If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said that the last thing we need is another second-rate, Disney, cash-grab re-tread. But in a summer that has offered up such soupçons of cinematic incompetence as Tammy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Sex Tape (not to mention the dearth of kid-friendly fare– we can all just agree that Earth to Echo never happened, right?), well… it’s almost a crime that a sequel to a so-so spin-off of a Pixar rip-off is emerging as one of the more pleasant films of the past few months. In all honesty, that’s less a credit to the genius of Planes: Fire & Rescue as it is a condemnation of pretty much everything else, but heck– the film is fairly solid, at least as far as second-rate Disney cash-grab re-treads go.

Fresh off his win in the Wings Across the Globe race, young upstart Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) is dominating the air race circuit, collecting trophies left and right. But when his gearbox fails, he gets the diagnosis the dreads—that he can’t go all-out anymore—no more racing. As luck would have it, his local-yokel airstrip, though, needs a new firefighter, so Dusty heads off to earn his certification form veteran rescue helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris).

Shortly after Dusty’s training gets underway, a massive wildfire breaks out, threatening thousands of acres, including the recently renovated Grand Fusel Lodge, run by the obnoxious Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins). Dusty and his new rescue buddies (a colorful group of helicopters and off-road vehicles) team up to save the day, learning all kinds of warm-fuzzy life lessons (confidence, teamwork, humility) along the way.

Director Roberts Gannaway (Tinker Bell’s Secret of the Wings) takes the almost-manic style of Planes and wisely ratchets things down a notch. And Fire & Rescue is that much better for it. The flying sequences are even better than in the original, and the animation seems to have benefitted from an extra year of polish, too. The real star, though, is the fire; the movie does for flames what Frozen did for snow and ice.

The script, by Planes’ Jeffrey M. Howard, is more mature, too— the incessant slapstick silliness from Planes has been curtailed, placing more of a focus on characters and actual story; the franchise did a flip of Cars/Cars 2, starting with the fluffy race movie and ending with the hometown-boy-makes-good flick.

The cast of Fire & Rescue is another plus, with cameos from the likes of Stiller & Meara as married RVs, Erik Estrada as a CHiPs-like chopper from Blade’s early Hollywood days, and Hal Holbrook as a folksy, old-timer fire truck.

It’s not Pixar-level brilliance by any stretch, but Fire & Rescue is a pleasant step-up from the first installment, and the animation alone should be enough to get kids revved up for the return to Propwash Junction.

3.5/5 stars