★ ★

Planes: Fire & Rescue, directed by Roberts Gannaway, is Disney's uninspired follow-up to their cheap Cars knockoff Planes, and it exists only to sell tickets and toys. It's not so much a movie as it is another step in an ongoing marketing campaign.

Former crop duster-turned-champion racer Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) finds out that he has an injured gear box and can no longer compete—if he goes into the red line, he'll fall apart. When he causes a major fire at his home airport, it becomes apparent that Mayday (Hal Holbrook), the elderly truck responsible for security, can no longer handle his job on his own; as a result, the authorities threaten to shut the place down unless it can be brought up to safety standards. Our hero, unable to continue his racing career, decides to fly off to a mountain location to become a certified fire-and-rescue aircraft, then return to reopen the airport in time for the big corn festival.

At the mountain base, he deals with a crusty helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who used to be a TV star. They clash at first, but when a remote lodge is threatened by a massive wildfire, Dusty risks his own life to save others and wins Ranger’s respect.

Although the visuals are state of the art, the style feels like third-rate Pixar—something hammered home by the fact that the Pixar name is nowhere to be found on this movie; this is straight-up Disney. The aircraft aren't particularly fun to look at, the way their "eyebrows" move around the windshields is more distracting than anthropomorphic, and the soundtrack is as dippy and pedestrian as everything else.

Director Gannaway and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard manage to last about three minutes before resorting to jokes about farting and old cars with hemorrhoids, and then they unleash a succession of lame puns. Later, they inject supposed “heart” into the proceedings in ways so calculated and clinical that it feels like the script, just like the visuals, was designed with the help of a computer program.

When Pixar was angling to leave Disney a few years ago, Mouse House executives threatened to release a string of direct-to-video sequels to all of their films, a decision that would have diluted their brand. When the two finally reached a deal, Pixar head John Lasseter was given a large say in the creative decisions throughout Disney, not just at Pixar. The most depressing aspect of Planes: Fire & Rescue is that it's exactly the kind of soulless product that Disney would have put out had Pixar left, but instead it arrives in theaters everywhere with Lasseter's name on it as an executive producer. He knows this doesn’t deserve to be on a big screen, but he let it happen anyway.