Dusty delivers! He dives, he swoops, he scoops, soaring into our hearts again! 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' may be the epitome of the Disney themes of "friendship first" and "lend a helping hand", not to mention second chances, as aerial racing legend Dusty Crophopper takes his place in history as a SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) joining the other brave members of the Piston Peak Air Attack Team in their battle of wildfires in the Southwest/West United States. With returning old friends and new alike, 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' dazzles with technical achievement for animation effects with raging wildfires in one of our country’s beauteous national parks, employing stunning aerial design of not only Dusty but newcomers Blade Ranger, L’il Dipper and Windlifter, while creating memorable anthropomorphic characters that elevate the levels of sincerity and emotion. 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' sizzles with eye-popping delights!
As we are reminded by writer/director Bobs Gannaway, “Dusty pushed his engine really hard in the first film [“Planes”]. . . He would have damaged his plane doing that. The gear box would have been really stressed. So we came up with the idea of the ‘injured athlete’ story with the question being, ‘If you can no longer do what you love, the passion you’ve pursued your whole life, how do you deal with that, how do you find another passion worth living for?’”
With that idea in mind, we meet up with Dusty in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' by way of an aerial montage of his winning performances over the past year. Beloved the world over, but particularly in Propwash Junction, Dusty is prepping for the annual Corn Fest when his gear box burns out. Dottie can fix the box, but only enough so that Dusty can fly, not race. He just won’t have the torque he needs. Not believing Dottie, Dusty heads out at night to practice only to have the gear box fail, causing him to make a less than stellar emergency landing on the Propwash airfield, starting a massive fire. Due to old antiquated equipment, poor Mayday, a 1943 Fordson Tender, isn’t able to put out the fire, calling into question the licensing of the airfield and jeopardizing the Corn Fest - and Propwash Junction. But there may be a solution. If Propwash can find another vehicle or plane certified to fight fire, the airfield can stay open and the Corn Fest proceed, bringing in needed revenue to get Mayday over-hauled. But where to find another fire-fighter.
At Mayday’s urging, with his racing days over, Dusty heads off to Piston Peak to be trained in aerial firefighting by the legendary Blade Ranger and his air attack team; Smokejumpers ground team led by Dynamite and air team led by Blade Ranger with Windlifter and L’il Dipper by his side. Inevitably, a lightning strike wildfire breaks out threatening the Grand Fusel Lodge and all its guests during a grand re-opening celebration. As everyone’s lives are threatened and escape routes cut off, Dusty knows he can help save the day - but only if he pushes his torque past the safe limit.
Voicing is again perfect and none moreso than Hal Holbrook as Mayday. A poignancy that brings a tear to your eye, knowing this is Holbrook, whose own life in many respects mirrors that of Mayday over the past 60 years, adds unspoken depth, embracing the wisdom of the years, the experience of life and the knowing mortality we all will face. Heart-wrenching beauty.
Ed Harris is piston perfect as Blade Ranger. His voice is unbending, his position and command unequivocal. Harris exudes a confidence and control that is "grounding" to his fleet of firefighters. During press for another Harris vehicle now in theatres, “Snowpiercer”, I spoke to him about voicing Blade Ranger and he quickly admitted, “I loved it! I love the character and being in command. . .the process was different.” (And folks, the real scoop is that he loves having a Blade Ranger action figure!)
Returning Dane Cook is a joy and infuses Dusty with some new vocal intonations adding a more serious "grown up" tone as the character arcs. Interesting is that 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' was four years in the making and Cook was still voicing Dusty in “Planes” but preparing for the changes that were coming for Dusty, most notably the addition of pontoons for landing in water and scooping. “They did tell me that Dusty’s gonna go through both an emotional and a physical change. I don’t know if I’m in the only person who felt this, but that kind of got me jazzed up because so many times, I think, in animation, it’s like ‘No, we’ve gotta keep the look of the character.’ In this, Dusty gets to change his color and he’s got the fire engine color towards the end. I like that they allow him to not only evolve emotionally, but even physically. For me, I think that’s kind of wild.” Admittedly for Cook, the change in Dusty’s physical appearance informed Cook’s vocal performance. “The first movie is lovely, it’s charming, it’s very sweet and there was a certain kind of naivete with Dusty. He was kind of like ‘aw shucks’ about certain things when he’d be dreaming about the future. . .It was always about ‘What if!’. I just wanted him to have that wonder in his voice. . . Because he accomplishes his personal goal, at the beginning of this film, he’s got self-assurance, he feels confident, so I can start the character in a completely different way. I was approaching, in many ways, a new character. Some certain things harken back to what we know of Dusty but the character is definitely evolved and he’s grown up a little bit. It definitely changed the way I looked at him in the booth.”
