I am decidedly not in the business of reviewing children’s movies. In fact, I’m almost certain I’ve never done a kid’s film review over nearly two decades of writing for the Indy. Because really, what’s the point? Sure, there are some children’s films that are thoroughly enjoyable for parents (Up, Wall-E, The Princess Bride come to mind), but for the most part kids covet pretty much anything you put in front of them because it’s fun to go to a movie and, well, they’re kids and they have stunted critical capabilities (outside of siblings and vegetables).
But along comes Planes: Fire and Rescue, the new animated feature from DisneyToon Studios, and all of a sudden we’ve got something to talk about. Finally, some people in cartoonland noticed that life isn’t all about imaginary aliens, superheroes and toys, and shifted their creative chops to a real-life monster that terrorizes us Westerners seemingly every year: wildland fires. The studio’s commitment to getting the story right is reflected in the fact that they consulted none other than Missoula’s own Neptune Aviation for sound effects for one of the secondary characters in the film.
The sequel to last summer’s Planes (itself a spinoff of the wildly successful Pixar movie Cars), Fire and Rescue is set in a fictional Western landscape during the height of fire season. Fans of the first film will be saddened to hear that Dusty Crophopper, the swashbuckling cropduster-turned-racing-hero, has become crippled by a faulty (and somehow inoperable) gearbox and can no longer outfly planes much bigger and faster than he. But those fans (especially those who live west of the Mississippi) will be heartened to learn that Dusty has now set his modified sights on becoming an aerial firefighter.
Director Roberts Gannaway and writer Jeffrey M. Howard have some fun by reimagining a Western landscape consisting seemingly of nothing but national parks, modified for anthropomorphic vehicles. The toon version of Redwood Park features an old-growth tree with two holes in it, one for ground vehicles to pass through and an elevated one for planes. Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, Yosemite Falls and Mount Rushmore all get nods as well, and the film’s main park, Piston Peak, is named for an Arches-esque stone pillar shaped like, yup, an engine piston.
These toon parks are as tree-huggy as actual national parks, which means there’s plenty of fuel for burning once some young whippersnappers start fooling around with spark plugs (the fire’s origin is not actually revealed, but one can presume). Once the conflagration begins, it’s time for Dusty and his new friends to fly into action, and the lessons for kiddie viewers commence. Lessons like it’s never okay to disobey an order from your superior, unless you happen to daringly save the lives of a ground crew. (Smokejumpers in the film are portrayed by miniature front-end loaders and bulldozers with super-cool appendages like saw blades, etc., confirming what actual smokejumpers already know—they’re frickin’ machines!) And that it’s okay to have a broken gearbox as long as you have a huge heart and stone balls. And that you should never trust a Cadillac, especially if he’s the superintendent of a national park.
Yes, the learning moments abound in Planes: Fire and Rescue, and kids all over the world will soon realize just how rewarding and glamorous it is to fight fires in the stunning American West—which is great, because lord knows we could use all the help we can get. Just remember this lesson, when those fresh faces start showing up in a few years: You should never judge a cropduster by its gearbox.
Planes: Fire and Rescue continues at the Carmike 12.