But I digress, this is about the movie Planes: Fire and Rescue and perhaps my meanderings indicate just how engaging this film really is. The makers of kid’s films generally sense how to make an overall pleasing product. Clichés, lackluster writing, stock characters, they’re all given a pass of sorts. This is true from the heights of Pixar down to the dregs of DreamWorks. The package is easier to digest. Not because an audience of children are unsophisticated, but because kids are still mostly feral animals. You have to socialize them in broad strokes. Within this generous latitude there are exceptional animated films (Lego Movie) and terrible ones (Rio 2). Planes: Fire and Rescue drops with a thud just below that desirable meaty middle.
To begin with the good, Planes deserves high accolades for the animation. Absolutely gob-smacking, drenched in rich detail, perfectly rendered for the 3D format, the visuals alone are worth the price of admission. Yes, the story is basic. Hero established, hero forced out of comfort zone, hero learns valuable lesson. In this case, our hero Dusty is displaced into Piston Peak National Park where he joins the titular fire and rescue crew. Battling wildfires and self-indulgent bureaucrats, can Dusty deliver when it matters most? I’ll let you draw your own foregone conclusion.
The main character, crop duster (why do they grow crops?) turned racer extraordinaire Dusty Crophopper, is voiced by Dane Cook. Cook, who’s hardly convincing with his own material, is completely tone-deaf executing someone else’s work. Without his demonstrative physical gestures, his voice is rendered near powerless. Ed Harris glowers right in line with his character Blade Ranger’s boilerplate design. Julie Bowen brings her easy vivacity to delightful Dusty devotee Lil’ Dipper. And John Michael Higgins brings his unmistakable energy to the aptly named park superintendent Cad.
Tedious in most facets of storytelling and characterization, the film finds other feisty ways to be subversive. In one very hip turn, a central characters is revealed to be a long since faded pop-culture reference, iconic in the ironic. There is an oblique nod to drinking games. There’s even a brilliantly psychotic line delivered by Lil’ Dipper near the end. My belly laugh was nothing short of a guffaw. The rest of the jokes are terrible car puns and sight gags. Oh, and jokes about tootin’ because…kids. Planes: Fire and Rescue is a classic example of a film’s handlers playing it safe in all the wrong ways. They played it so safe they deferred to the false assumption kids are dumb. Thank goodness for teams of punch-up writers and their incendiary underground transmissions.
All told, there are some passable morals on the well paved road from beginning to end. A few of the set pieces are thrilling, the animation is top of the mark, and any movie offering up a sequence worthy of, “Thunderstruck,” is okay in my book. But alas, Planes’ leaves a lot on the table.
Distilled into a moment, the film’s wasted potential manifests in a quick, forgettable joke. At the grand opening of the villainous Cad’s precious lodge, guests are invited to take a picture with Mr. Park Superintendent himself. As the guests saunter up to a full color Cad smiling wide, they grin, and “Cad” tips over. Their coveted photo-op is with nothing more than a cardboard mockup of the real thing. Planes: Fire and Rescue is an expertly fashioned cardboard cutout of a superior animated film, and it falls flat just as easy. Ultimately the film will be enjoyed for what it is. Enough to insert itself into a new generation’s pop-culture incubator, its eventual postmortem by the children who lived it will reveal a film as manufactured as its planes, good, bad, absurd, and sublime.
Maybe then I’ll get my think piece.
— Monte Monreal