'Planes: Fire & Rescue': Film Review

A very old-fashioned Disney toon for tots.

Dane Cook, Ed Harris and Julie Bowen lead the voice cast for Disney's latest animated feature.

Planes, along with trains, automobiles, ships, motorcycles —almost any vehicle — are about the most photogenic inanimate objects you can feature in a movie, but that’s about all the new Disney toon Planes: Fire & Rescue has going for it. Beautiful to look at, this is nothing more than a Little Engine That Could story refitted to accommodate aerial action and therefore unlikely to engage the active interest of anyone above the age of about 8, or 10 at the most. As always, the Disney name guarantees a certain level of automatic box office, but the audience here is strictly small-fries and their parents.

Set in an America that feels, not disagreeably, like the one Uncle Walt thrived in, this is a story of second-chancers, older planes and other machines that, having outlived their original usefulness, are put to work as firefighters in Piston Peak National Park, which resembles a glorious combination of the most scenic aspects of the West’s marquee wilderness areas.

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Dusty Crophopper is a vintage, gumption-driven, single-engine prop plane accustomed to winning air races that involve buzzing around pylons — which makes for some nifty 3D shots — until his gear box comes apart in a warm-up for the year’s big event at the fabled Corn Fest. Told that he’ll have to keep his torque way down from now on — which is like instructing Steve McQueen to drive his Mustang at no more than 25 mph — a demoralized Dusty is farmed out to the sleepy HQ of the Piston Peak Air Attack team, an over-the-hill gang that includes sage, no-nonsense leader Blade Ranger, peppy female air tanker Lil’ Dipper, heavy-load chopper Windlifter and folksy vintage fire truck Mayday, who does more than anyone to convince Dusty to embrace his new calling.

The whole approach of director Bobs Gannaway and his co-writer Jeffrey M. Howard is achingly sincere in a dag-nabbit, golly-gee sort of way entirely lacking the machine-gun wit and wisecracks of the new generation of animated features pioneered by executive producer John Lasseter. Other than for the vivid scenic backdrops and ultrarealistic fire effects, this is a film that, with its “You can do it, boy!” thematic thrust, could have been made in the 1950s. Nothing wrong with a little inspirational message, but old evergreens need more sprucing up than they get here.

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Inevitably, a terrible wildfire breaks out that threatens a gorgeous old lodge full of tourists, and the closest thing to a villain in this story is a hotel executive, visually represented by a luxury SUV, who tries to convince the endangered automotive guests that there’s nothing to worry about. To help save the day, Dusty is naturally obliged to push his torque way past safe limit, but there can be no doubt about how it all turns out.

Akin to the visual approach in the Cars features, the planes are anthropomorphized with eyes on their windscreens and mouths in vent space beneath the propellers. The vocal performances are good within the prevailing buck-up and gee-whiz attitudinal constraints, with Ed Harris providing reassuring perspicacity as the seen-it-all old pro and Hal Holbrook infusing his lines with a winningly weary warmth.

While Fire & Rescue clocks in at 84 minutes, the action ends after 76 minutes, with the remainder, or close to 10 percent of the total running time, devoted to very slowly scrolled end credits.

Production company: Disneytoon Studios
Voice cast: Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Wes Studi, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Cedric the Entertainer, Danny Mann, Barry Corbin, Regina King, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Fred Willard
Director: Bobs Gannaway
Screenwriters and story: Bobs Gannaway, Jeffrey M. Howard
Producer: Ferrell Barron
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Art director: Toby Wilson
Editor: Dan Moliana
Music: Mark Mancina

Rated PG, 84 minutes