There was a time, at least 50 years ago, when Disney took as much care with its live action films as its did with its animation. While these titles could never live up to the breathtaking artistic breakthroughs being made by their pen and ink masterworks, Disney still managed to craft family entertainment without resorting to ridiculous contrivances or obvious audience pandering. It all began with an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, and flourished with efforts like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Swiss Family Robertson. There was even some unheralded excellence buried among the goofball comedies (The Shaggy Dog) and oddball entries (Greyfriar’s Bobby? Seriously).
One such film was In Search of the Castaways. It featured Maurice Chevalier, ’60s House of Mouse staple Haley Mills, and George Stevens’ take on another Jules Verne novel, Captain Grant’s Children. It had intrigue and danger, and a sensational sequence where our heroes hurtle down a mountainside on part of an outcropping, the result of a sudden earthquake. There’s also a giant condor, a horrible flood, and, of course, a volcano. While the special effects are ancient by today’s standards, studio savant Robert Stevenson directed the heck out of the material (as he did throughout his tenure while working for Uncle Walt) and the overall result is thrilling in a very safe eight-to-80 kind of way.
The same can be said for Disney’s latest foray into mass merchandizing, Planes: Fire and Rescue. This unlikely CG franchise, piggybacked off the undeniable success of the Cars brand (it’s the company’s number one product tie-in), but Planes started off badly. In the name of ethnic diversity, Planes erroneously used horrid stereotypes and obvious voice acting to make it very clear that its central hero was a squeaky clean “Amurican” while the rest of the aircraft planet was a collection of racial clichés. You could practically feel the filmmakers struggling to find moments when they could jumpstart the superpower celebrations with chants of “U-S-A!, U-S-A!, U-S-A!”
Planes: Fire and Rescue rejects all that nonsense and instead chooses to return to the days of Saturday matinee thrills. Yes, the obnoxious Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is back, but this time he’s been forced to retire from the competition circuit due to a bad gearbox. When his hometown is hit with a series of safety violations, our single engined hero decides to train as a member of the Piston Peak National Park’s firefighting service. There, he meets up with leader (and rescue helicopter) Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) as well as the fire retardant crew of Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen), Windlifter (Wes Studi), and Cabbie (Dale Dye). There’s also a group of ground obstruction clearers known as The Smokejumpers (voices of Regina King, Corri English, Bryan Callen, Danny Pardo, and Matt Jones).
Of course, every set-up needs a scenario to work within, and wouldn’t you know it, arrogant Park Superintendent Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins) is reopening the fabled Grand Fusel Lodge to much VIP fanfare. When a fire breaks out nearby, it’s up to Dusty and his pals to put out the blaze and save the multitude of machines in attendance for the special shindig. Along the way, our arrogant lead must learn teamwork, control, duty, and a bit of humility, all while desperately hoping that his pals back home, including Mayday (Hal Holbrook), Dottie (Teri Hatcher), and Chug (Brad Garrett) can find him a new gearbox and get him back into the race.
When you consider how inept and sloppy Planes was from a storytelling and characterization standpoint, Planes: Fire and Rescue is a significant step up. It’s not great. It still suffers from targeting a sixth grade and under mentality, but at least its heart is in the right place. Dedicated to firefighters everywhere, the movie makes it very clear that these brave individuals — or in this case, aircraft — are the last line of defense in the wake of a massive natural disaster such as a forest fire. They go in as everyone is running out, as they say.
Dusty doesn’t get this at first, but he doesn’t act like the spoiled entitled brat he was in the first film, either. Instead, he gets the gravitas of his new career choice and eventually learns to embrace it.
Equally impressive is this film’s desire to dump the creaky cultural slanders of previous characterizations to make these new machines more generic, and therefore less troubling (well, all except Wes Studi’s soft-spoken Native American transport copter). By using the whole firefighting angle, director Roberts Gannaway and his animators have a chance to truly shine.
The sequences where Dusty and his pals fly into these massive infernos are breathtaking in their scope and detail. These moments embrace the emphasis on action from the House of Mouse’s past while providing contemporary thrills for viewers that are way too young to remember when Disney did this kind of thing.
Of course, this means adults are more or less left out of the mix, though a few might get a chuckle out of a mid-point backstory involving Harris’ Blade, his temporary TV stardom, and a callback to a famous “highway patrol cop show” from the ’80s. It’s a hilarious homage, one that will soar a million miles over the heads of the intended audience. Indeed, it’s nice to know that Planes: Fire and Rescue is looking out for those parents forced to sit and watch with their children. Still, this movie just can’t shake the feeling of being a 85-minute commercial for the upcoming toy line and the accompanying holiday gift-giving season.
Cars has been responsible for nearly $8 billion in global sales. If Planes can do a portion of those profits, we’ll be seeing more of Dusty and his airborne pals. The one thing Disney isn’t shy about is making money. It owns Marvel, a certain sci-fi franchise known as Star Wars, and has a huge catalog of animated classics to call upon whenever a special edition Blu-ray release is needed.
Something like Planes: Fire and Rescue is minor House of Mouse at best, but at least we’re seeing an overall improvement. A long time ago, Disney wanted to bring a bit of excitment into a kid’s entertainment world. Planes: Fire and Rescue revisits that idea, and succeeds.