It turns out the cars and planes of Cars and Planes can kiss. Deep into Planes: Fire & Rescue, a time-killing kid flick whose title is an exact summary of its plot, the filmmakers introduce us to two creaky old Winnebagos, a husband and wife in their sunset years, revisiting the national park where they shared their first kiss years before. They're warmly loving, immediately likable, throwbacks to the Pixar films of once upon a time, the ones that indulged in niceties like theme and feeling and whatever is the opposite of pointlessness.
They meet some planes. After that, there's a fire. And a rescue. And lots of static, TV-quality scenes that drably cut from one car or plane to another as they sit in garages and discuss the importance of believing in yourself. But none of that's as interesting as the questions suggested by the idea of motor homes feeling nostalgic for the way they used to make out. A first kiss suggests that there were later ones, that steel-and-plastic RVs not only possess lips and tongues but also the nerve endings that stir sensations of pleasure. When two Winnebagos love each other very much, how far do they go? At his advanced age, is the husband still capable of working a stick — or have he and the wife settled for some kind of automatic transmission?
Previous films have established that these cars and planes come from factories, so vehicular marriage must be about love rather than procreation. That's sweetly egalitarian. The idea of cars, trucks, helicopters, and airplanes flush with erotic feeling deserves a more serious film than this one. Not since the hot fueling action of Dr. Strangelove has it been fruitfully examined, although bored parents trying to get through a matinee might enjoy teasing out the nuances: How intimate is it for a truck to tow a car? When Dusty (Dane Cook), a crop duster turned race plane turned firefighter, discovers that his old gearbox is giving way, and that he can never penetrate the heavens the way he used to, are we supposed to think about the prostate?
The film, directed by Roberts Gannaway, feels self-generated, as if maybe as they made Cars, Pixar was training an artificial intelligence to run infinite variations on the formula. Now, plots spill forth from that AI like soft-serve from a spigot: This time, to save an old firetruck's job, broken-gearboxed Dusty zips off to fight wildfires at Piston Peak with a helicopter that once starred on a chopper-themed version of the TV show CHiPS. Dusty's mission is to become a fully accredited firefighter by the time of his hometown's Corn Festival, one of those details that suggests no human brain was involved: Why would cars/trucks/planes celebrate corn? Has someone finally made ethanol work?
It's difficult to describe anything that happens in Planes: Fire and Rescue without skidding out on some quandary about just what rules are meant to govern the Cars/Planes universe. So, let's not dwell on what happens in the movie: There's a fire, there's some farting, and Dusty's cheerily obsessive new love interest, Dipper (Julie Bowen), is copy-pasted from the Internet's "Overly Attached Girlfriend" meme.
Instead, here are some of its most curious revelations:
• Cars sometimes board a train to take them places.
• There is still a U.S. government, and it has appointed a Jeep-like vehicle as secretary of the interior.
• That government funds a robust National Park Service, dedicated to preserving lands for the enjoyment of cars/trucks/planes.
• Being a car is no impediment to landing a job as a park ranger.
• Helicopter firefighter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) sees his job as "saving people's lives." Who are these people?
• Windjammer (Wes Studi), an Apache helicopter, speaks in a broad, Native American accent and, fireside, tells a confounding legend about coyotes and a car that ate its own tires. The insensitivity of the stereotype aside, does this mean that at some point in Cars/Planes history, a bunch of imports chased the native vehicles off their own land?
Like the previous Cars and Planes pictures, this movie is much more edifying to think about than it is to watch. (The final rescue is impressive, but it's not enough to justify the rest.) Still, this is the one kiddo entertainment franchise that I hope a couple of decades from now gets the grim reboot treatment: How will the cars, trucks, and planes handle it when they discover that their emissions have destroyed the world their government hires park rangers to preserve?