The visuals are stunning, the details are witty, the 3D effects are splendid, the songs are lively, the voice actors are top-notch, but the storyline feels like an episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” That’s when it was still analog and old-school and before it went to animation, but still — especially as the gender politics of this film are uncomfortably old-school as well.
Last year’s Planes added another mode of transportation to the charmingly retro world of Cars. A plucky crop-duster named Dusty (Dane Cook) learned to race and became a champion. As this movie begins, he is an international superstar. But his vintage gearbox has been worn down by the races, and no replacement is available. Dusty is going to have to find something that is as meaningful to him as racing.
When he accidentally starts a fire at Piston Peak National Park, Dusty sees that old Mayday (Hal Holbrook), the fire and rescue truck is not quite up to the task. More important, he is not up to code. The stern Transportation Management Safety Team inspector informs them that they need more capacity if they are going to stay in business. That means some upgrades for Mayday and it also means a second firefighter. Dusty feels responsible. And if he cannot race, he has to find something new to do, to help make up for his mistake. So he agrees to take the training to become a certified fire fighter.
Dusty is welcomed by the team, including the flirtatious Lil Dipper (“Modern Family’s” Julie Bowen), the heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter (Wes Studi), ex-military transport Cabbie (Captain Dale Dye) and The Smokejumpers, a brave collection of all-terrain vehicles who leap out of the planes and parachute down to the fire. But he stern Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who is in charge of the training facility, is not at all sure Dusty is up to the task.
The action sequences are very well staged and the effects, especially the water and sky images, are truly astonishing. The usual pun-studded, meta humor for the series shows up throughout, from the show business trade news magazine titled “Cariety” to a female vehicle dismissing a lame come-on with a cool, “Pick-up trucks!” The choicest surprise is a videotape with a car-ified version of a classic television series, with that very recognizable series star contributing a character voice. Of course the television show appeared in the late 70’s-early 80’s, so it is likely to be over the heads of today’s children and their parents, too.
The real villain here is the fire, of course, but there is also a comic villain, a pompous administrator voiced by John Michael Higgins. But the movie never works up much interest in him or his schemes, and the post-credits stinger barely stings.
More troubling is the poor treatment of the female characters, despite being called out for that same problem in the first one. At least in the original, the female characters were capable and independent. Poor Bowen is relegated here to a role that recalls the man-chasing stereotypes of television in the 1960’s, often played by Rose Marie or Ann B. Davis. She is constantly trying to tell Dusty that they are on a date and, when he politely says they will be going as a group, dementedly agrees that it is a good thing for her to meet his friends until he reminds her that the firefighting team members are her friends. And a major plot twist occurs when the previously ultra-capable mechanic voiced by Teri Hatcher is casually outdone by a male character. It’s completely unnecessary, it subverts the primary premise of the storyline, and it demeans the female mechanic for no reason. It isn’t Dusty who’s got filings in his gearbox. It’s the script.
Parents should know that this film includes peril, including fire, collapsing bridge, rapids, engine failure, action and some violence (no one irreparably hurt, but a reference to a sad death), and some bathroom humor.
Family discussion: Who in this movie has to decide how to handle it when their plans do not work out? How do you think about your own back-up plans? What does “better than new” mean?
If you like this, try: “Cars” and “Planes”