Consumer Reports would say you should never buy any car model in its first year of release, but instead wait for them to iron out all the mechanical kinks. Apparently Disney seems to think they can do the same with Planes, the spinoff franchise they inherited from Cars, a junker series that any sensible owner would’ve long ago traded in hoping for, but not expecting, a four-figure Blue Book value. Upon its original release, Cars was regarded as the then-faultless Pixar’s first lemon, a depressingly charmless and pandering reflection of the sort of cutesy, DreamWorks Face-reliant playschool anthropomorphism that the studio’s efforts had up to that point evaded, if not outright satirized. And every sequel that followed in its wake has been progressively more craven and useless as pop mythos, to the point that it now seems as though Pixar and Disney are willfully accelerating the schedule of depreciation on their own product.
Perhaps aware of the resources they’ve been devoting to fully automated consumerism, the filmmakers behind Planes: Fire & Rescue announce their recalibrated intentions right away with a title card honoring the forest firefighters who dedicate their lives in order to save others’. Yes, the series has taken a hard detour into Sherwood Pictures territory, and if Fire & Rescue called it a day with that opening text, its A+ CinemaScore to stand alongside Sherwood’s Courageous would be all but assured. The latest installment picks up the story of Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), the plucky racer whose highly unlikely tortoise-versus-hare victory in the last installment is still paying off in the public-relations department. That is, until a high-altitude stall-out damages his gearbox—which is no longer being manufactured (by who, no one explains)—and renders him unfit to race. He decides to parlay his career path into serving as his base airport’s backup firefighting unit, which requires him to buzz over to the mountains for training, where his celebrity status catches the eye (don’t forget: vehicles have eyes) of the general manager for an irresponsibly expensive lodge. Grand opening looms, and Dusty would give the event that extra spark of star wattage.
Speaking of sparks, all the extra traffic the lodge is attracting has caused an uptick in forest fires. And though one wonders, as one’s mind inevitably wanders, how a world populated by combustion exhaust-farting vehicles can still have any trees left, Dusty and his trainers all shore up their resources to spray down as much purple retardant as it will take to keep everything green. That doesn’t answer the question of how planes can be heroes. Even allowing for the sake of argument that Disney doesn’t think children are idiots and can handle basic metaphorical transferences, it’s never clear whether Dusty and the other vehicles can actually die, per se, so the concept of saving lives is speculative, if not moot. It’s not even made clear whether the machines can feel pain. But after sitting through Fire & Rescue, interminable even at a lean 83 minutes, I sincerely hope they do.