Despite being originally planned as a direct-to-DVD release, the 2013 animated offering "Planes" offered some high-flying fun. That was because it drew on a common theme of Disney movies: A young dreamer longs for a bigger life.
The sequel, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" takes that theme higher to look at what happens once a person achieves the dream but may lose everything. That's what Dusty, a crop-dusting plane (voiced by Dane Cook) who becomes a racing ace, has to face in his latest adventures.
The combination of his epic struggle, some dazzling visual effects and a fun bunch of characters makes "Planes: Fire & Rescue" the best family film of the summer.
Dusty has become the biggest star in the racing world. But he's pushed himself too fast, too far. A serious mechanical problem means Dusty can no longer reach racing speeds. When his angst over a dark future causes a major accident, Dusty volunteers to become a fire-fighting plane.
His training brings him in contact with a group of characters that are as fun as his original buddies. Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) is the no-nonsense former star of an action TV show who now directs the fire-fighting operations. Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen) has a severe crush on Dusty while Windlifter (Wes Studi) dishes out deep words of wisdom.
All of these characters create the same holding pattern of fun as the cast in the first film. What lifts this film higher are all of the other elements.
The original "Planes" had a repetitive flight plan as Dusty raced around the globe. The series of stops and starts never allowed for much tension to build. "Fire & Rescue" has a full cargo of dramatic elements, from Dusty's career changing problems to a massive final battle with a wildfire. The script by Jeffrey M. Howard cleverly mixes the serious moments with humor that works for kids and adults.
It's a smart script that features former "CHiPs" star Erik Estrada providing the voice of a hot-shot action TV show star. It also has two female vehicles dismiss the advances of a truck in a bar because he's a "pickup." The selection of music — including AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" — is just as clever as the writing.
The only thing that tops the writing are the visual effects. Certain elements — smoke, fire, water — can be difficult to generate in computer animation. Director Roberts Gannaway didn't shy away from any of the elements and the result is a sizzling spectacle. The fire in the finale is so intense, you can almost feel the heat.
It may be the simple fact that the sequel was always intended for the big screen and not a last-minute bump from a direct-to-DVD release, but every element of "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is much stronger than in the first film. Considering it took off from an entertaining place, this is one sequel that flies rings around the original offering.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue," rated PG for scary scenes. Stars Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Wes Studi, Curtis Armstrong. Directed by Roberts Gannaway. Running time: 84 minutes. Grade: A-