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Animated films need big names for marketing

Garfield, shown in this file photo, was voiced by Bill Murray.

Garfield, shown in this file photo, was voiced by Bill Murray.

Quick, name a cartoon character voiced by Adriana Caselotti.
OK, then, name a cartoon character voiced by TV star Ray Romano.
As any 10-year-old will tell you, Romano voiced a wooly mammoth in the computer-animated "Ice Age" films.
Caselotti? She was the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the world's first animated feature. But nearly 70 years ago cartoon voice actors served in anonymity, The truth is, if "Snow White" were being made today, Caselotti would never get the role. Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts would - someone with show-biz clout.
The reason is money. In the decades since "Snow White" animated films have gone from movie industry afterthought to economic juggernaut. Three animated features - "Shrek 2," "Finding Nemo" and "The Lion King" - are among the all-time Top 20 box-office hits.
And along with that economic clout there's been a shift in how animated characters get their voices.
When Mickey Mouse first spoke, it was with the voice of his creator, Walt Disney.
Nowadays, though, animated characters converse with the vocal cords of Hollywood's highest-profile actors.
The cast of the recent Pixar hit "Cars" included Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman and 11 more of their famous brethren.
Famous voices sell, said Mark Evanier, an L.A.-based writer, director and casting director for numerous animated TV shows. It gives projects prestige and credibility. "It's about bragging rights."
Voice actor Corey Burton said producers count on the exposure celebrities get with interviews and personal appearances.
"Since most celebrities do animated movies for a lark, not demanding their usual multi million-dollar deal, it's an inexpensive form of marketing ... and star names make it easier to interest the money people," he said.
Celebrity casting is not new, notes show-biz journalist Leonard Maltin.
"The first Disney animated features were cast without consideration of fame," said Maltin, who has written books about Disney animation. "When Walt cast the character of Snow White, he deliberately had the voices of auditioning actresses piped into his office. He didn't want to see the girl and be swayed by the way she looked."
But a decade later Disney cast Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna as the Mad Hatter and March Hare in "Alice in Wonderland," knowing radio listeners instantly would recognize the voices of these two manic comics. And it wasn't just the voices ... the animated characters look like Wynn and Colonna.
"Walt was drawing on their personalities to flesh out the animated creations. It was very deliberate," Maltin said. "But that pales in comparison to what we're seeing today."
Things began changing in 1992. That's when Disney's animated "Aladdin" hit movie theaters with the motor-mouthed Robin Williams providing the voice of the Genie. The film was such a huge hit - in large part because of Williams - that producers saw the potential of star casting in animated films.
Familiarity is the key. Stars bring with them their own personas and idiosyncrasies. When viewers recognize a voice, they associate the animated character with the actor who provides the voice.
A perfect example is sassy comedian Wanda Sykes, who provided the voice for a sassy skunk in this summer's animated feature "Over the Hedge." The skunk took on many of the trappings of Sykes' persona, a form of shorthand that creates a character with less effort for animators.
In a recent interview to promote "Over the Hedge," Sykes described voice work as "the loneliest job I ever had."
"It's pretty much just you and the microphone," Sykes said. "At the time I recorded my lines I hadn't seen anything that would tell me what the movie would be like. There was no footage. I never saw a complete script - just my own lines."
A camera in the recording booth captured Sykes' expressions and body language.
Twenty years ago a major star would have considered lending his or her voice to an animated film as a step down. But now that animation is huge (with 14 animated features being released this year), even heavy hitters like Bruce Willis ("Over the Hedge") and Julia Roberts ("Ant Bully," opening today) have jumped on the band wagon.
And why not? The work is easy (no costumes, no location shoots, no having to lose weight or spend hours in makeup). Big stars can take home paychecks in the mid-five figures for a few hours' work. Lesser names may only get scale. And new Screen Actors Guild rules have increased the royalties to voice actors whose work finds its way to DVD.
If you've got kids, it's a no-brainer. Actors have found that their offspring are far more impressed by their one credit in an animated film than by their long resume of regular movies.
Plus, "If the movie fails, nobody blames an actor who only provides a voice," Evanier said. "You're not risking your career."
Star casting in animated movies makes sense financially. But what about artistically?
"This trend of having big names do vocal work ... I'd be happy to be rid of," said Gil Kenan, the young director of the animated "Monster House," which opened Friday.
"I think a familiar voice actually takes me out of the movie," he said. "I think it's cheating, relying on an actor's personality rather on their acting."
For that reason Kenan doesn't have any major stars providing voices for "Monster House."
In fact, star casting doesn't guarantee a successful animated film.
Maltin notes that the hit animated feature "The Incredibles" cast actors like Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson, whose voices aren't immediately recognizable to most moviegoers, but whose talent allowed them to create fresh characters.
"DreamWorks had a terrible flop with their animated 'Sinbad,' and they had two of our hottest stars in Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones," Maltin said. "And in 'Titan AE' Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore just sounded bored."
It's true - some big-name actors are lousy at voice work.
Star casting infuriates many voice actors, who are unknown to the public but can custom-create distinctive voices for any character.
"It's a cutthroat field," Evanier said. "Every professional voice actor can tell you about having a job and then losing it to a name actor. And not just movies ... name actors like Sean Connery and Peter Coyote are doing TV commercials, which used to go to voice artists."
But nobody expects things to change.
"In a way this defines today movie's industry," Maltin said. "One of Walt Disney's smartest moves was to understand that if he made something timeless, it could generate new audiences forever.
"But Hollywood today has only short-term interests. They're not working for posterity or even for next year. They're working for opening weekend and the DVD release. That's about as far ahead as they can see."

Updated : 2021-09-21 11:07 GMT+08:00