Voices In My Head...
May 18, 2001 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Voices In My Head... Call me crazy, but I think casting "celebrity voices" in animated flix is counter-intuitive. Think back to the classic Disney movies - "Pinocchio" and "101 Dalmations" come to mind - and the fact that they regularly used professional voice-actors, not a cast of celebrities-du-jour. With the new trend in animated movies, I find myself picturing the celebrity doing the voice, not the animated character of the story. Quick - what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the movie "Aladdin?" Robin Williams as the Genie, I'd wager. Your thoughts on this weighty matter?
posted by davidmsc (36 comments total)
It's a lot easier to get a movie made, animated or not, with a Name attached. I don't think the studios are overly concerned with what the audience thinks about it.
posted by jpoulos at 7:28 AM on May 18, 2001

It's not just animated programming. When they picked an unknown named Christopher Reeve to play Superman, I bought into those movies from the get go. One of the problems I had with the first Batman movie was I couldn't get out of my head that Michael Keaton was once Mr. Mom and that looney dufus in Night Shift. However, to be fair, in Superman they foolishly cast Marlon Brando as Jor-El, which made it impossible to suspend disbelief and immerse oneself into the film whenever he was on screen.

The X-Men movie worked for me except for when Halle Berry was on screen as Storm. I could even buy Patrick Stewart as Professor X, because that role is practically tailor-made for him. The other actors I didn't recognize, so their faces and voices didn't throw me out of the immersion of enjoying the story. Halle Berry though? Poor casting.

Oftentimes Hollywood puts big names in a movie thinking that alone will bring people to the box office, and unfortunately they're right because a vast majority of the public consists of sheep. In an ideal and just world, the role in a film would go to the best person for the job. That's not always the case. I was strangely impressed by Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels, but lets face it she was basically just being herself on the screen. As were the other big talents in that film. Kate Jackson was my favorite in the original series, because she was the only "angel" who could actually ACT.

Bottom line: is it art you're trying to attain or is it money? Unfortunately most of the time in movie-making, the dollar speaks louder than self-expression, and regaring more than just impractical casting, that fact affects most movie-making in detrimental ways. Compare the casting of Blair Witch and Book of Shadows. The first one was cast based on whether or not the performers could pull off the roles believably. The latter was cast based on who looked good on camera.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:32 AM on May 18, 2001

Well, Zach, I gotta disagree that the reason name actors are cast in animated movies is that the public are "sheep." Name actors are much better at promoting these films, as well. They get in magazines, on late night talk shows, all that jazz that unknown actors would never get to do. Because, like you said, it's all about money.
posted by Doug at 7:43 AM on May 18, 2001

So, are you saying Aladdin would have been a better movie with someone besides Robin Williams in the Genie role? I disagree; in fact that may have been Williams's last good movie.

I think celebrities can be less obtrusive in animated films. I think of Big and Cast Away and You've Got Mail as Tom Hanks movies, but I don't think of Toy Story as a Tom Hanks movie--it even took me a minute to remember who was the voice of Woody.

Antz had some fun with this; they made the animated characters look like the actors voicing them--Stallone, Christopher Walken, etc.--and included bits parodying their sterotypical roles.
posted by straight at 7:58 AM on May 18, 2001

A friend of mine hates Tim Allen with a passion. So after we went to see Toy Story I enjoyed telling him that Tim Allen was in fact the voice of Buzz Lightyear. And he hadn't noticed. That movie did a really good job of integrating the voice talent with the animated "actors" so that the kinds of jarring things that throw you "out of the movie" didn't happen. Similarly, it never in a million years would have occurred to me that Jennifer Aniston was the voice of the mom in The Iron Giant until I looked at the credits.

I think Shrek is going to be a problem, though. The title ogre looks and sounds way too much like Mike Myers.
posted by kindall at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2001

It's not like they never did celeb voices, and now they do. It's certainly more common now, but it's longstanding practice. Lady and the Tramp (1955) had Peggy Lee, Alice in Wonderland ('51) had Ed Wynn, Babes in Toyland ('61) had Annette Funicello & Ray Bolger, Jungle Book ('67) had Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima...IMDB could go on and on.

I'm as cynical as the next guy, whoever you are down there, but I think this is less about Hollywood suddenly deciding it was going to be "all about the stars," and more about the stars deciding, esp. after Aladdin, that these were high-quality productions with more than just a kid audience, and thus worthy of their artistic and financial participation. I don't think that was the case in earlier years-- the animated movies were seen as strictly kids' fare then.
posted by luser at 8:12 AM on May 18, 2001

Eh. Animated voicings don't bother me any more than seeing the same actors in varied roles. For instance, when I watched "Memento," I wasn't particularly plagued by insistent memories of "The Matrix" or "L.A. Confidential." I thought that "A Bug's Life" was one of the funniest damn movies in recent memory, and marveled at the genius of the casting (Dennis Leary as a ladybug . . . holy cats).

