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'Planes: Fire & Rescue' is more filler than feature

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE” — 2 1/2 — the voices of Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Teri Hatcher, Hal Holbrook, John Michael Higgins, Wes Studi; PG (action and some peril); in general release

There’s a simple way to decide whether to take the kids to see Disney’s “Planes: Fire & Rescue” this weekend.

Did they like last year’s “Planes?” If the answer is yes, go. If not, don’t bother.

That isn’t to say “Fire & Rescue” is a rehash of last year’s animated film about talking airplanes. It’s just that this year’s edition probably won’t win over any new fans — at least if the level of restlessness at the pre-screening is any indicator. “Fire & Rescue” is a nice movie, and that’s really the best way to put it.

Criticized for being too derivative of Pixar’s “Cars” and originally intended for a straight-to-DVD release, 2013’s “Planes” introduced us to Dusty Crophopper, a lowly crop duster with dreams of big-time racing. That film played out the classic underdog story as Dusty worked his way into a race around the world that made him a racing superstar.

This time around, Dusty (still voiced by Dane Cook) has new limitations to deal with. On a practice flight, he runs into trouble with his gearbox, an out-of-production model that threatens to end his racing career. Unable to push his engine past a moderate level, Dusty has to turn to other options — options the film’s title make fairly obvious.

As the movie picks up speed, Dusty is sent to the fictional Piston Peak National Park to train as an aerial firefighter. Here he meets the Piston Peak Air Attack, a cast of fire fighting characters including a brand new love interest, Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen), and a surly helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who may or may not have been a TV celebrity a few years back. Dusty’s mission? Figure out the firefighting ropes and hope his friends back home can come up with a way to get his gearbox replaced.

The theme of coping with disappointment and limitations is a powerful one, particularly for an animated children’s film. But “Fire & Rescue” seems to be more interested in putting action scenes on the screen, which may be a better idea considering its audience. The national park setting gives animators ample opportunity to create exciting landscapes to fly around, and they are only enhanced by the frequent wildfires they have to deal with. It also gives the writers ample opportunity to use lots of puns and inside references that only the adults in the audience will catch (the centerpiece of the park is a massive lodge and natural geyser that are meant to be a nod to Yellowstone National Park).

Actually, the humor is one of the strangest elements of “Fire & Rescue,” mainly in that it feels largely absent. Outside of the bad puns, there didn’t seem to be much to keep the kids laughing. In fact, the film’s best material — including a parody of the early 1980's cop show “CHiPs” — is aimed squarely at adults. (Parents may also have fun playing “name that voice” with a cast that includes all sorts of familiar names, from Fred Willard to Jerry Stiller to none other than Erik Estrada.)

While the aforementioned settings do afford some drama, the animation itself is only decent at best and doesn’t do much to justify a 3-D premium. It’s probably telling that, like its predecessor, “Fire & Rescue” isn’t being released under Disney’s Pixar banner.

Still, if you are a determined parent who needs to get the kids out of the house, there are worse ways to kill an hour and 23 minutes.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue” is rated a mild PG for some scatological humor and frightening moments.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at