"Planes: Fire & Rescue" sounds more like a category on Craigslist than the name of a new animated film. But what this Disney feature lacks in the title department it makes up for with fluid visuals and fast-moving action of the, yes, firefighting variety.
A sequel to last year's "Planes," this unabashed family film does have its standard-issue elements, especially the overly glib rapid-fire remarks of the "I kicked Aston-Martin" variety that the film's anthropomorphic planes and cars exchange like they were so many motorized Borscht Belt comedians. A little of this goes a long way.
Fortunately, these planes are not here to chit-chat but to fight fires. "Fire & Rescue's" director, Bobs Gannaway (who co-wrote with Jeffrey M. Howard), does such an expert job putting us inside the action and detailing how aerial firefighting is done that you feel like you could fight a fire yourself after you've seen the film at its 3-D best.
"Fire & Rescue" is primarily set inside Piston Peak National Park, a bucolic spot inspired by Yellowstone and other parks. As big as the park is, that's how great the fire danger is inside it, and "Fire & Rescue" outdoes itself in featuring animated flames that shoot out in a most convincing, even threatening, way. "Out of 1,224 total shots in the film," says effects animation lead John Patton, "more than half feature some kind of effect: fire, smoke, water."
Those fires, you may be sure, are not left alone to burn out of control: a team of aircraft goes at it hammer and tongs in a visually exciting way to contain things and keep everyone safe. Before we see even a hint of smoke, however, "Fire & Rescue" reintroduces us to the protagonist of the earlier "Planes." That would be Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), a former crop duster now turned into a world-famous air racer.
Dusty has returned home to Propwash Junction to help publicize the local Corn Festival. But before the fun can get underway, he makes an unnerving discovery: the high speeds he's been flying at to win all those races have done some serious damage to his gearbox and (gasp!) he may never be able to go fast enough to fly competitively again.
The film's first fire takes place at the Propwash Junction airfield, and it's too much for ancient Mayday, the local fire and rescue truck (voiced by the venerable Hal Holbrook). Officials pull the airport's certification and put the fate of the Corn Festival in jeopardy unless, wait for it, a plane can be found to back Mayday up.
Which is how Dusty ends up heading for the Piston Peak Air Attack Base to be trained and certified as a SEAT, a single engine air tanker whose small size belies its usefulness for dropping flame retardant on a roaring blaze.
At the air base Dusty meets up with the rest of Piston Peak's team, all characters with a capital C. These include: Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a fire-and-rescue helicopter and the group's gruff no-nonsense top dog; Dipper ("Modern Family's" Julie Bowen), an air tanker with an unfortunate flirtatious nature who's saddled with some of the script's most unfortunate lines; and Windlifter (the veteran Wes Studi), a slow-talking Native American and an essential heavy-lift helicopter.
Every animated cartoon needs a villain, which is where the park superintendent, the aptly named Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins) comes in. Self-aggrandizing and hungry for celebrity, Cad has the temerity to siphon off much-needed firefighting funds to refurbish the park's Grand Fusel Lodge. Imagine.
Obviously, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" takes both its PG rating and its strong gee-whiz quality quite seriously, but its admiration for the real firefighters the film is dedicated to is sincere and deserved. If you ignore the slicker aspects of the dialogue (and with a little effort you mostly can), it's satisfying to find a film that is as innocent and as much visual fun as this one is.
'Planes: Fire & Rescue'
MPAA rating: PG for action and some peril
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes