Successful professional athletes, sports figures, and racers are often considered heroes, but I'm not so sure that term strictly applies. Yes, sportspeople work hard and diligently, and risk pain, injury, and even sometimes death, to entertain us and remain at the top of their craft. However, they usually get plenty of money, perks, admiration, and adulation –not to mention the best medical care- for their troubles. I believe true heroes are unsung; that is, they put their own personal desires aside to do the hard, dangerous jobs that most other people avoid to save others and make others' lives better, with no expectation of wealth or fame. Professional wilderness firefighters certainly fit this bill, and the "Planes" sequel, "Planes – Fire and Rescue" (hereafter "Planes: F & R") is dedicated to these real heroes.
"Planes: F & R" starts with Dusty Crophopper (voice of Dane Cook) literally flying high. After his "Around the World" victory in "Planes", Dusty has been racking up the racing trophies and soaking up the fame and fortune. Of course, fate throws a monkey wrench (almost literally) into Dusty's plans when his gear box starts malfunctioning. As the movie penetrates into Dusty's metal guts, we learn that –as far as I understood it- years of high speed have chipped away at the box. From now on, in a kind of reverse of the movie "Speed", if Dusty goes too fast, he will break apart and crash. According to Dusty's faithful fuel truck Chug (voice of Brad Garrett) and dutiful forklift Dottie (voice of Teri Hatcher), no replacement gear box exists.
Now feeling useless, Dusty mopes around Propwash Junction airport, his base of operations, until a new opportunity presents itself. Attempting to reach high speed again, Dusty crash- lands and starts a fire. The resident fire truck, elderly Mayday (Hal Holbrook) tries to put out the fire but doesn't have enough water. With help from several forklifts, Mayday pulls down the water tower to put out the flames. Despite the rescue, bureaucratic transportation management truck Ryker is not amused with the lack of firefighting protocol and lack of an additional licensed fire fighter. Swallowing his shame and disappointment, and wishing to preserve Mayday's job and dignity as well as keep the airport open, Dusty volunteers to undergo training to start a new career as a firefighter.
Dusty flies to Piston Peak airport to begin training. He meets several characters just as quirky and colorful as his friends back home, like Lil' Dipper (voice of Julie Bowen), a flighty (no pun intended) water-dumping plane who develops a crush on Dusty, and the Native-American- like, mysterious, inscrutable, laconic heavy-lifting helicopter Windlifter (voice of Wes Studi). Rough-edged forklift mechanic Maru (voice of Curtis Armstrong) replaces Dusty's landing gear with pontoons for water landing plus wheels for regular landing. With morbid humor, he informs Dusty that unlike pictures of racing planes taken for winning, pictures of firefighting planes and helicopters are taken only when they crash and burn.
Dusty comes under the tutelage of Piston Peak's main firefighter, the all-business veteran helicopter Blade Runner (voice of Ed Harris). Like Skipper (voice of Stacy Keach), Dusty's former mentor, Blade Runner is gruff, disciplined, and no-nonsense. Despite his best efforts to teach Dusty how to scoop up water from lakes and rivers to dump on forest fires, Dusty's gear-box problem keeps holding him back. Since Dusty hasn't revealed his new handicap to him, Blade Runner naturally thinks Dusty is a stuck-up, selfish, goof-off.
Then a real emergency strikes. The Fusell Lodge (get it?) hotel bursts into flame from a nearby forest fire. There is not enough water to battle the blaze because the vain, sycophantic (i.e. kissa$$) park superintendent SUV Cad Spinner (voice of John Michael Higgins) incompetently diverted the water to the roof sprinklers just to impress the Secretary of the Interior (voice of Fred Willard). He also delays all the guests from fleeing the approaching blaze –again to impress the Secretary- until it's almost too late.
Blade Runner's crew, including skydiving smokejumper bulldozers, do their best to fight the fire. Blade Runner eventually gets damaged and must find shelter in a mine. He reveals to Dusty why he became a firefighter; he was once a police copter in the "CHiPs" parody "CHoPs" but lost his partner Nick "Loop'N" Lopez (voice of Erik Estrada) in an accident he couldn't prevent. In turn, Dusty finally reveals his problem. Blade Runner tells him not to quit and what it really means to be a hero. Dusty goes off to get enough water to not only save the forest but also an RV couple Harvey (voice of Jerry Stiller) and Winnie (voice of Anne Meara) stranded on a fiery bridge. Again, Dusty must pour on the speed to get enough water. Does he have the courage to do it? Can he literally keep himself together? Will Dusty get certified?
In its broad outlines, the plot and structure of "Planes: F & R" closely resembles its predecessor "Planes" in its student/master relationship, respecting elders' experience, and overcoming personal obstacles to succeed. But this time, it shows Dusty becoming a better "person" because his success is no longer selfish, but beneficial to others. As he encounters the photorealistic flames, fallen trees, and rushing river rapids, as well as the meticulous technological aspects of firefighting, we urge Dusty to complete his baptism of fire and become a real hero. "Planes: F & R" makes his journey harrowing, humorous, instructive, intelligent, suspenseful, and inspiring. Firefighters, and anyone else, in my opinion, watching this movie will feel their spirits uplifted (again, no pun intended).