Movies like “Planes: Fire & Rescue” are the bane of a movie critic’s existence, but not for the reasons you might suspect. It has a rock-solid moral center, preaching the virtues of bravery and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, and those are important things for young children to learn in the event that their real-life role models aren’t teaching them those things already. It also has some inspired voice work by a well-chosen cast, and some impressive visuals. However, in order to make said point about the virtues of bravery and self-sacrifice, the story line and dialogue are stripped of nearly all nuance, and in the end we are left with a Message Movie, and a straight-to-video Message Movie at that. (That might sound harsh, but last year’s “Planes” was originally meant to go straight to video.) Even Disney knows that these movies are second class to films like “Frozen” and “Wreck-It-Ralph.” It’s a place filler until they unveil their next tentpole release. Easily consumable and earnest, but knowingly lacking, and absolutely not worth paying extra cash to see in 3D.
Newly crowned race champion Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is enjoying his moment in the sun as the It Boy of aerial racing, but his mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher) advises him that he has a part that is both faulty and irreplaceable, and if he continues to push the limits, he will crash. Of course, he does exactly that, and sets off a chain of events that exposes the airport he calls home as being unsafe. They need another rescue vehicle and, realizing that his racing days are all but over, Dusty volunteers to be the rescue vehicle. Fire truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook) sends Dusty up to train with Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), and Dusty quickly, and repeatedly, learns that this job is much harder than it looks.
And there’s the rub: if they don’t go overboard on the message, it will likely be lost on those who need to understand it the most (the kids). As a result, the parents are left suffering through a metric ton of expositional dialogue about how each member of the crew does its job, and how damned important each one of those jobs is to the team as a whole. Again, these are valuable lessons to impart, but it’s difficult to do so without looking like a thinly veiled recruitment film.
This is where the voice casting and visuals come in as the spoonful of sugar. Cook was not the first choice to play Dusty – they had originally cast Jon Cryer, who had to bow out – and while Cook isn’t necessarily wrong for the role, it’s clear why they opted for Cryer first. Dusty is the straight man in the movie, and that is not Cook’s strong suit. He’s not bad at it, but Cryer would have been better. Harris can do his role in his sleep, but delivers just enough bite to show that he has a vested interest in how it turns out. The supporting cast, though, is exceptional; Julie Bowen, Wes Studi, John Michael Higgins, and Curtis Armstrong all deliver memorable performances in their respective roles, with admirable backup by the likes of Patrick Warburton, Brad Garrett, and Stacy Keach, not to mention a heartbreaking moment between Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. The climactic action scene, meanwhile, is stunning. Better than it has a right to be, really.
“Planes: Fire & Rescue” has material that will entertain people of all ages, but it’s done in the old-school manner that Pixar basically destroyed. The majority of the movie is not just aimed at kids but does so at the expense of the adults, and the jokes they slip in for the adults are inappropriate for children (Bowen’s plane is stalking Dusty, and talks about how her parts are “real” yuk yuk). The rule for animated films should be that a good joke for adults is one that is both funny and can be explained to children. Here, we have a female airplane talking about her rack. The kids won’t get it, but that doesn’t matter – it shouldn’t be there. John Lasseter, I expect more from you than that.