Planes: Fire and Rescue
Written by Jeffrey M. Howard
Directed by Roberts Gannaway
There’s a moment in Planes: Fire and Rescue where one of the sentient vehicles is prompted to “drop the needle.” The request is followed by a series of quick cuts: a small anthropomorphic forklift pulls out a record from its sleeve, slams in onto a turntable, and lowers the tonearm. Then, the unmistakable infinite-hammer-on riff to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” appears on the soundtrack, accompanying a getting-ready-to-slay-a-fire montage sequence. “Wait a second,” one might ask, “LPs exist in this universe? Hold on, AC/DC exist in this universe? Are they planes? Or cars? But if they’re cars, how in the hell did Angus Young, or whatever his weird car pun name is, play that awesome riff that clearly necessitates some kind of phalanx? Wait, maybe AC/DC did exist in some distant past before evolutionary biology and bioengineering got way too friendly. This doesn’t make a lick of sense.”
The most entertaining thing about the Cars/Planes movies has always been parsing the metaphysical logistics of their universe. Each potential answer invites a dozen more questions about everything from ontology (are the cars/planes factory-assembled or birthed?) to the atmosphere (wouldn’t the world be covered in a massive dark cloud if it was populated solely by sentient combustible engines?). Sadly, contributing to this playful philosophizing about rickety world-building is also the only entertaining thing about Planes: Fire and Rescue, which suffers from the laziness and dullness that you would expect from the sequel to a spin-off of a cash-grab. The film stars the beige-voiced Dane Cook, reprising his role as cropduster-turned-international racing superstar Dusty Crophopper. Early on, he discovers that his gearbox has been damaged due to the excessive use of torque while on the racing circuit. He eventually does a little introspection, reconsiders career paths and moves on with his life, but before he can do this, he has to floor it one last time in a clumsy, completely predictable act of hubris. His engine fails, he botches his landing, he causes a fire. Though the blaze gets contained, the runway-cum-town gets shut down because it doesn’t have the proper firefighting equipment. Dusty takes this opportunity to save his town by become a certified fire-and-rescue plane, thus saving the local Corn Festival. But in order to help his friends, he must first learn to help himself. Or something to that effect. The whole film is just as artlessly contrived as this set-up.
The film’s sense of humour, when not outright lame, is just incredibly bizarre. The first joke in the movie involves Stacy Keach’s character saying that he has gas (get it, like fuel!). This perfectly sets the comedic tone for the movie, which remains essentially laugh-free for the rest of its running time. This is because Planes: Fire and Rescue consistently commits two of the gravest comedy sins: G-rated profanity (they can’t say “ass,” so “Aston Martin” will have to do) and mistaking a stand-alone reference for a joke. Though some of these references come way out of left field (Howard the Truck?!), most of them are just groan-worthy or feel woefully out of place, if only because of the film’s gimmick: an automotive parallel universe. If this movie doesn’t make at least one hundred unique car- or plane-based puns, it doesn’t make a single one. What’s more, there’s something incredibly frustrating about those jokes when they reference such child-friendly IPs as CHiPS. Characters are barely one-dimensional: there’s a quartet of “wacky” gremlin-types, a stereotypical Native sage (played by perennial please-give-this-person-better-work listee Wes Studi), and an unnervingly happy superfan/coworker/stalker played by Julie Bowen, in which I was horrified to learn was supposed to be a comedic role. I don’t expect characters in children’s movies to have the complexity and depth of a Bergman film, but I don’t want them to be describable with just one adjective either.
Beyond its poor characters, lackluster voice-acting, flimsy story, and overall cheap feel, the film exists at a strange ideological crossroads. Dusty becomes a firefighter to serve something beyond himself, which is commendable, but Planes: Fire and Rescue continuously stomps over the line that separates selflessness from martyrdom. The film often makes the argument that the nobility of an endeavour is directly tied to how much of your body you sacrifice to it. In its own kid-friendly way, it also conflates self-preservation with cowardice: the crux of the narrative hinges on the fact that Dusty keeps his gearbox problem under wraps. To make a real-world parallel, it would be the equivalent of an asthmatic becoming a firefighter. Doing so wouldn’t be heroic; it would be foolish. And dangerous. But the kids watching probably won’t thinking about that. They’ll be thinking about bugging their parent to buy them an action figure (kids are going to want want to see this movie because brand recognition is a powerful thing in a young mind). But if there’s any justice in the world, the toy they’ll be they’ll be clamoring for will be René Auberjonois’ mustachioed hotel concierge.
— Derek Godin