Bringing a real depth and historical context to 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' is Wes Studi who not only voices Windlifter, put had some input into authentic Native American lore which Studi has known since a small child as part of the Cherokee tribe. Studi gives Windlifter a mystical note of nature.
And can we talk about Julie Bowen as Dipper?? Was any of her dialogue scripted? So organic, free, funny and over the top delicious! Effervescence personified as Dusty’s “greatest fan”, Bowen gushes like an obsessed Kathy Bates in “Misery”, but then plays on Dipper’s one-sided romantic boyfriend-girlfriend notions to hilarious result.
Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett are all spot on with the characters and personas we know and love as Dottie, Skipper and Chug, respectively. New to the 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' family is Regina King who is exuberant ebullience as Smokejumper Dynamite. Talk about high energy! She perfectly nails the voice with the character. A loving touch is Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller who voice old RVs Winnie and Harvey, who are returning to Piston Peak and the Grand Fusel Lodge 50 years after spending their honeymoon there. A rarity in voicing, real life husband and wife Stiller and Meara did their voicing in the sound booth together, so when we hear Winnie tell Harvey she loves him, you get the picture of Meara saying it to Stiller, just fueling the tear ducts. Exceptional is Fred Willard's Secretary of the Interior as Willard steps out of the box from his usual silliness and gives a forthright respectable and concerned voice to the Secretary. And of course, how do you animated WDS or Pixar without John Ratzenberger. You don’t!
Co-written by Bobs Gannaway and Jeffrey M. Howard, the duo were able to call on the aeronautic technical knowledge and aviation research initiated by “Planes” director Klay Hall, giving Gannaway and Howard a jumping off point to take Dusty and company into a new world of experiences. The first thing that Gannaway discovered was that cropdusters have a history of being part of the aerial firefighting compliment. “It’s a SEAT. A Single Engine Air Tanker. It’s the smallest plane in the wildfire air attack fleet. And I discovered that the very first aerial firefighters were a group of cropdusters in Mendocino, California in 1955; some reworked cropdusters went out and dropped water. It was Dusty’s heritage. That led us into the world of wildfire air attack and that’s where we went off an started to go meet the firefighters which led us to Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base in Southern California.” With the idea of a wildfire air attack, important to Gannaway was that this didn’t become a “whodunit” movie. “I wanted a lightning based fire. I looked at the fires of Yellowstone in 1988, big huge fires there affected the Old Faithful Inn. That’s what led us into the arena of national parks. So we had this national park arena and the wonderful brave, selfless, courageous world of firefighters.” Digging into history, it also came to light that “air attack bases are mostly made up of second hand buildings, the old Quonset huts from WWII, the planes - almost every airplane used in wildfire air attack is a former military plane or former civilian aircraft all on their second life.” Put it all together and the thematic elements of 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' took shape. “[F]ire itself is about burning away things and rebirth. The theme of second chances started to thread itself through and the movie started to organically some together on its own. We became the curators of all the great information that we were able to get from over 100 consultants.” And, of course, where there is fire, there are the heroic firefighters in the air and on the ground.
