Dusty Crophopper is back for a brand new adventure, and this time it’s a blockbuster. Faced with the dual threats of an early end to his racing career and Propwash Junction’s closure, Dusty and his ailing torque gauge fly west to Piston Peak National Park to train as a firefighter. Thunderclouds recall military aircraft as towns and valleys with ingenious engine details unfurl below him and beckon him on his way. Toby Wilson and team’s sumptuous animation is as characterful and joyous as the tiny craft ought to be. Drawing heavily on Top Gun themes of arrogance, loss and redemption, this summer holiday release aims high but stalls before breaking cloud cover.

On arrival at the Air Attack Base Dusty (Dane Cook) tries his best to assimilate with the team. However, the resentment of his trainer Blade Ranger (Ed Harris sounding pleasingly like Billy Bob Thornton) coupled with Dusty’s pride and determination to mask his handicap, make for a bumpy landing. Although welcomed by the rest of the team and put through his paces by a reluctant Blade, Dusty fails to appreciate the true burden of responsibility the group bear. When forest fire threatens a huge gathering of vacationing vehicles at the nearby Grand Fusel Lodge his life lessons come thick and fast. With an eye to the wall of fallen heroes displayed at the base, the young plane determines to shape up and fight back.

Legendary firefighter Edward C. Pulaski saved his crew from the Great Idaho Fire of 1910 by forcing them into a mine as an inferno danced outside. Fire and Rescue takes direct inspiration from this true story for its only genuinely moving moments as a disobedient Dusty’s actions trap him with Blade Ranger at the heart of the forest blaze. The aftershock of that single powerful scene lingers but ultimately only highlights the lack of soul at the core of this feature. Lazy characterisation must take the majority of the blame – Scott Seeto’s character designs are unsettlingly  homogenous and Jeff Howard’s screenplay keeps the verbal interactions trite and curiously old fashioned.

Though a nice homage to CHiPs raises a chuckle, the ’80s TV show approach to the ladies is less endearing. While haunted firefighting hero Blade Ranger is granted a backstory and pole position in the race to save the day, his female counterparts fare less well. Super scooper aircraft Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen) is imprisoned by her dippy moniker and a comedy crush on the apparently asexual Dusty. The lead of the five all-terrain smokejumpers Dynamite (Regina King) has potential to be more than his match but her screen time is minimal and her personality left at feisty. With grandma-by-numbers Winnie the Winnebago as the only remaining principle, there isn’t a great deal here for young girls to identify with. This would matter less if Dusty were more accessible or the line between boys and girls less obviously defined.

Arguably these are never going to be the most immediately engaging stories because the leads are all aircraft with eerily flat doll eyes. But the universal love for Thomas the Tank Engine and his various chuffing chums demonstrates that an inorganic heart can still speak directly to ours. The issue with Planes 2 is that its generic characters cannot convincingly articulate the emotional range the subject matter demands. The around the world race of the original Planes was a neatly encapsulated plot – the recognisable (if tired) tale of a little engine that could – which competently delivered action by numbers without rocking anyone’s world. Planes 2 aspires to be something altogether more ambitious and falls short of target because it is still tethered to the tiresome Dusty.

With heavy editing of its lazier stereotypes a stand alone Fire and Rescue film, centred around the work of the air attack team, could have been a powerful proposition. One worthy of the exceptional level of love and artistry demonstrated across every frame of verdant landscape, crackling flame and beautiful mechanical motif. Disney have an opportunity to engage children with something profound and real if they continue to pursue hero stories like these. To mature beyond the animation apartheid of fairytales for girls and adventure stories for boys and terraform a bold new world where gender assignment doesn’t automatically inform taste. But if they intend to hang them from a Planes 3 hook they will need to sacrifice Mr Crophopper to Piston Peak’s wall of the fallen first.

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Emily Breen began writing for HeyUGuys in 2009. She favours pretzels over popcorn and rarely watches trailers as she is working hard to overcome a compulsion to ‘solve’ plots. Her trusty top five films are: Betty Blue, The Red Shoes, The Princess Bride, The Age of Innocence and The Philadelphia Story. She is troubled by people who think Tom Hanks was in The Philadelphia Story and by other human beings existing when she is at the cinema.