An Interview With Planes: Fire & Rescue Stars Erik Estrada and Fred Willard

Posted on November 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

Copyright Disney 2014
Copyright Disney 2014

Erik Estrada and Fred Willard provide two of the most distinctive voices in Disney’s Planes Fire and Rescue, and it was a great treat to hear those voices through my telephone, as both actors called me to talk about their roles.  The DVD/Blu-Ray is available November 4, 2014

Estrada plays a version of himself, or at least himself as a helicopter inspired by his most iconic character, Ponch from the television series CHiPs. “They told me that they were doing a TV show within the movie,” he said.  “One of the lead characters actually played a helicopter officer, because you know we are all machines now.  They wanted to give him a partner but they wanted to do it in a way that it was called CHoPs in parallel to CHiPs.  So that they could bring two characters on and explain why hewas a racer and then became a firefighter. And so they said, ‘We want to do the Ponch character but we want to do him as a helicopter,’ and I said ‘Okay!’ It is Disney and I love Disney and I raised my children on Disney and I practically live in Disneyland and Disney World.  I have always had a wonderful experience with Disney and it was great to be hired by them and work for them.” So we did it and it turned out to be really cute, it is really, really cute, the character is funny and it just gave me flashbacks.”

Estrada got to see a picture of his character before he recorded the voice.  But it was not hard for him to get back into Ponch mode.  “I didn’t have to psyche too much because I am Ponch. Originally when I auditioned for Ponch, he was an Italian American cop, very aggressive, very gung-ho, very gregarious and I have a lot of that in my personal attitude but when I got them I made him a Latin American.  I just drew on my background and drew on my insides and basically Ponch was me and I was Ponch.  My character in this movie is a bit aggressive, too.  He’d call a car ‘punk’ and of course my partner says, ‘Calm down, calm down,’  just like Larry Wilcox would have done on our show.”  Estrada especially enjoyed attending the premiere of the film, with a special dinner for the performers, because it was the first chance he had to be with the other actors.  “It was great to see all the other planes and trucks, all the characters, it was great. “I got to see everybody I had not seen in a long time. People that I knew, like  Stacey Keach who, I had done The New Centurions with back in ‘71, and Ed Harris who has done an episode of CHiPS and he didn’t know how to ride a bike and I gave him a real quick know-how. That was kind of nice seeing him again.” Estrada says he knows why everyone loves stories about cars and planes and trains: “Because we all started out in strollers. We started out in strollers, and the first thing we notice is the wheel.  They see that first before they see anything else. And so we relate to it and we liked them little cars, we liked the colours, we liked to make noise and we like them – and if you see them in a movie, then you really want to get them.”

Fred Willard’s character is an important government official, an SUV who is the Secretary of the Interior.  “Very political, yes. Very, very political,” he said,  “He’s kind of conservative, concerned with his responsibility. I kind of went for the generic official, with the grey suit you see in all these shots of Congress and the Senate, always making very well pre-planned statements and being very aware of his public image and not suffering any stupidity from underlings. He just kind of considered John Michael Higgins’ character as kind of an annoyance. He had to handle him diplomatically but still feeling a little superior to him. I was always fascinated with those kinds of people. I worked in an office in New York for three years when I first started and I had a lot of bosses who were very stuffy, with nonsensical rules and I was always coming in late in the morning and I had to look at these directives about punctuality, and I was kind of secretly amused by some of those characters.”

Willard said, “I like to do voice things because when you see what you portray on the screen, it is not me so I am relaxed, I don’t say ‘how do I look like that at that day, what did I do with my hair, why was I standing this way,’ anything like that. So I usually enjoy that more than seeing myself live on screen.  You have to depend a hundred per cent on your voice, so it is a lot easier in some ways and it is more of a challenge, too. Sometimes they put all those electrodes on you and as you move they film your movement, and I’ve done it where they filmed your face and that is strange too, but you still don’t look like yourself.”  He recorded alone at first, but then they had him come back to record with his frequent co-star in the Christopher Guest films, John Michael Higgins. “They wanted us to get together to do our lines, maybe come up with some new lines or some interplay. ”  Working on the film reminded him of the toys he loves as a kid. “I just kind of think back to my own childhood. I had little toy trucks and cars, and I was into little toy soldiers, I remember, but I was very fascinated with airplanes.  When we went into the studio and I saw the little models of all the planes. I just wanted to grab a couple and stick them in my pocket and bring them home. It was fascinating.  But here it is pocket size and you’re kind of in charge of it and that gives you a feeling of power.”

