Review: ‘Planes: Fire and Rescue’ features amazing fires but no heat at all

What started as a joke when discussing the world originally created in the first “Cars” movie has now turned into a genuinely maddening question that consumes me during each new film that is tied into this world, first from Pixar, now from DisneyToons: where are the people?

It is a simple matter of internal logic, and without it, I feel like these films are weird in a way that can't be dismissed with a mere “it's a cartoon” line of defense. I tried raising the question with John Lasseter at the “Cars 2” press day, and he wasn't having any, but I think it's incredibly valid, especially with the bizarre design choices they make on these films.

True, the “Planes” movies are being made by totally different people than worked on “Cars,” and they sort of inherited the premise so they can't be held fully responsible for it, but these films continue to make such weird choices that I can't help but think about them, particularly since there's nothing else for me to really hold onto as the films play.

In the first “Planes,” Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) wanted to be a racing plane, and he managed to transcend his own construction and original purpose through sheer force of will. This time, Dusty begins the film already a champion racer, only to learn that he's got a construction defect on an out-of-production part that, left untreated, will eventually lead him to crash. Forced to drop out of the racing circuit, Dusty eventually lands on a new ambition: he's going to become a fire-fighter, and he's sent to train with the hard-nosed Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) in a “Cars”-world version of Yellowstone National Park.

I sat through most of this one kind of fascinated by just how mechanical the film is. The technical end of things is, as one would expect, top-notch, and watching the flying sequences, I'm impressed by how much they've learned from actual aviation footage. There is a sense of gravity that is very impressive. Likewise, the way they handle the fires is really stunning, and it shows just how far we've come in terms of what computers can or can't handle in animation.

But these self-actualization stories, while certainly well-intentioned, get exhausting after a while, and it also starts to make storytelling for kids feel like it's all wrapped in this language of affirmation, and it smothers the simple joy of creating good characters we want to spend time with. None of the planes here are actual characters. It's a catalog of types. Here's the wise-ass mechanic! Here's the tough mentor! Here's the officious prick of a park administrator! And they all do exactly what they're supposed to do according to the model, but that means no one does anything surprising or interesting or even the slightest bit alive.

One of the film's main drawbacks, particularly when you're dealing with something that has a plot this linear and single-minded, is that the film flies by. At least four times after it ended last night, my oldest son commented on how short it was. “That was, like, ten minutes long!” he kept saying, exasperated. I think the reason it feels that way is because the entire film takes the path of least resistance. Dusty's “dilemma” is so easily resolved that I'm not sure it even qualifies as a dilemma, and no one else in the film seems to have any wants or needs or character quirks, so when things wrap up, it's done so neatly and directly that there's no consequence to anything.

Whenever they talk about fuel and oil in the films, I find it very confusing and strange. After all, this is a world where they know what wasabi is, as we saw in “Cars 2,” but where they also depend on fuel for airplanes. We know how fossil fuel is made, so what are we supposed to assume? Some sort of organic life must have existed at some point in this world's past. Could this be a post-Singularity view of the world? And if so, why would any being want to take the shape of a vehicle designed to carry beings who no longer exist? What kind of lunacy is that?

I know I'm overthinking it, but that's because it feels like everyone involved refused to actually take the premise seriously. These films are just collections of awful automotive related puns and the same tired story about “finding yourself” that it feels like every single kid's film is driven by today. At this point, I feel like it's time for me to tap out. I can't take “Cars 3” or “Planes 3” or “Boats” or “Motorcycles” or any other variation on this idea. If they finally decide to do a film that answers the question of just what happened to all the people, someone let me know so I can tune back in. Until then, though, I'm done. This series is grounded.

“Planes: FIre and Rescue” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.