That was a dirty trick you pulled. About a half hour into Planes: Fire & Rescue, I suddenly found myself excited - invested, even - in the action that was unfolding. The aerial team was flying to their first forest fire and I thought to myself "shit, this good!" Of course, I didn't actually swear out loud (since I was surrounded by six-year-olds)--but this time, to my amazement, my urge to curse wasn't provoked by the film's shortcomings. A second later, I realized why. I'd been… Thunderstruck.
That damn AC/DC song. Works every time. Doesn't matter if it's pumping up sports teams, salvaging a blockbuster, or coming out of flaming bagpipes. When that famous guitar lick kicks in, my adrenaline soars. I would argue that it rivals - and maybe surpasses - "Eye of the Tiger" as the greatest musical trigger for kicking things into hero mode.
I suppose it could also be argued that paying for this overused opus was the sort of lazy move that one should expect from a DisneyToon Studios film (a.k.a. Disney's direct-to-video division, largely outsourced to India). Except this wasn't a one-off moment of pleasure. Many of the jokes actually landed. The entire plot wasn't simply telegraphed from the opening scenes. The animation, at times, was surprisingly impressive. I even genuinely felt like these stupidly conceived characters were in true mortal peril (sadly, I'm still not sold on this nonsense world of Cars). In other words, this was a… film. One that I can actually recommend.
Part of what worked in the film's favour was the somber and sincere dedication to all firefighters. In order for that dedication to mean anything, however, the film would need to respect the danger of fighting fires and not treat it as a childish adventure. Sure enough, I found myself fascinated by the strategies employed by the planes as they created formations to contain the blaze and drop in ground crews to clear the path for trapped civilians and wildlife (like deer, which in this film are John Deer tractors).
The Wall of Heroes where Dusty goes for training also helps establish the stakes. His instructors correct his enthusiasm by explaining that only those who have crashed in the line of duty get their pictures hung. None of this would feel out of place in a Pixar picture, but for an animated film intended for a much younger audience, it surprised me. Kids besdie me were clutching their parents during key scenes when the danger felt real; a feeling that was enhanced by the absence of catchy pop music.
Sure, the voice work is rather bland and perfunctory, especially by Dane Cook, whose usual antic delivery is strangely sedate. The jokes are mainly dependent on puns, but some of them were half decent (especially turning dirty pick-up trucks into dirty pick-up artists at a bar). And for all the high stakes, the consequences never really materialize--although some key characters suffer worse fates than those in Toy Story 3's famous incinerator scene.
In the end, the music you cleared was effective and appropriate - particularly since lightning is what causes most of the forest fires, (the lyrics for the first verse are actually pretty spot-on for the story). It also didn't hurt to hire Bobs Gannaway as director, who has been an in-house director for Disney's direct-to-video work for the past 20 years. It felt like he - and Dusty - actually had something to prove.
Clearing you for landing,