I asked him for the best advice he ever got about acting.  “To know your lines – not just know your lines but be on top of them so they come second nature. And then step into whatever character you are. And if you’re improvising, just try to stay in the scene and move the scene forward.”

Both Willard and Estrada said they’re hoping for a third “Planes” movie. If so, I hope I get to talk to them again.

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Actors Animation Interview

Planes: Fire & Rescue

Posted on July 17, 2014 at 5:59 pm


The visuals are stunning, the details are witty, the 3D effects are splendid,  the songs are lively, the voice actors are top-notch, but the storyline feels like an episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.”  That’s when it was still analog and old-school and before it went to animation, but still — especially as the gender politics of this film are uncomfortably old-school as well.

Last year’s Planes added another mode of transportation to the charmingly retro world of Cars. A plucky crop-duster named Dusty (Dane Cook) learned to race and became a champion. As this movie begins, he is an international superstar. But his vintage gearbox has been worn down by the races, and no replacement is available. Dusty is going to have to find something that is as meaningful to him as racing.

When he accidentally starts a fire at Piston Peak National Park, Dusty sees that old Mayday (Hal Holbrook), the fire and rescue truck is not quite up to the task.  More important, he is not up to code.  The stern Transportation Management Safety Team inspector informs them that they need more capacity if they are going to stay in business.  That means some upgrades for Mayday and it also means a second firefighter.  Dusty feels responsible. And if he cannot race, he has to find something new to do, to help make up for his mistake. So he agrees to take the training to become a certified fire fighter.

Dusty is welcomed by the team, including the flirtatious Lil Dipper (“Modern Family’s” Julie Bowen), the heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter (Wes Studi), ex-military transport Cabbie (Captain Dale Dye) and The Smokejumpers, a brave collection of all-terrain vehicles who leap out of the planes and parachute down to the fire.  But he stern Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who is in charge of the training facility, is not at all sure Dusty is up to the task.

The action sequences are very well staged and the effects, especially the water and sky images, are truly astonishing. The usual pun-studded, meta humor for the series shows up throughout, from the show business trade news magazine titled “Cariety” to a female vehicle dismissing a lame come-on with a cool, “Pick-up trucks!” The choicest surprise is a videotape with a car-ified version of a classic television series, with that very recognizable series star contributing a character voice.  Of course the television show appeared in the late 70’s-early 80’s, so it is likely to be over the heads of today’s children and their parents, too.

The real villain here is the fire, of course, but there is also a comic villain, a pompous administrator voiced by John Michael Higgins.  But the movie never works up much interest in him or his schemes, and the post-credits stinger barely stings.

More troubling is the poor treatment of the female characters, despite being called out for that same problem in the first one.   At least in the original, the female characters were capable and independent.  Poor Bowen is relegated here to a role that recalls the man-chasing stereotypes of television in the 1960’s, often played by Rose Marie or Ann B. Davis.  She is constantly trying to tell Dusty that they are on a date and, when he politely says they will be going as a group, dementedly agrees that it is a good thing for her to meet his friends until he reminds her that the firefighting team members are her friends.  And a major plot twist occurs when the previously ultra-capable mechanic voiced by Teri Hatcher is casually outdone by a male character.  It’s completely unnecessary, it subverts the primary premise of the storyline, and it demeans the female mechanic for no reason.  It isn’t Dusty who’s got filings in his gearbox.  It’s the script.

Parents should know that this film includes peril, including fire, collapsing bridge, rapids, engine failure, action and some violence (no one irreparably hurt, but a reference to a sad death), and some bathroom humor.

Family discussion: Who in this movie has to decide how to handle it when their plans do not work out? How do you think about your own back-up plans?  What does “better than new” mean?

If you like this, try: “Cars” and “Planes”

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3D Animation Fantasy Series/Sequel
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