Sunday, July 20, 2014

Flight Improvement: PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE

A professional racer is told by his doctor to take it easy. Looking to put his new free time to good use, he agrees to help his tiny hometown by leaving home and getting his fire rescue certification. He ends up spending the summer at a mountaintop resort, finding new firefighter friends and getting his training in while helping them prep for forest fire season. It’s a sweet, simple, predictable little story with safe, easy lessons about being selfless, helping others while being true to yourself and other gently affirming stuff. I sort of enjoyed it, at least whenever I could half-forget that all of the characters were planes.

This is Planes: Fire & Rescue, a sequel to last year’s Planes, a spin-off of Pixar’s Cars movies. That pretty dumb and awfully flimsy movie was produced by DisneyToon, Disney’s direct-to-video arm, but got promoted to a theatrical release, presumably because someone at the studio thought it was good enough to do so. Or maybe there was a blank spot on the schedule that had to be filled quickly and cheaply. Either way, there it was, a bland regurgitation of Cars plot points and cheaply animated pap. Families bought tickets. Now it’s eleven months later and we have a sequel.

Maybe because director Roberts Gannaway and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard knew they were aiming for the big screen from the beginning, the movie has a wider scope, rather lovely and detailed backgrounds, and that aforementioned predictable-but-likable story. The forest is lush and leafy, fires ripping through with convincingly rendered snap and flicker bleeding ominous reds and oranges through the picturesque greens and browns of the secluded resort area. The story about a group of professionals taking a newbie under their wing and teaching him the ropes is made up of stock parts, but plays reasonably well. The problem, and it’s kind of a big one, is the planes.

I liked the Cars movies. They had a certain charm and moved fast enough to outrace logical questions about how a world in which all living things are vehicles operates in any way. Sure, I idly wondered about questions like, “where do baby cars come from?” But the movies moved quickly, had Pixar’s trademark visual wit and emotional intelligence, and just plain knew not to steer the plot directly into areas that would immediately confront the core nonsense of the fantasy world’s workings. Not so Planes, which operated at a cheaper, thinner level, but worst of all foregrounded the nonsense. That’s a pattern that continues with Fire & Rescue.

It’s a movie that spends more time than necessary (that is to say, any at all) focusing on the planes’ bodies. A major plot point is a plane who is told he has a failing gearbox that can’t be replaced because “the factory discontinued the parts.” What!? You mean to tell me in this world of anthropomorphized vehicles there is a factory that can declare a death sentence for a whole type of being (species? product line?) by declaring them obsolete?  How horrible! At one point the camera zooms into the plane’s inner workings and watches as gears turn and spark. I don’t want to think about this! Throughout we get cutaways to dashboard gauges and knobs. Why are they there? Who is looking at them?

The movie’s obsession with the planes’ mechanical processes reveals only the failure to imagine the fictional world in any detail beyond the surface jokiness. It’s simply unworkable. What does work on some modestly engaging level is the story, which would be a humble charmer if someone were to rewrite it to star human beings. Whenever I could forget that Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) and his new firefighting pals (voices of Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, Wes Studi, Regina King, and more) were planes, it has a mildly diverting kid-friendly flow. The fire and rescue of the title is treated seriously enough to come with a dedication to real firefighters. That’s nice. So is the crackling danger that the planes fly through in visually appealing ways.

What’s not so nice are the nagging implausibilities and backfiring wit. I don’t want to think about a small-town bar named “Honkers” where a hybrid rebuffs a pickup truck’s pick-up line. Or an elderly fire truck voiced by Hal Holbrook complaining about his “rusty, blistered bumper.” Or a pair of elderly RVs who over-share that they “wore down their [tire] treads on their honeymoon…with all that driving.” Or a helicopter who is a broad offensive Native American stereotype who speaks in a pantomime of Native sayings.

Why this simple little kids’ movie insists on playing around in its most distracting, baffling corners while poking along at a pace that makes sure we have plenty of time to ponder its nonsense is beyond me. It’s not even close to even the worst of either Cars, but at least it’s an improvement over its immediate predecessor. Fire & Rescue is totally watchable, with better animation, design, characters, and story, and with fewer lame jokes. It’s not so bad, pleasant enough, but fundamentally preposterous.

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