Planes: Fire & Rescue is roughly twice as good as its predecessor, Planes, which was so story-and-laugh starved it would have given "direct-to-video" a bad name. Yes, there was nowhere to go but up.
The sequel's story is about something — Dusty the racing plane learns to be a S.E.A.T., a single engine air tanker, a firefighting plane. For very young children, it offers animated suspense, and lovely and exciting animated aerial footage of planes and helicopters fighting forest fires in the American West.
The characters are, to a one, stiffs. But bringing in Ed Harris (as a no- nonsense trainer helicopter), Hal Holbrook (voicing an ancient fire truck) and Wes Studi (a Native American Sikorsky Skycrane chopper) classes things up.
And adults will catch the increased supply of one-liners, which will zoom right over the heads of kids, especially in the scene set in a planes and cars honky tonk.
"She left me for a hybrid," a pick-up moans to the bartender. "I didn't even hear 'em coming!"
The story, such as it is, has Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) discover that his antique gearbox has nearly given out, so he can't race anymore. When, in his grief, he causes a fire at the Propwash Junction Airfield, he realizes at least he can train to be a firefighter and help aging fire truck Mayday (Holbrook) keep the field from closing. Dusty flies off to Piston Peak to train with the team suppressing fires in a national park.
Harris voices the hard-case captain of the team, Blade Ranger, a chopper. Julie Bowen is a cute, flirtatious float plane; Studi milks a few funny lines as the inscrutable Native American heavy-lift Sikorsky, and so on.
There's more of a Thomas the Tank Engine feel to this sequel, with planes and fire trucks and bulldozers doing the righteous work of dousing pretty convincing animated blazes.
The conflict comes from the ambitious park superintendent (John Michael Higgins), the profanity is all motor related ("Oh, Chevy." "SHUT the Hangar Door!") and the pickup lines in the aforementioned honky tonk are real zingers: "Did you fall out of a B-17? Cuz you're the bomb."
Disney put more of a Pixar imprint on this than the first Planes, with familiar voices such as John Ratzenberger, Fred Willard and Patrick Warburton fleshing out the cast.
A couple of flight sequences take us over majestic deserts and amber waves of grain — beautiful animated scenery. Other than that, there's not much to this. But then, you get the impression from all the Cars and Planes movies that the box office and video rentals are not why Disney made them. Come Christmas season, that much will be obvious.