For whatever reason, I cannot effectively connect to a motorized vehicle as a sentient character. Planes, Cars, Transformers, Herbie, KITT, Jerry Van Dyke’s mother. Maybe it’s because I never learned to drive. More plausible theory: Every big or small screen attempt to allot sentience to a motorized vehicle has been grievously underwhelming. Okay, I’ll give you Knight Rider. But the latest example of the endeavor, Planes: Fire & Rescue, is no Knight Rider. It’s barely even a Cars. The feature from DisneyToon Studios is as hollow as you can imagine a 3D animated movie to be. And this degree of vacancy feels like more than just a waste of time for the targeted youth.
Dane Cook’s celebrity racing plane Dusty Crophopper, a leading man completely without hue — and don’t think children’s movie heroes are exempt from the expectation of nuance; Woody, Wall-E, Remy, were all leagues more recognizable than the anonymous Dusty — busts one of his principal cogs and learns that he can’t exceed a certain speed or else he’ll crash. In other words he’ll never race again. So with an existential crisis on the horizon, and a town in jeopardy, Dusty switches gears and decides to learn how to become a firefighter.
In large part, Planes: Fire & Rescue is a love letter to public servants, opening with a title card that dedicates the film to the brave men and women who work to keep our towns and cities safe. In this element alone is the film passable, propagating appreciation for a line of work that bears unquestionable merit. But the story surrounding this message is so tattered and lifeless that it’d be surprising if any of Planes’ target youths access the throughline moral.
Dusty’s personal journey jumps from one quasi-conflict to the next, each piece representing a fraction of a story that we’ve seen in other animated films, so that you’re never given the opportunity to connect with him over any of his qualms. His shattered dreams of racing, his newly evident mortality, his struggle to find new purpose, his quest for self-betterment, his drive to help others. All are teased, none are explored.
And the characters surrounding Dusty are even worse, the lot composed of sexist and racial stereotypes that are far more uninteresting than they are genuinely offensive. Every secondary player is a one-off joke, and not a good one; the only laughs in the flick come from the occasional play on words, but even for a pun-junkie will that tread wear thin.
With characters this shallow and plotlines this scattered, your kids cannot possibly engage with a movie like Planes: Fire & Rescue. They’ll relegated to staring at it, retrieving little more than bright colors, speedy scenes, goofy voices, and the obscenely frequent flatulence joke. This is clearly all Planes thinks that kids can handle, but that’s an egregious affront to a demographic that fueled the works of classic Disney, golden age Pixar, and Hayao Miyazaki. I think they can manage a few well-crafted airplanes.