When last seen, Dusty Crophopper was flying high. Literally. He had just won the world’s biggest air race, the Wings Around the Globe Rally. That was in “Planes” (2013).
Now he’s back, getting ready to race again. But wait: Dusty’s gearbox goes kerflooey — and it’s impossible to get a replacement. His racing days would appear to be over. He can still fly, but past a certain speed — when engine torque goes over 50 — watch out!
Dusty, being headstrong (cockpitstrong?), takes this news poorly, which leads to a bit of damage occurring at Propwash Junction, the air strip where he lives. The old rescue vehicle there, Mayday, is really old — so much so that when the authorities come by to check out the damage they announce that the strip will be shut down unless there’s a second vehicle with rescue certification. Since Dusty caused the trouble — and he’s a good, decent plane, even if cockpitstrong — he volunteers to get trained by the fire-and-rescue team at Piston Peak.
That’s the setup for “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” the sequel to “Planes.” The setting up goes on a mite long. Exposition, even with propellers, is still exposition. Dusty (again voiced by Dane Cook) has his old Propwash pals around: Skipper (Stacy Keach), Chug (Brad Garrett), Dottie (Teri Hatcher). The new addition is Mayday (Hal Holbrook — who turns 90 in February, God bless him). Also, there’s a new director. Bobs Gannaway replaces Klay Hall.
Things perk up a bit at Piston Peak, which is located in a national park that’s a cross between Yellowstone and Yosemite. The park’s Grand Fusel Lodge (like fuselage, get it?) is a rather glorious cross between an aircraft hangar and Yosemite’s Ahwanee Hotel. Make your bookings before air fares go up.
Ed Harris, who voices Blade Ranger, the no-nonsense helicopter who heads the fire-and-rescue operation, doesn’t lay it on too strong. Julie Bowen, as Lil’ Dipper, an air tanker, does. She has quite the crush on Dusty. The most amusing vocal cameo comes courtesy of Erik Estrada. The onetime star of “CHiPs” gives voice to the costar of another TV series, “CHoPs.” As to what that series has to do with Piston Peak, well, all will be revealed in due time.
What ensues is pretty predictable. Does Dusty need to learn a lesson or two? Yes. Does he eventually save the day? Well, you can figure that out. The humor is intermittent. A highlight comes when a character says to Dusty, “You’re upwardly mobile? [Pause.] Of course you are. You’re a plane!”
“Planes: Fire & Rescue,” like “Planes,” was made by DisneyToon Studios. It’s Disney animation’s third string, behind Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, makers of “Frozen.” Most DisneyToons releases are direct-to-video. That lowly status shows here in the pokey storytelling, dreadful score, and generally tired comedy. Where it doesn’t show is in the aerial sequences. They’re visually stunning — not Pixar-stunning, of course (what is?), but a sign of how high the bar has gotten for animation. There’s been a glut of features for some time now. The saddest consequence of all that quantity is its obscuring — or at least letting us take for granted — the surprising quality of so much of the animation in these movies. The true test of any artistic genre or style or period isn’t the masterpieces it produces — or the fiascoes — it’s the mediocrities. Seen by that measure — call it the “Planes” standard — animation is flying high.