That said, I'll echo concerns about "Shrek." Actually, strike "concerns." After seeing a couple previews (and countless ads), I have to say that it looks just ghastly.

"You da man, Shrek!" Haw! Stop it! You're killing me!
posted by Skot at 8:15 AM on May 18, 2001

> what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think
> of the movie "Aladdin?" Robin Williams as the Genie, I'd
> wager.

Works the other way for me. Now I can't see Robin Williams in anything without thinking he's being voice-acted by a blue genie

> It's a lot easier to get a movie made, animated or not,
> with a Name attached

Mel Gibson stated that he put himself in Braveheart because he wouldn't have been able to get funding for the movie otherwise. Which lead to some strangeness -- the boy Wallace and his little-girl friend look about 10 and 8 respectively. Then when you see them grown up, she looks 18 and he looks 40-ish.

> I gotta disagree that the reason name actors are cast in
> animated movies is that the public are "sheep." Name
> actors are much better at promoting these films, as well.

Promotion = sheep-herding.
posted by jfuller at 8:15 AM on May 18, 2001

Director Milos Forman tackled the "I don't want audiences to see a celebrity in this role, I want them to see the character" thing when he cast relative unknowns F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as the leads in the film version of Amadeus. This was smashingly successful - they battled it out (and Abraham won) for every major acting award for 1984. (Guess who just rented that DVD?)

When it comes to celebrities in animation, I think it's mainly a matter of writing. As big a Tom Hulce fan as I am (working on a theme here, folks, give me latitude) I didn't "see" him as the Hunchback in the recent Disney bastardisation, and though I know it was a celeb who voiced Esmerelda, I can't remember for the life of me who it was. The dialogue was actually well-written for that one, so it wasn't as noticeable. Other voice bits that come to mind are Chris Rock and Norm McDonald as the guinea pig and dog, respectively, in Dr. Doolittle. Chris' portrayal had good dialogue, a funny vocal effect and it was easy to forget who the actor "behind" the furry face was. Norm, on the other hand, well. . .
posted by Dreama at 8:22 AM on May 18, 2001

I think that celebrity voice actors in animation really only become torublesome when they bring too much of their other roles into a setting where they overwhelm the character. IMHO, Robin Williams in Aladdin and Eddie Murphy in Mulan (I haven't seen enough of Shrek to judge, but I expect the same applies) brought too much of their (cleaned-up) comedy-club schtick into their animated roles, at the expense of the story. On the other hand, Tim Allen was great in Toy Story because he wasn't trying to be Tim "Tool Time" Taylor.

Mind you, bringing an established persona into a satirical cartoon can work well; Kelsey Grammer (sp?) and David Hyde-Pierce, among others, have been brilliant on The Simpsons, especially when they brought their Frasier relation ship into play. ("Maris?") And my favorite moment in voice-acting history was when Adam West played "The Gray Ghost" in the modern Batman: The Animated Series; a fitting nod to the past.
posted by harmful at 8:34 AM on May 18, 2001

I hope to never hear Gilbert Gottfried's voice again during a movie intended for children.

No, wait. I just never want to hear Gilbert Gottfried's voice.
posted by keli at 8:39 AM on May 18, 2001

luser and harmful: excellent points. Particularly the reference to the Simpsons - when the work in question is a satire/lampoon/laugh-at-society type effort, Central Casting can be a boon. But for movies that are designed to stand on their own (vice a long-running series), harmful is right-on: Robin Williams turned Genie into nothing more than a routine, complete with modern-day references that distracted from the movie. Puh-leeze - doing Arsenio in ancient Arabia?

And I like the point made about actors making the transition from viewing animated flix as "kid stuff" to being serious work.
posted by davidmsc at 8:42 AM on May 18, 2001

I think one of the examples of both the jarring nature of celeb voices and celebrities lending status to a film was the film Princess Mononoke, Hayao Mayazaki directing and Neil Gaiman writing (at least the American version)..........Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver...Gillian Anderson, even Billy Bob Thornton. I think if it's a good flick it doesn't get in the way. I must admit that I am guilty of nudging my wife and saying "hey, that monk...that's Billy Bob Thornton." On the site, they have interviews with some of the American voice actors, saying how they were so impressed with the Japanese print they wanted to be involved in the American version.

And now for something completely marginally related: Ghost In The Shell: fantastic...Akira: groovy....but for God's sake I rented an anime called "X" the other night which was, well, a sh*t sandwich. Coupled with the laughably poor "Fist Of The North Star" movie, my last couple of anime ventures have been a little lacking. Any recommendations or sites that have reviews you can believe?

