“She left me for a hybrid. I didn’t even hear him coming.”

I wasn’t expecting to like Planes: Fire & Rescue…at all. I went in not having seen Planes. I thought I would be lost in terms of story, would find the characters too grating, and the many nods to Cars irritating, to put it mildly.

Imagine my surprise when it turns out this is an extremely likable movie.

To begin the story has actual stakes, instead of a through-line you can see through a mile away. Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook, Dan in Real Life) is a world-famous racer. But when a routine run goes awry he’s dismayed to discover his gear box is all but kerplooey. One more run in the redline and his engine will fry. While normally not a problem Dusty’s gear box is a factory-discontinued part, meaning goodbye racing. Bereft over his new limitations Dusty goes for an ill-advised flight which ends in an accident. Not one which means the end of his flying days but rather the end of the Propwash Junction Airport. Dusty’s crash landing causes a fire and the resulting damage brings to light the airfield’s shortcomings in the safety department. It’s made clear the airfield cannot reopen unless resident fire truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook, The Fog) gets an upgrade…and a new firefighter. There isn’t a lot of time to fix things, either. The town’s largest festival, Corn Festival, is rapidly approaching and the town’s economy rests on a successful fest.

Dusty steps up and volunteers to get certified as a firefighter which means a trip to Piston Peak National Park and a new mentor…Blade Ranger (Ed Harris, The Abyss). But while Dusty is training to help out back at home his friends in Propwash are scouring the nation for a replacement gear box. Thus, it seems a choice will be forthcoming later on — will Dusty choose to continue firefighting or will he go back to racing once the replacement is found? The ending may not be a huge surprise but it does feature one of my favorite screenwriting adages: if your main character loses something along the way then whatever they achieve at the end feels far more satisfying to viewers. And that’s definitely the case here, as Dusty willingly endangers himself with no expectation of anything but a fiery death at the end for his trouble.

There are loads of things which work on different levels at once. Disney is great at including things which wink at adults but work on a surface level for kids. My favorite example during Planes: Fire & Rescue is when we learn about Blade Ranger’s past, which happens to be as a TV star on a show called “CHoPs.” A delightful homage to CHiPs it even features Erik Estrada as Nick Loopin’ Lopez. While the adults in the audience will chuckle at the reminders of the beloved show young ones only need to know Blade was a TV star for the story to work.

But there’s one thing which has to work more than anything else or it would have sunk the movie and that’s Dane Cook’s performance as Dusty. If Cook wasn’t able to rein in his inherent mania which works so well during his stand-up routines his performance of Dusty would have also been something to laugh at. Maybe it’s because Cook is unable to feed off the energy of a live audience but here he gives a completely convincing performance and in fact carries the movie. Not to say he’s surrounded by amateurs because he absolutely isn’t but he’s never outshined by the other performances, the highlights which are John Michael Higgins as Cad Spinner, the egotistic Piston Park Supervisor and Patrick Warburton as The Fusellodge’s resident firefighter Pulaski. The cast is wide and varied in terms of their characters but the element which never varies is the quality of the performances you hear.

And speaking of hearing I can’t remember the last time I paid so much attention to the sound in an animated movie, unless it was Frozen. This features one of the most thoughtfully-designed soundscapes I’ve heard, made all the better by the fact it’s not led by but rather punctuated with pop songs. It’s in the running for most effective use of an AC/DC song for sure. But the most impressive thing about the sound design is the use of silence. It’s so effective I have to mention it.

The last element I’ll touch on is the realism brought to the firefighting terminology. Nothing is dumbed down for kids when it comes to discussing how the fires are fought, allowing the entire audience a glimpse into the all-too-real world of aerial firefighting which will surely enchant many youngsters into pursuing their dream of growing up to be a firefighter. Planes: Fire & Rescue (Blu-ray) is one of the easiest recommendations I’ve made all year.

Disney does Blu-ray better than anyone else when they want to. And it’s clear they wanted to here. We have animated menus, the ability to skip to the main menu, and loads of special features just for starters. The picture is beautiful. Water, fire, and smoke are three of the hardest things to animate and Planes: Fire & Rescue is chock-full of all three. I paid special attention to those three elements and they are truly animated in as realistic a style as you can wish for. It helps that the 2.39:1 transfer is not only 1080p but was rendered with Pixar’s programming which means quality, plane (ha!) and simple. The levels within each shot are lovely, from the sky changing colors of blue to the light diffusing through an opening, for example. As you can imagine with a story focused as much on fire as this one is the palette tends to lean toward the warmer end of the spectrum, with lovely golden yellows, oranges, and deep reds holding court. Attention to detail is what makes Planes: Fire & Rescue (Blu-ray) one of the best-looking discs of the year and one of Disney’s loveliest, most striking releases to date.

That soundscape I was raving about earlier? It’s supported by the main track, a DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio which makes use of every bit of space available. The richness of the track is what makes those moments of silence all the more affecting. But Disney doesn’t stop there, offering three other options tracks including a Descriptive Audio track and two Dolby 5.1 Surround tracks.

Disney rarely skimps when it comes to special features and this disc is no exception. Two extra copies, one DVD and one digital, start off the collection. We also have some deleted scenes and plenty of animated shorts. Wannabe firefighters will delight in the featurette “Air Attack” which goes on site to the actual base in California where the filmmakers did their field research into aerial firefighting and includes interviews with actual smokejumpers. A music video wraps up the collection.

Planes: Fire & Rescue (Blu-ray) packs a punch. With humor, an engaging story, convincing performances, attention to detail, and the realism at the heart of its subject matter, it’s easy to recommend this as a treat for the whole family.

THE VERDICT

No need to call out the squad on this one.

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