Take Mel Blanc for example. Yes, I know, we’re starting with the legend, but just think about his voice for a moment: While it's true that Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird sound similar, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Barney Rubble, Speedy Gonzalez, and Elmer Fudd are worlds apart. We all know that he did every one of those voices, but just take a moment to imagine all those voices and how varied they are.
Probably today’s modern equivalent is Billy West, the vocal genius who voiced characters from Ren & Stimpy and Futurama among a plethora of other highly rated cartoons. As a testament to his ability to keep up with the greats, he’s regularly hired to do the voices Mel Blanc can’t do anymore, because, you know, he’s dead.
West and his colleagues live in the vocal world, where looks don’t matter. They’re rarely on-screen, and they’re okay with that. Because they only have to deal with sound, they get to spend their entire career refining their trade, developing new voices, new inflections, new ways to approach speech, sound effects, and singing.
Not surprisingly, West is also a vocal opponent to the use of Hollywood screen actors in voice roles for animated movies. He’s got a good point; the highest-paying roles are going to people who, while possessing excellent control of their voices, are better suited for acting on-screen. The voice actors are actually better than the screen actors, and can approach the characters from an original angle.
The game changed in 1992 when Disney cast Robin Williams in the role of the Genie in Aladdin. Williams, long heralded for his cartoon-like voice, fit the role quite well. He had just completed The Fisher King and Hook and didn’t need the money or exposure, but chose to be involved with the film anyway. At the time, this was considered a poor career move.
Before Aladdin, screen actors that took voice work were generally on the decline, losing their popularity and relevance. If you took a voice role, it was an indication that you didn’t have very many choices of film roles and had to take what you could get. But with Williams’ incredible performance and the subsequent profits that rolled in, movie studios began to beg big-name actors to follow suit.
The result of this trend was a line of animated movies starring great actors who had great voices and could deliver lines exceptionally well, but unfortunately, only in one voice: Their own. Tom Hanks in Toy Story; Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo; Patton Oswalt in Ratatouille; they were all great in those roles, but they also sounded like themselves. Meanwhile, if the movie gets turned into a TV series, as was the case with Aladdin, the roles are relegated to voice actors who probably should have played those roles to begin with. The fact that they can produce those voices equally well is proof that the popular actors were only cast for their star power.
“A star-studded cast” has long been a vomit-worthy Hollywood pitch, and now, in an era in which animated movies are focused on multiple demographics, star power is more important than ever (think Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy in Shrek.) Kids don’t care if Johnny Depp is the voice of Rango, but adults sure do. Need a female lead? Call Abigail Breslin, she’s popular right now.
The trend goes so far that it extends into non-animated movies as well, such as 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are in which Mark Ruffalo and James Gandolfini, two exceptional actors with no voice-over experience, were cast in major roles as the voices of the giant monsters at the focus of the story. A whole generation waited anxiously to hear what these characters in a children's book from their youth would sound like, and guess what? They sounded like Mark Ruffalo and James Gandolfini.
Star power? How about casting Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig in one movie? How to Train Your Dragon made efficient use of an entire cast of characters relevant to the entertainment world of that year, and the result was a steady stream of positive reviews. But I just can’t help but think of how Billy West, Tress MacNeille, Tom Kenny, and Dave Willis would have handled those roles.
Star power is one thing, but what about those opportunities in which voice-overs are performed by big-name actors who aren’t even credited? I can look the other way when John Corbett takes on the task of being the voice of Applebee’s, since his career’s not exactly full-on right now. But John Krasinski as the anonymous spokesperson for Blackberry?
The trend is out of control. We’ve got an entire scene of unbelievable talent being passed over in favor of household names. But who’s to say that Billy West in the role of Remy from Ratatouille wouldn’t have catapulted him into nationwide awareness? The film could have used some more talent, even if only in supporting roles. I mean, they put Brad Garrett in that movie!
The ultimate irony of this situation was when Bill Murray decided not to reprise his role as Peter Venkman in “The Real Ghostbusters” animated television show. The role was played by Lorenzo Music—who admittedly only had one voice, but it was a good one. By this point he was already famous as the voice of Garfield in the cartoon cat’s home movies and the animated series that followed. But when it came time to do the live action Garfield movie, Music had already passed away. Guess who was cast in the role? Why, none other than Bill Murray himself, of course.
Another disappointing chapter in this saga involves the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks and his son. Ross Bagdasarian, the creative genius who created the characters after recording his voice at a slow speed during a recording session, built a legacy based on this technique; but as anyone that’s ever tried it can attest to, we all sound like chipmunks when we speed up our voices. Nonetheless, his son Ross Bagdasarian Jr. took over as the voice of the three rodents after his fathered died. However, when he was approached for the rights to make the Alvin and the Chipmunks live action movie, he was refused the voice acting job in favor of not one, but THREE voice actors, including Justin Long as Alvin. Good move, Fox Pictures!
It’s not that these actors are doing a bad job. Hiring talent that’s proven to produce stunning results can’t be a bad business move, but I’ll always be left wondering how it could have turned out with a real voice actor instead. Follow @torqtorq