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“Planes: Fire & Rescue”

Planes Fire Rescue Courtesy of Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Disney Pictures

David Ives - published on 07/18/14

There are folks out there who don’t wear capes or swing through the city on weblines, but are superheroes just the same.

According to a recent poll by Forbes, 7 out of 33 five-year-olds indicated they want to be a superhero when they grow up, making wearing spandex and fighting super villains the single most popular future career choice for kindergarteners. In particular, the majority of them said they wanted to be Spider-Man when they’re older.

Oh, the follies of youth. Any adult worth their salt could tell those tots not to go with the perpetual man-child who is always scrounging for a buck and can never catch a break. Listen to your elders, children, don’t settle for any superhero position less than Batman!

Anyway, the point is, young children and adults have different perspectives on things. So if you find yourself dumbfounded by Dora The Explorer, baffled by Bubble Guppies, or kind of creeped out by Caillou, don’t fret, that just means you’re a normal, healthy adult. Those kinds of shows weren’t made to appeal to you. And, frankly, neither was Planes: Fire & Rescue.

The fourth movie to be set in the alternate universe of anthropomorphic autos first introduced in Pixar’s Cars, Planes: Fire & Rescue picks up where last year’s Planes left off. Dusty Crophopper, the little crop dusting plane turned air racing pro, is sitting atop the world, beloved by all and practically undefeatable. Unfortunately, the high speeds required for racing have put a strain on Dusty’s gearbox and he is told he must slow down or risk crashing. Distraught over the idea that his racing career might be over, Dusty takes to the skies to prove the diagnosis wrong, but succeeds only in starting a fire at the airport when he must make an emergency landing.

Upon investigating the accident, the local authorities discover that Mayday, the ancient fire truck stationed at Propwash Junction’s small airport, is not up to code. They demand a second firefighter be added to the staff or the airport will have to be shut down. Feeling guilty over his part in the debacle, Dusty agrees to become the airport’s second firefighter and travels to a nearby national park in order to receive training from Mayday’s old friend and veteran fire-and-rescue helicopter, Blade Ranger.

Once at the park, Dusty is quickly introduced to Blade’s team, The Smokejumpers, a motley assortment of vehicles who are more than rough around the edges, but complete professionals when it comes to doing their jobs. There’s Lil’ Dipper, the overly aggressive super scooper with a crush on Dusty, Windlifter, The shaman-like Native-American heavy-lift helicopter, Cabbie, the slow and steady ex-military transport plane, and a lot of others whose names you’ll come to learn as your kids collect their toys and buy their happy meals.

Yeah, I know that last sentence sounds a bit cynical, but the adult in me can’t help but see Planes: Fire & Rescue as something of a cash grab by Disney. The Cars movies have never been among Pixar/Disney’s most critically acclaimed animated films, but, ever since the first Lightning McQueen die cast car hit store shelves back in 2006, they’ve definitely been near the top when it comes to merchandising. Something about those vehicles with eyeballs for windshields and smiles for radiators is just irresistible to kids.

Still, even though the sequels and spin-offs are obviously designed to empty the wallets of parents everywhere, they’re not entirely lacking in artistry. The animation in Planes: Fire & Rescue is still top notch, with some of the flying scenes being quite the treat for the eyes. The flyovers during some of the firefighting sequences are especially well executed. And as with all the Cars movies, the character designs are still appealing to look at. A quick sight gag involving some model airplanes was especially fun.

It’s just the writing that is somewhat lacking, or at least it will probably seem that way for adults and older kids in the audience. Everything goes exactly by the children’s movie playbook. Dusty arrives for training, he goofs up and makes things worse, then he learns his lesson and becomes the hero by the end. The characters are defined by little more than a single personality trait. There is some slapstick and a few obligatory fart jokes, which the kids in attendance at the screening I attended dutifully laughed at. And there is some action, but never anything that gives a sense that any of these characters are in any real danger. Not to worry, despite the subject matter, this is not the children’s version of Ladder 49.

That being said, Disney (or at least their promotional department) is convinced that there’s enough substance in the movie storywise to feel comfortable marketing Planes: Fire & Rescue to churches. The press material released to faith-based outlets included the following blurbs: “The new film provides a glimpse into the deeper meaning of life and the work we do. Though lighthearted and exciting, the film also concerns the serious subjects of commitment, friendship and sacrificing for the common good which ultimately gets to the true meaning of life itself…Other important themes from Planes: Fire & Rescue include: With faith all things are possible! (Mark 9:23) Fear not! — No matter the circumstances we need not succumb to fear. (Isaiah 41:10; Psalm 23:4) There’s no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend. (John 15:13)”

That’s probably over-selling the merits of the story a bit. It’s true that you can find those themes in Planes: Fire & Rescue, but you have to work at it some. The primary moral I took away from the film is that you should quit being self centered and pay attention to what you’re doing or else someone might burn to death. That’s not a bad lesson to learn all by itself.

All in all, there’s very little new to be seen in Planes: Fire & Rescue. And you know what, that’s okay, because as any parent can tell you, little kids love repetition. They want the same stories over and over, it makes them feel safe. So, it’s perfectly fine to have a film targeted squarely at youngsters who might find the monsters and mayhem of something like  How To Train Your Dragon 2 a little overwhelming.

That’s not to say the film completely ignores the grown-ups in the audience. There’s a fairly well done parody of the old CHiPs television show that is pretty spot-on, right down to the cops having to rush to a problem at a disco, that I’m fairly sure only oldsters will fully appreciate. Unfortunately, most of the other “adult” gags come in the form of a number of odd sexual innuendos that pop up frequently during the film. It’s nice that the filmmakers didn’t forget that grown-ups would be in attendance, but having an elderly couple of RVs discuss wearing out their tires on their wedding night or having a female plane pop out her landing pontoons and declare, “Yes, they’re real!” seems more like like a thirteen-year-old’s idea of adult humor, not an actual adult’s. Maybe the filmmakers were worried about having to compete with Cameron Diaz’s Sex Tape at the box office this weekend. Whatever the reason, such gags felt really out of place.

Other than that, though, there’s enough in Planes: Fire & Rescue to make it an enjoyable enough outing at the theater, especially for younger moviegoers. It’s quick, easy on the eyes, and mostly morally uplifting. Plus, it might just help remind kids that there are folks out there who don’t wear capes or swing through the city on weblines, but are superheroes just the same.

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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