As for the story itself, straight-forward with all the hallmarks of a Disney family movie, brimming with sincerity and an "aw gee" Beaver Cleaver or Mayberry simplicity of days gone by, a time that the rush of today has forgotten or that kids have never known. A welcome addition to the family film spectrum! Unfortunately, this go-round, many of the tongue-in-cheek jokes, puns and play on words - particularly of the "supporting" players - don’t work as well as in “Planes”. It feels as if the script is "forcing" the puns in a film that is so rooted in the ambience of nature and organic elements, so that much of the dialogue becomes almost intrusive and out of place; lacking its own organic sense. Every sidekick line doesn't have to be a joke or try to be. But in terms of relationships and the authenticity of our forestry system, forest firefighters and the history of aeronautics and Native Americans - right on point. The incorporation of the Indian lore into the script is beautiful, soft, and almost wistful around the campfire.
Even moreso than with 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' is that it’s all about the detail, and honoring our history and out heroes. Character story elements are essentially crafted and designed the same in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' as in “Planes”, i.e., Skipper-Dusty and now Blade Ranger-Dusty, elder statesmen who don't talk about prior "wars" but finally open up to help the next generation and themselves; the entertaining spoof on known tv/film characters translated into jets, and now choppers with stunt voice casting that is divine (Erik Estrada had me in stitches as Loop'n Lopez); Dusty crashing into the ocean in “Planes”, crashing into the river in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' (Dusty sure gets his engine full of water whenever he can, doesn't he! Like a kid at the ocean who keeps getting knocked down into the waves.); and the requisite best buddies, friendship and, of course, love interest - in “Planes” it was Ishani and Dusty, here we Dipper and Dusty.
Visually embracing the forestry service, giving a huge shout out to our National Parks and the lore of Native Americans, intriguing is the animation and visual design of Piston Peaks National Park - every distant mountain is the silhouette of a planes fuselage, rock face are hubs, rotors, props, gears. No nut or bolt is left unturned with the piston themed design that also immediately tells you what iconic location within the US Park system we are seeing. Grand Fusel Lodge is a kick in the bumper with a complete homage to transportation of all ages - from covered wagon to steam age to cars, props, jets.
As memorable and astounding as the forest fire scene in Disney's “Bambi”, what we now see and experience in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' is enough to rock your very sensory foundation - especially in a nighttime flight though a funnel of black smoke, ember, wind, flame. Can the Academy just give a special Oscar for one animated sequence? If so, this would be it. The "slo-mo" muffled sound of props and rotors moving in this cone of silence that mutes all but for the thundering silence, the slo-mo muffle of Windlifter's blades and the intermittent crackle of fire - all of this has a sound like nothing else. Brilliant! Sound design is stupendous. And the visual design with the texture of black and greys of the smoke is terrifying. Plunging into the immediate pitch darkness gives the audience a "Hail Mary" moment of what firefighters - and particularly forest firefighters - experience when breaching into a firestorm. Heartstopping palpable emotion. Then add a dangerous rescue attempt by Dusty with the most dazzling aerial moves we’ve seen to date and Gannaway and team take your breath away. Film Flight Supervisor Jason McKinley really is the best of the best with this. And how about those flame retardant drops? Each little droplet that even HD news choppers can't deliver to home viewers when covering real fires!
As Klay Hall did with “planes”, Gannaway does with 'Planes: Fire & Rescue', incorporating the authentic sounds of various engine motors, be they planes or ground vehicles. The distinctive sounds of motors, rotors and props is such a welcoming layer to the mix. And again, adding in new types of planes and vehicles, giving us an education at the same time - and celebrating history - is beyond applause worthy.
Notable is Mark Mancina's score which takes a completely different tact in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' than with what he brought to “Planes”. This go round he delivers a much more symphonic and orchestral score with sweeping passages. A rich complement to the orchestration itself is the increased use of woodwinds. Simply beautiful, adding a tonal level of respect and honor with that "stand up straight, shoulders back" essence.
Come fly with Dusty on an action-packed, fun-filled flight filled with adventure for the for the whole family in 'Planes: Fire & Rescue'.
Directed by Bobs Gannaway
Written by Bobs Gannaway and Jeffrey M. Howard
Voice Cast: Dane Cook, Julie Bowen, Wes Studi, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Teri Hatcher, Brad Garrett, Stacey Keach, Curtis Armstrong, Regina King