With Indian communities still smarting from the sting of The Lone Ranger, Disney continues to dip into Native American culture to enhance their story lines.
A group of 50-60 National Native Media Conference attendees were treated to a pre-release screening of Disney’s latest animated film, Planes: Fire and Rescue featuring Wes Studi as the voice of Windlifter, a water-bombing helicopter. Screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard and art director Toby Wilson joined Studi for a post screening Q & A in a session called "The Art of Storytelling."
Wes Studi was clear. However proud he may be of this work, or honored to be cast in a Disney block-buster, this was an acting job, not much more. Studi explained that voice acting was “basically … not that different. You have to imagine you're playing to someone else. [Windlifter] is responding and communicating in his own way throughout the larger part of the story. So it’s a matter of creating the scene in my own mind and delivering my understanding of it. The director, who is in my ear and the mic, are the only things with me in the booth. It's another acting job."
Disney execs speculated on who they could get to be the voice of their seasoned, no-nonsense animated firefighter, which they considered a "Wes Studi type" — and were thrilled when they actually got him to play the role.
To authenticate the indigenous character Disney execs consulted with Dr. Paul Apodaca, professor of American Indian Studies at UCLA, a consultant on other films as well as an advisor to the Smithsonian Institute. Screenwriter Jeffrey Howard adopted a coyote story from Dr. Apodaca, and wrote it into the script for Windlifter to impart on his crew in a storytelling/teaching moment.
It’s the story of Coyote trying to escape a forest fire and finding refuge in a cave. Coyote’s feet, however, get burned as the fire passes. When he sees his blackened feet he mistakes them for his favorite snack — cooked grasshoppers — and eats them. The teaching is that Coyote is renewing himself, as forests do after a fire blazes through, creating new growth.
There were many opportunities for teaching within the film, as explained during the Q&A. For example, did you know that the California Fire and Rescue responded to 5,600 fires in 2013? Cal Fire has responded to over half of that number so far this year. An audience member pointed out the film is timely given that fact that it will be released July 18th, in the middle of a very dry California summer. The film will also be helpful to families of Fire and Rescue workers, especially to the children as it will help them understand the importance of what their parents do.
Both Studi and the Disney creators were closed-mouth about possible plans for a sequel, but smiled broadly, indicating there might be something in the cooker.
Planes: Fire and Rescue opens nationwide July 18th in 3D. Here's a featurette in which the cast and crew, including Studi, discuss the film:
Janet Marie Rogers is the Poet Laureate of Victoria, British Columbia.