Dusty Crophopper is an international celebrity, used to winning one aerial race after another. However, his gearbox is giving out. His fuselage is failing. It might be time to come up with life’s Plan B.
That’s the start of Disney’s new kids cartoon, “Planes: Fire and Rescue” and it’s a strangely different one.
Most children’s movies preach the California gospel of self-esteem, a contradictory creed (everyone is the same, everyone is special) built on one all-empowering commandment: Believe in yourself.
Nevertheless, in “Planes: Fire and Rescue,” even Dusty’s confidence can’t overcome a body that’s giving out, and a career that may be quickly winding down. It’s time to re-assess; re-invent — and either forge a new path, or get out of the way.
Is Disney making films for five-year-olds, or the downsized 50-year-olds sitting next to them?
Of course, it’s not as if the studio’s suddenly channeling Arthur Miller here — this is not “Death of a Cessna,” full of anger and angst. But, Dusty’s disappointments are certainly a break from the usual, particularly in a series aimed at the tiniest tots.
At least this film is a marked improvement on last year’s “Planes,” which borrowed some plotlines from the equally flat “Cars,” added tired pop-culture references and stereotypes and, at 92 surprisingly long minutes, had you soon wishing for in-flight beverage service.
This sequel, thankfully, is faster paced, and has more action as — beginning this new chapter in his life — Dusty flies off to the Western wilderness to train as a firefighter, where he’ll join a variety of flying machines in stopping blazes.
It’s a plot twist the film takes seriously, with several characters in real jeopardy and a forest inferno that looks back to “Bambi.” (Although, sometime the film takes itself too seriously — an introductory dedication to fallen firefighters feels like a bit much for a movie that is, after all, about talking planes.)
Apart from the extra action, though, the movie has the same problems as the rest of the “Planes” franchise (as did the “Cars” series that inspired it). The character design, with those giant googly-eye windshields, is simply ugly. In addition, the anthropomorphized, all-vehicle universe can be a little jarring (I get the honeymooning trucks, but four-wheel cows?)
Dane Cook is fine as Dusty (it’s amazing how vocal performances dispense with the negative baggage some visual ones can carry), and Ed Harris is properly crusty as his firefighting instructor, although there’s not much to the other characters. (Except for a ditsy, star-struck female plane, Lil’ Dipper, who’s annoying.)
There are enough silly jokes and simple excitement here, however, to keep the youngest ones interested, and a few mild puns (“You bet your Aston-Martin!”) to occasionally make the adults smile. That is, the ones who aren’t, like Dusty, sitting there preoccupied with the turbulence ahead in their own lives — even as the film fights its own headwinds to find a happy ending.