"Planes: Fire & Rescue" is roughly twice as good as its predecessor, "Planes," which was so story-and-laugh starved it would have given even the much-maligned "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 Aerial 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 (an American Indian Sikorsky Sky Crane 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 pickup truck 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 terrible fire at the Propwash Junction Airfield, he realizes that 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.
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.
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.
PLOT Dusty becomes a firefighting plane.
RATING PG (action and some peril)
CAST Voices of Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Julie Bowen, Teri Hatcher
BOTTOM LINE Enjoyable -- for the very young only.