There's no intellectual merit in expecting a sequel to Planes to be anything other than a sequel to Planes. So can any of us be "disappointed" by Planes: Fire & Rescue? On the contrary, it's a bit of a pleasant surprise: it's probably a little bit better than Planes, with a far more engaging third act and prettier scenery throughout. It also jettisons the first film's ensemble full of ethnic stereotypes for just one cringe-inducing parody of sexually active women, which may or may not be "progress" as such, but at least it cuts down on the number of individual characters I wanted to watch plunge into a vat of acid.

Intuiting, undoubtedly correctly, that its audience consists only of children who enjoyed the first film and very little children who didn't see the first one but only really care about color, movement, and peppy voice acting, Fire & Rescue spends very little time mucking around with a recap, only throwing in a brief montage at the very start to remind us how Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a sentient plane, went from crop dusting in middle America to winning all kinds of races and becoming quite the celebrity. As Fire & Rescue opens, though, we see that his new lifestyle has taken quite a toll on Dusty's insides: his gearbox has begun grinding itself into a pulp due to all the stress he's putting on it, and he's told by Dottie (Teri Hatcher), the forklift doctor in Dusty's hometown of Propwash Junction (that is, she is a doctor who is a forklift, not a doctor who specialises in forklifts), that if he doesn't slow down, he'll die. The word "die" is never stated, it's a kid's movie. It's just unambiguously and heavily implied multiple times across the film's 83 minutes.

It's tangential to the actual film, at best, but I'll never live with myself if I don't go on a little rant about the internal reality of the Cars/Planes universe. Ever since the very first Cars, the rules haven't made much sense: it's a world exactly like our own, only without any life from the animal kingdom. But buildings and agriculture and, well, cars and planes still exist, even though cars and planes have no immediately obvious need for many of the things we see them with in these films. But after enough exposure, that recedes into the background. But now along comes Fire & Rescue, and it's just taunting us with the sheer unacceptability of the films' world, pushing the camera right inside Dusty's mechancal core and defying us to pretend that these are living beings, even living beings who need gasoline and oil to function. These are planes, and by hinging its entire narrative on that one fact, Fire & Rescue insists that we deal with how much the world of the film could not possibly function given all we have ever seen of it. These are planes - these are actual, constructed vehicles for passengers who never were or will be. They have nor brains nor souls, just engines, internal combustion engines like the ones on the street outside, right now, as you're reading. Anyway, maybe "kids don't care!" as irritating parents who feel bent on defending these things will occasionally say, and setting aside whether the fact that kids don't care is germane to a goddamn thing - kids also don't care if they only ever eat chocolate bars, morning, noon, and night, but we don't tend to act like it's their privilege to do so - I have to wonder if kids don't care. Maybe the kids of the 2010s really don't. Maybe they devour this kind of blunt commercial nonsense. All I know is that when I was six years old, if I saw this movie, when the camera suddenly plunges right into Dusty, I would have flipped my fucking shit.

Anyway, for reasons that aren't worth belaboring, Dusty needs to pitch in to serve as adjunct firefighter in Propwash Junction, now that he's retired from racing, and this requires him to head off to receive on-the-job training at a National Park that mostly resembles Yellowstone with a healthy dose of Yosemite thrown in (the hotel that figures prominently in the story is, at any rate, a dead ringer for Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, inside and out). This doesn't make sense, but it does permit the filmmakers to create some genuinely gorgeous pine forests for their plane characters to zoom around, and that alone is enough to make Fire & Rescue the superior Planes film. Certainly the plot, in which Dusty learns the ropes from cranky helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who has a mysterious past, doesn't do that; it's trading one pack of clichΓ©s for another, and overtly ripping off Cars instead of overtly ripping off Cars 2. Which I suppose is also a trade-off, though not a very honorable one.

So the plot focuses on a punch of planes putting out fires, along with some weirdly out-of-place material about facilities restoration in the National Park Service, and Dusty keeps having to dodge the horribly pushy advances of Dipper (Julie Bowen), the film's most prominent female character, who exists solely to be everything wrong with gender representation in contemporary North American pop culture. Oh, and there's a helicopter named Windlifter voiced by Wes Studi, an archaic stereotype of the wise old Native American mystic, so I miscounted when I said there was only one character who made me want to eat all my own skin off. I might be vaguely willing to forgive the filmmakers if I though there was some torturous riff on Apache helicopters going on, but I think that's far more clever than anybody was trying to be.

Between all the bad characters and the hopelessly generic "do the right thing" lesson-mongering (it is, at least, not another "be yourself" piece like virtually every other animated movie of the last generation, so I have to thank it for that), the story of Fire & Rescue is nothing of the remotest interest for anybody old enough to make the decision to see it, but it does come alive in the last third, when a massive forest fire breaks out and Dusty has to prove himself by etc. and etc. and etc. It's kind of fun to watch individual piece of foreshadowing click into place, and predict the exact shape of the finale one beat at a time, but in all honesty, it does work at the level of G-rated action spectacle. Though I see that in the United States, the film got a PG rating, so scratch that. The point being, the fire lighting is beautiful, the sweep and scale of the action are impressive, and the sense of drama is higher than anything else in the film has even implied might be a possibility. That getting there requires the film to jettison everything about its characters and render them as small figures in the face of a widescreen hellstorm of flame and smoke pretty much says everything about Fire & Rescue's liabilities as a piece of storytelling, but I'm willing to concede that it does, in the end, manage to push itself over the hump as raw entertainment.