John Lasseter has officially taken his Henry Ford fetish too far. The Pixar honcho, a car nut who became head of Disney animation a few years ago, has converted one of his pet properties, “the world of Cars,” into an assembly line. At his command, an efficient workforce of writers, directors, animators, voice actors, and marketing whizzes toil away on franchise continuations, passing the product forward until it’s ready for consumption. There are few visible traces of human craftsmanship on their latest model, Planes: Fire & Rescue, a sequel to last summer’s equally anonymous Planes, which itself was a spin-off of Cars and its sequel. The film swipes parts from all of those movies, sprays them down with a fresh coat of paint, and calls the whole thing something new. It’s nice to look at, easy to watch, and impossible to remember for the length of a car-ride home. If it’s a hit, there will be another version of it a couple summers from now.
Disney, to be fair, has been a well-oiled sequel machine for ages—at least since it started churning out straight-to-video follow-ups to its biggest hits. Planes, in fact, was originally conceived for DVD and Blu-ray only, but got the theatrical promotion once the suits caught a glimpse of its ready-for-multiplexes animation. Only the shiny paint job disguises the franchise’s quickie cash-grab roots. Fire & Rescue, like its predecessor, is plotted with all the care of something meant to play in the background while the kids get ready for school.
In what viewers may choose to read as an ironic wink to the project’s faulty engineering, the new story commences with a sputtering engine. Dusty Crophopper, the anthropomorphized aircraft voiced by Dane Cook, has to put his racing career on hold because of a malfunction with his gearbox. (Yes, the cars of the Cars universe are both living, breathing organisms and machines that require working parts. Just go with it.) After causing an airport blaze, and nearly costing the local fire engine his job, Dusty agrees to get certified in aerial firefighting—a process that relocates him to a national park, where he has to prove himself again to a new group of naysayers. It’s typical sequel strategizing: Knock the hero back down to Earth so that he reverts to underdog status, ready to rise from rock bottom to triumphant new heights.
Getting down to brass tacks, Fire & Rescue is a marginally better movie than the original Planes. There are fewer nattering sidekicks and fewer ethnic stereotypes. (Though Windlifter, a helicopter voiced by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, fills that unfortunate quota.) And the narrative, which eventually builds to a massive wildfire, allows for some faintly apocalyptic imagery—a raging inferno that proves again how much the animators keep these projects from crashing and burning. But only by comparison does Fire & Rescue soar. Its characters are still forgettable and one-note, its voice-acting is still undistinguished, and its jokes are still corny groaners. Especially desperate are the Dreamworks-grade appeals to the chaperone crowd, as when these creepy living vehicles brag of having “kicked Aston Martin” or declare “Aw Chevy” at their bad luck. Meanwhile, a split-second cameo by “Boat Reynolds” only raises further questions about the series’ truly baffling world. If there’s a Boat Reynolds, does that also mean there’s a seacraft version of Boogie Nights? Wake us up for that spin-off.