The first Planes was a strange beast, pitched as a movie “from above the world of Cars” yet having little in common with the Pixar disappointment other than a focus on hyper, ambitious talking-vehicles.
The fact that there’s now a sequel might be confusing for some people, not least the parents who regretted taking their kids along to the lacklustre first instalment, but we all know by now that kids movies aren’t green-lit off the back of critical adoration or positive buzz – it’s about merchandise and marketability.
So the fact that Planes: Fire and Rescue is anywhere approaching decent is a lovely surprise. It didn’t need to be better, the premise’s ample opportunity for visual splendour would arguably have been enough, but it’s actually an improvement on the first film in a few significant ways.
The first is with its story, which trades the underdog-achieves-his-dreams cliché for a moral message about finding joy in something new when life knocks you down. Our hero, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), having become the star racer he set out to be in his first outing, has run into some trouble with his faulty gear-box, which means that to push his engine to its limits, as is required of a racer, he risks crashing.
The movie doesn’t shroud it too much – crashing basically translates to dying in this wacky world – and Dusty’s gear-box is pretty clearly a metaphor for disability or debilitating injury. For an otherwise throwaway children’s animation to include such heavy themes, wrapped in a nice journey towards acceptance of certain limitations and finding joy in new dreams, is hugely commendable.
It’s just dark and upsetting enough, nudged over the line only because of the investment young audiences may have made in the character’s journey first time around, and I’ll say that the rest of the film makes sure not to bungle the message in the end. There’s peril, but it’s mild.
With his career as a racer apparently dashed, then, Dusty decides to train as a fire-fighter with the Smokejumpers, a hodgepodge group of crazy characters (and some new additions to the voice cast, of course) that includes grizzled veteran Blade Ranger (Ed Harris). Taking Dusty under his wing, so to speak, Blade’s troubled past is revealed and the tourist lodge they’re tasked with protecting is threatened.
The villain in Planes 2 is basically weather, and weather’s capability to produce fire. This isn’t a criticism, as such, as the fire-fighting sequences utilising the magnificence of fire, water and flying are a joy to watch. These sequences get a little repetitive, however, and the film never really gets past the fact that Dusty, as pleasant a protagonist as he is, just isn’t that interesting.
Aside from Blade and Julie Bowen’s (sort of) romantic interest, Dipper, the rest of the Smokejumpers all pretty much bleed together into one madcap bunch. The original supporting cast, too, are sidelined as soon as Dusty takes flight for fire-fighter camp, but it hardly matters – we’re all here for the adventure.
The first film was criticised for being aimed solely at kids, with nothing for the parental portion of the audience to latch onto. Fire and Rescue is definitely still a kids movie through and through, and one aimed at under-10s at that, but there are glimmers of that old Pixar/Disney tendency to pepper in adult-skewed jokes. One 80s cop show parody raises a few titters, for example, and in a way that doesn’t exclude younger viewers.
Planes: Fire and Rescue is a rare sequel that gets the chance to improve upon the original, meaning among other things that parents can feel good about taking their kids to see it. It’s a film that sets out to do something simple, more or less achieves it, and manages to entertain along the way.
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