A few years ago, when the animated film The Incredibles (2004) was released, the world was abuzz with just how awesome Pixar’s latest release was. I sat down to watch the film; all was going well until Mrs Incredible opened her mouth and out came Holly Hunter’s excruciating drawl.
Events repeated themselves a few months later when Madagascar (2005) was released. I got roped into watching it on the insistence of a friend who I discovered had never seen the TV show Friends and had no idea who David Schwimmer was. A decade-long obsession with the sitcom, however, turned out to be a serious interference, because every time Melman spoke, my mind went on an “Oh dear, I think that giraffe ate Ross!” overdrive. While I’ll reluctantly concede that it may be a tad too finicky to not be able to look past the celebrity voice-overs, I still think that it doesn’t seem like too much to ask of the filmmakers to use voice talent that can make us forget there is an actor behind the animation and focus on the character. Instead they leave us with an image of a celebrity speaking into a microphone.
For much of animation’s history, animated characters were voiced by trained voice actors (often doing a number of characters within the same film), who usually remained out of the spotlight. Then things started to change; Robin Williams became the voice of the Genie in Aladdin (1992); Woody and Buzz Lightyear got their voices from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story (1995). Instead of creating characters and then finding the fitting voice talents, studios started creating characters to fit celebrities.
Presumably, the idea is to attach star-power to a project but does showering big bucks on the Hollywood elite actually pay off? You could give examples both for and against this concept. Shark Tale and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas both featured celebrity voices — one was a success, while the other was not. Do people — especially children, the major target market of animated movies — really care if a penguin is sharing its vocal chords with Shia LaBeouf or Elijah Wood?
Some don’t seem to think so, including veteran voice actor Billy West, who has pointed out that trained voice actors are asked to guide movie stars for their roles in animated films. The only glimmer of hope comes from the fact that since studios like Pixar have made their brand synonymous with excellence, they may not feel the need to get celebrity endorsement for their films. Indeed some of their latest releases have suggested a slight tilt in this direction. For instance, WALL-E, which turned out better than perfect, did not heavily rely on film actors; and Up, which used star voices aptly, just might be the best film I’ll never want to see again (but only because I have a strict share of saltwater allocation per film, and Up made me use up my entire tear quota in just the first viewing). Anyhow, my point is this: film actors don’t necessarily make good voice actors, and it would make things better if studios would hire voice actors based on talent and not just star- power. Possibly, I’m just over-thinking or is it that people are so celebrity-obsessed that they will watch an animated film simply because they recognise a name in the credits, in which case, I apologise for wasting your time. Nobody is objecting to the use of big names when they actually fit — for instance, Ellen DeGeneres was a lovely Dory, Eddie Murphy made an entertaining Mushu and Donkey, and the Pixar-John Ratzenberger alliance is (still) quite amusing. However, in most cases, using recognisable celebrity voice-overs makes for a distracted viewing experience which only diverts one from the storyline.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2010.
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