PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE – Blu-ray review

When Disney released “Planes” in 2013 and advertised that it was “from above the world of ‘Cars,’” they invoked Pixar’s highly successful animated auto-racing adventures. But, as I wrote in my review, while the flight plan may have been similar, “Planes” barely got off the ground, and it paled by comparison. “Cars” was full of clever sight gags and variations on the world of humans transferred to motor vehicles, but with “Planes” that richness and sense of delight was missing.

But “Disney Planes” became the #13 selling DVD in 2013, with more than two million units sold. It outperformed the 2014 installment in the Tinker Bell franchise, “The Pirate Fairy,” which ranked 16th with under a million units sold.  So of course we got this sequel. The bad news is that some of what I said about the original animated feature still holds true, but “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is also a better film with exciting visual effects.

In the first film, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) was a crop duster who dreamed of becoming a racing airplane. He found a mentor in Skipper (Stacy Keach) and support crew friends in Dottie (Teri Hatcher), Leadbottom (Cedric the Entertainer), and Chug (Brad Garrett). Those characters return, but mostly it’s a new group because Dusty leaves his familiar world for the unfamiliar one of fire and rescue planes.

An opening montage rather weakly reminds us of Dusty’s status as a racing champion, then in short order we see him sputter and learn that his racing career is basically over. He has a bad gear box, which, for a reason we’re not quite sure about, can’t be replaced. Not one to accept bad news, Dusty pushes himself to fly faster than the warning light that Dottie installed and ends up crash-landing and starting a fire. All of this is the run-up to the film’s basic scenario:  Propwash Junction’s airport has a single aging fire and rescue unit, and they’ll remain shut down unless they get a second unit. So Dusty, feeling guilty, offers to go to Piston Peak National Park for fire-and-rescue training.

In a way, I’m surprised that it took so long for there to be a film about forest firefighters, because I had a friend who was a smokejumper—who parachuted into fires along with bulldozing Bobcats and forklifts that were dropped in the area—and the stories he told were amazing.

In “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” which is dedicated to firefighters of all kinds, Disney shows just how far they’ve come by animating the most realistic forest fires I’ve ever seen, and they continue to display the same kind of prowess with their animation of water sequences. Visually, this sequel is a big improvement over “Planes,” and there’s more here to learn, too—though I wish Disney would have trusted their young audience to be able to absorb more basic information about fighting forest fires than they do. Young minds want to know details, and there are plenty of times where more explanation would have been welcome.

I’m not spoiling anything when I say that of course Dusty’s racing arrogance gets in the way of his instruction and performance, because we’ve seen that before, too, in “Cars.” This time his mentor is a command and training helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), and a mechanic named Maru (Curtis Armstrong) rigs him with a set of pontoons so he can skim the surface of a lake or river, pick up water, and then release it over a fire.

A sideplot involving the equivalent of a lodge developer who’s reminiscent of the mayor’s attempts in “Jaws” to convince patrons there’s no immediate danger, is only developed enough to put vacationing cars and planes in harm’s way when a forest fire spreads out of control. Otherwise, this is a single-trajectory narrative that follows Dusty’s arc through disappointment, training struggles and mistakes, and his eventual heroism.

Adults and older children will think back to the richer world of “Cars” and wish that there was more complexity here, but “Planes: Fire & Rescue” should be appealing to younger children of both genders. And yes, everyone in the room will appreciate the accomplished artwork and animation.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue” also features the voice talents of Julie Bowen, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Wes Studi, Danny Mann, Barry Corbin, Regina King, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, and Fred Willard. It’s directed by Roberts Gannaway (“Secret of the Wings,” “Stitch! The Movie”).

Aside from one or two minor incidences of haloing, there’s nothing in this AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to detract from some pretty spectacular animation. The planes themselves and the background blocking of characters may be incidental, but those fire and water sequences are something to behold. Colors are bright and bold, edges are sharply defined, and there’s that nice sense of 3-dimensionality that comes from contemporary CGI work. “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is presented in 2.39:1 widescreen.

The audio is equally impressive, with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack driving the action. Engines roar, fires crackle, water surges, all with intense clarity. Also provided is an English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.

There aren’t a lot of bonus features here. The longest is actually an animated short (6 min.) in which Dusty and Chug perform a stunt in “Vitaminamulch: Air Spectacular.” Two other short films (under 4 min.) are included, but neither has any depth or punch to it. They’re more like animator exercises. Speaking of which, three deleted scenes with director-producer intros are included, along with a “Welcome to Piston Peak!” tourist promo and a TV commercial for CHoPs, a parody of CHiPs. Other than that, there’s a “Still I Fly” music video by spencer Lee, and really one bonus feature that the kids might enjoy:  “Air Attack: Firefighters from the Sky,” which looks at the real vehicles and locales that the movie is based upon.

Bottom line:
“Planes: Fire & Rescue” is rated PG for “action and some peril,” which strikes me as a ridiculous rating. What film doesn’t have “peril”? I can’t see toddlers or preschoolers being traumatized by anything Disney throws into this film. But I can see kids older than third grade pulling out their hand-held devices or wandering off to do other things.