally - much as Dusty and Skipper's (Stacey Keach) student/teacher dynamic did in the first installment - but as Dusty is the only character with any sort of arc, the payoff to their subplot rings quite hollow.
The Planes: Fire & Rescue story and script (co-written by Gannaway) do, in fact, have elements that might've been expanded upon in order to weave a richer narrative tapestry, but either the filmmakers didn't realize that or there was additional key plot material that never made it past the early stages of development. Regardless, while the movie props itself up as being a heartfelt salute to the bravery of real-life firefighters and smokejumpers, it really feels more like a calculated corporate product - one interested in cramming in as many vehicle characters (which are ripe to be sold as toys) and kid-friendly car/plane/train/etc. puns as possible.
As with the first Planes movie, in Fire & Rescue Dusty is an everyman (everyplane?) personality who lacks any real depth. Similarly, most of the supporting players from the previous film get shoved aside to make room for new characters, who range from being rather questionable - see: the heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter, who talks like a Native American stereotype (voiced by Cherokee actor Wes Studi) - to just flat, such as the rescue plane Dipper (Julie Bowen), who's also happens to be a Dusty fangirl, and the film's "villain" Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins), the profit-minded SUV and superintendent at Piston Peak. You're likely to recognize other voices (Fred Willard, Patrick Warburton, Regina King, Curtis Armstrong, and so on), but chances are you will be hard-pressed to remember their characters' names (or anything else about them), afterwards.
The short of it: Planes: Fire & Rescue is a better made film than its predecessor on a technical level, but otherwise just as generic (in some ways, more so) on a storytelling level. Again, there's nothing here that's really worth getting worked up about - even the obvious marketability of the characters and outdated archetypes just come off as lazy, not offensive. Kids who enjoyed the first Planes movie should also find much to like about the sequel, though they'll probably have all but forgotten that they ever saw these films when they're older (just like their parents did when the end credits started rolling).
Planes: Fire & Rescue is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters. It is 84 minutes long and is Rated PG for action and some peril.
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