There's a cheerful simplicity about the animated "Planes: Fire & Rescue." Contrast it with the chaotic, clanging "Transformers" movie, made for a slightly older preteen audience. The high-flying new Disney cartoon has a clearer story, more engaging characters, more lucid action scenes and jokes that actually raise a smile.
The production was overseen by Pixar's head honcho John Lasseter, and it feels like a junior varsity spinoff of "Cars." The characters are anthropomorphic aircraft and automobiles. They have soulful eyes in their windshields and expressive mouths on their lower fuselages. Their designs have a nice balance between whimsy, visual appeal and technical accuracy.
A young viewer could pick up a lot of information from this film about wing shapes of planes from different eras, and the way that the moving and fixed surfaces of the tail steer and stabilize them in flight. The airborne planes sail along with the excitement of a kid on a great skateboard ride. They also demonstrate how changes in balance affect flying behavior and what a pilot must know to correct them. Firefighting techniques are also dramatically demonstrated.
The story continues the adventures of Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), hero of last year's "Planes." The onetime crop duster turned aerial race champ has developed a gearbox problem that sidelines him from high-speed competition. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he joins a crew of vehicles fighting forest fires in a Yosemite-like national park. Here he faces the challenges of a kid fitting in at a new grade school.
There's a tough instructor helicopter (Ed Harris), a flirtatious girl plane (Julie Bowen), a crowd of impulsive all-terrain vehicles, and a blustering principal figure in the form of an SUV (John Michael Higgins). Dusty has to practice the firefighting team's challenging maneuvers even though some strain his damaged gearbox near the fatal red line.
There are a scattering of inside gags, asides and blink-and-you-missed-it details for the parents. The film's focus, though, is pleasing the milk-and-cookies crowd. The story is thrilling and heroic without being bellicose. Dusty is a brave little plane giving his all to protect others from natural perils. He does this with great agility, flying through waterfall mists and infernal forest blazes rendered with extravagant beauty. I wouldn't be surprised to see a spike in Air Force enlistments and Fire Department applications about a decade from now.
PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE
Rating: PG for action and some peril.