Actually, I *did* get a copy of "Galaxy Express 999" yesterday, reliving my youth with my hero Captain Harlock. uh oh , getting all choked up here...gotta go.
posted by Kafkaesque at 8:43 AM on May 18, 2001

These movie shops have no interest in making art. They exist to make money. Celebrities draw money. Therefore, celebrities do the voices.

It's sad, and tragic, and horrible, but it's the world we live in.

Also, if Gilbert Gottfried's shrill voice makes you twitch, how about all the Gilbert Gottfried ripoffs out there? Like the Subway hand puppet? Ugh.
posted by Succa at 8:44 AM on May 18, 2001

I thought the Subway hand puppet was Gilbert Gottfried!
posted by Dreama at 8:51 AM on May 18, 2001

On reflection, the biggest problem with the characters I mentioned was that they were written to the voice actor rather than to the story. Very nearly every line for Aladdin's genie seemed to be shouting: "Hey! This is Robin Williams! Isn't that cool?" A throwaway line every now and then (John Ratzenberger's "little known facts" in Toy Story) may work, but constant emphasis doesn't.
posted by harmful at 8:51 AM on May 18, 2001

I thought the Subway hand puppet was Gilbert Gottfried!

Good God. So did I. So there's some pathetic VO actor out there whose bread and butter is sounding like Gilbert Gottfried? Jesus wept.
posted by Skot at 8:58 AM on May 18, 2001

I wonder if any celebrities were offered the Pets.com sock puppet gig...
posted by keli at 8:59 AM on May 18, 2001

Right, I think it depends on the script and the actor. I don't think Princess Mononoke suffered because its characters were voiced by celebrities. OK, well, Billy Bob Thornton was a little jarring for his first five minutes onscreen, but then I forgot about it. Aladdin is a perfect example of celebrity-animation-voicing gone wrong, though.
posted by binkin at 9:06 AM on May 18, 2001

Well, Shrek may have been better if they kept Chris Farley as the voice of that green guy. Too bad he died and they tossed his dialog track for Mike Myers.
posted by schlomo at 9:23 AM on May 18, 2001

Voice acting by celebrities isn't ultimately motivated by names; it's motivated by the fact that the people they're picking usually do a particularly good job.

Most of you are too young to have attended the initial release of Star Wars. (After all, it was 1977.) It was several years before we all learned that the voice of Darth Vader had been done by James Earl Jones. He didn't even get screen credit until Return of the Jedi. But Jones managed to submerge himself in that part; it was a spectacular voice but it didn't scream "Hey! I'm a celebrity doing this!" (But then, Jones is a consummate professional.)

Nor did Eric Idle's voice work for the character RinceWind in the "Discworld" computer games. (His performance in the first game is simply the finest game voiceover work of which I know. It's brilliant. Indeed, the first time after playing that game that I saw something with Idle in it, it was jarring: What was he doing with RinceWind's voice?)

The actor who does the voice of "Wallace" is not well known in the US, but he's apparently quite well known in the UK. I've seen interviews with Nick Park where he said that he knew immediately when the character was conceived that only Peter Sallis could do the voice.

Where the use of celebrities for voice over work becomes a problem is where they do a miserable job. But there's nothing wrong as such with using them, as long as they're competent.

I'm a monster fan of Christine Cavanaugh, but I see nothing wrong with using Cameron Diaz instead for something like this.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:24 AM on May 18, 2001

Demi Moore was Esmerelda.

(and I can't stand 99% of anime)
posted by owillis at 9:28 AM on May 18, 2001

I think the subway puppet's voice is indeed Gilbert Gottfried.
posted by ericost at 9:28 AM on May 18, 2001

If it isn't, he should sue for voice impersonation.

Tom Waits did this successfully a few years ago.
posted by sauril at 10:00 AM on May 18, 2001

Anybody remember "Jetsons: The Movie?" They used Tiffany as Judy instead of Janet Waldo! Absolutely painful.
posted by Erendadus at 10:05 AM on May 18, 2001

I like how Trey Parker and Matt Stone handle the celebs for South Park. With the exception of George Clooney as the doctor in the movie, most celebs have been cast in insignificant roles (ie The Chick From Species as Miss Kitty)
posted by spunkster at 10:17 AM on May 18, 2001

I didn't think it was Gilbert Gottfried. Doesn't sound exactly like the way I remember his voice.

Maybe he hit puberty and his voice changed!

Regardless, I know there are ripoffs out there. You hear them all the time on local radio ads and the like. They exist. The Gottfriedites exist!
posted by Succa at 10:38 AM on May 18, 2001

Christine Cavanaugh is fantasic in anything she does. She's a celebrity in her own right (when it comes to voiceovers), just like Frank Welker and Peter Cullen.
posted by Cavatica at 10:43 AM on May 18, 2001

The Pets.com Sock puppet voice actor is currently guest starring on "Ed" and used to be part of Mtv's "The State."
posted by Cavatica at 10:48 AM on May 18, 2001

> my last couple of anime ventures have been a little
> lacking. Any recommendations or sites that have reviews
> you can believe?

