“It’s better than new!” a mechanically inclined character in Planes: Fire & Rescue says over and over, until it becomes the movie’s catchphrase.
Friends, it isn’t.
With this sequel to last summer’s spin-off from the franchise that descended from Pixar’s Cars, the World of Cars has left behind not only stock cars, the open road, specific real-world settings and Larry the Cable Guy, but racing itself. Practically nothing is left of John Lasseter’s original vision, except those blasted windshield eyeballs. In this melancholy year without Pixar, it’s worse than no reminder at all.
Like Planes last summer, Planes: Fire & Rescue is from DisneyToon Studios, which specializes in small-screen fare. Planes was originally planned to go straight to home video, but it impressed Disney execs enough to score a theatrical release. Now, Fire & Rescue is on the big screen because of how Planes impressed Disney execs. Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) may be the luckiest spin-off protagonist in Hollywood animation history.
A former crop-dusting plane whose racing dreams were fulfilled in a big way when he won a race around the world, Dusty’s new career is unexpectedly sidelined when he suffers damage to his gearbox, preventing him from pushing his engine. While his team scrambles to search for a replacement part, Dusty is obliged by circumstances to embark on a third career: aerial firefighting.
At first glance, there is some logic to this. As a crop duster, Dusty is probably better suited to dispensing fire retardants and water over fires than he is racing. So Dusty heads off to Piston Peak National Park, which is not Yellowstone or Yosemite, although it includes elements of both, for firefighting training and certification.
For the first time since the original Cars, the protagonist in a world of Cars movie is stuck in a single location rather than moving around from place to place. Cars stranded Lightning McQueen in Radiator Springs to teach him to slow down and respect other people. Dusty has already shown that he’s a pretty well-grounded guy. He didn’t have a lot of life lessons to learn in Planes.
On the contrary, he was more than willing to accept instruction from an experienced racer, but spent more time teaching his fellow racers by example about good sportsmanship and fair play. Fire & Rescue could have been about Dusty learning the value of a life of service protecting others, but somehow that theme never comes together.
Radiator Springs had a great supporting cast. Even Planes had colorful supporting characters, notably the flashy Mexican racer. Here, Dusty fends off an annoying flibbertigibbet groupie (Julie Bowen) and takes instruction from Ed Harris as the latest model of a stock Cars character previously played by Paul Newman and Stacy Keach, the gruff older mentor haunted by a sad secret about his past. Wes Studi talks slow as a helicopter with a Native-American vibe, and John Michael Higgins talks fast as the unprincipled park superintendent. Eh.
Now consider the logic of a movie about fighting forest fires … in a world without any form of animal life. Think of the climactic forest fire in Bambi, and then take away the deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, birds and people. A forest fire in an uninhabited forest.
No, technically Piston Peak National Park isn’t entirely devoid of “animal” life. We do get one of the franchise’s brief shots of vehicular animal stand-ins: a bird’s nest with tiny balsa-wood model planes. But these shots have always been visual throwaway punchlines. We aren’t asked to care about their welfare in the end — and that’s all for the best, I think.
At the end of the day, despite the animators’ best efforts, the kinship we feel with other living creatures can’t entirely be transferred to anthropomorphic vehicles. We care about the characters we get to know, like Lightning McQueen and Mater, and perhaps even Dusty, partly because the voice actors earn our empathy. Above all, we root for them in races, where they’re most obviously stand-ins for the humans who would be driving them in real life.
But when Planes: Fire & Rescue comes down to evacuating mostly anonymous campers — and by campers, of course, I mean RVs and other vehicles — the dramatic limitations of the world of Cars become all too apparent. At the end of the day, stretch and squash how the animators will, there is only so much you can do with anthropomorphic vehicles. A long line of vehicles slowly evacuating a campground may be many things, but thrilling it isn’t.
In the fiery climax of Bambi, it isn’t just Bambi and Faline and the other animals we know that we care about; any scrambling rodent or fluttering bird merits our attention and concern. These are creatures with skin and hair and beating hearts; creatures who don’t just fall in love, but who have families. Babies are born to mothers and fathers in Bambi.
Now think about that balsa-wood plane nest again. Do model planes hatch out of eggs in this world? Do model planes lay eggs? Where exactly do all these vehicles come from?
I realize these questions have been there from the beginning, in principle. But a given story can posit a world that works well enough for the purposes of that story — as long as you don’t look at it too closely. The problem is, the more time we spend in this world, the more it falls apart.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
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Caveat Spectator: Some animated action and peril; a fair bit of rude humor, double entendres and the like. For instance, a visit to a “Honkers” (Hooters). Why? Still, bearable family viewing.