Anime is such a mixed bag! The majority is animation on the Scooby-Doo level (when somebody talks, all the action stops and nothing moves but the speaker's lips.) On the other hand, Miyazaki's stuff competes with the very greatest Disney, like Pinocchio and Snow White (and, imho, wins by a hair, which makes it the best animation by anybody, ever.) If you haven't yet seen all the Studio Ghibli stuff, don't waste a dime renting anything else until you have.
posted by jfuller at 11:58 AM on May 18, 2001

Michael Ian Black was Sock Puppet Doggie! I *knew* that voice seemed familiar. No wonder I was so smitten with that damn dog. (I have 6 of those puppets in my house right now. I feel shame.)
posted by Dreama at 12:13 PM on May 18, 2001

Was Michael Ian Black one of the guys on The State who did the thing with the pudding? I'm sorry if no one has any idea of that which I type.
posted by keli at 12:55 PM on May 18, 2001

As the above post about Princess Monoke proves, animated movies can also be a breeding ground for the kind of eletric casting not even found in a Robert Altman movie (Antz doesn't count though - all of the main cast there had made a Woody Allen film at one time or another - pop quiz, which films?).

No, stand up 'Transformers: The Movie'. This not only has the distinction of being Orson Wells last true film role released before his death, but also down at heal mortgage turns from Robert 'HeMan' Stack', Judd Nelson, Eric Idle and Leonard Nimoy.

And while I'm here, where are the IMDb going with this photo of Mr. Wells?
posted by feelinglistless at 12:55 PM on May 18, 2001

I'd say that if an actor is a good then the characterization should be compelling enough to sell the part rather than the personality performing it. This is provided that the script is good and all other movie aspects contribute to strengthen the storyline.

While I enjoyed Robin William as the Genie in Aladdin I think the problem there was that he was almost a self parody when it was all said and done. Bringing in references to modern events (not in line with the time period of the story in the film) in his diatribes as the genie probably weakened things as well.

but that's a different thread ...
posted by ooklah at 1:06 PM on May 18, 2001

Oh man I miss "The State" I gotta find videos of that somewhere... Do I smell DVD set? (I wish)

Plus, Michael Ian Black was Johnny Bluejeans on "Viva Variety"??? Another show I miss, that one was just horribly wrong, but in such a strange way...
posted by stew560 at 4:17 PM on May 18, 2001

Glad somebody mentioned Antz - my friends and I really enjoyed that movie, pretty much because of the fact that the characters were nothing more than digital versions of their voice actors, and we just found it immensely entertaining. Woody Allen played the Ant Woody Allen, Jennifer Lopez played the Ant Jennifer Lopez, etc. Gene Hackman did an entertaining, over-the-top version of the character he played in "Crimson Tide" with the Ant General dude. Christopher Walken played - Christopher Walken, represented on screen by an ant. I just loved it. Antz also reminds me of the old '70s disaster flicks, filled to the breaking point with big name stars. We had Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Grant Shaud (the neurotic guy from Murphy Brown), Dan Akroyd, Jane Curtin (what paring does that bring back?? I was hoping that Dan's wasp would say "Jane, you ignorant slut!" to the other one), Anne Bancroft, Danny Glover, and John Mahoney. I think, at least partially, the creators were intentionally going for these qualities in the film. That, and it was the first big studio animated film I've seen in a long time that had characters swearing (other than Antz and the Transformers movie, there haven't been that many, and I don't remember the others).

I dunno, I think it depends on what you want your movie to be. If you're going for camp value, might as well go full speed ahead like Antz and don't be shy about it. On the other hand...

One of the many, many, many reasons I love 2001: A Space Odyssey so much is that Kubrick didn't use big name stars in the film. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester really made David Bowman and Frank Poole and Heywood Floyd, BECAUSE they weren't big stars. It's one of the (many) problems I have with the film version of 2010 (which, BTW, was still an excellent book, if only a ho-hum movie). Sure, that character is CALLED "Heywood Floyd," but all I see is Roy Scheider.

I must admit, it was bizarre to see William Sylvester turn up on MST3k in "Riding with Death," though.

As an aside, am I the only person who has noticed that some companies are using singers in their ads with really, really, REALLY horrid voices? I'm not talking about Britney's Pepsi ad though. The two that stick in my mind are from Hyundai and Verizon. Hyundai has that horridly voiced woman belting out "Freedom is calling, here I am!" at the end of all their spots, and Verizon has that only slightly better woman doing their songs. What is up with that???
posted by Spirit_VW at 1:36 PM on May 20, 2001

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