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How A-Listers Have Changed the Voice of Animation

Animation is what strikes us all the way from a film's promotional materials to that first glorious moment on screen. And although the adage is still that a picture is worth a thousand words, the most gorgeous of animated fare needs the right voice talent to fully come to alive. Voice work is what gives the characters personality, feelings and ultimately life. 

Hollywood animation is dominated by four mammoth studios: Disney, its subsidiary, Pixar (though still a decidedly unique entity altogether), DreamWorks and Fox’s Blue Sky, the latter three relative newcomers to the game, so to speak. Only after viable competition arose to challenge the Disney behemoth did voice acting truly make its transition from relative no-names to A-listers and the visual aspect of the art form ultimately took a slight step back. There is no debate as to why this trend came about and it can be summed up in one symbol: $.

Kung Fu Panda, one of the many animated sequels due this year in multiplexes, packs its cast with a plethora of notable stars and proven talents. In honour of that sequel’s embracement of this changing trend, Player Affinity will take a peek, or rather have a listen, to the evolution of animation and the importance of the voice.


With Disney nowhere to be seen, the so called “golden age of animation” began with 1,000 voices, but all from one man: Mel Blanc. Crafting the personalities for timeless characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote and Woody Woodpecker to name very few, Blanc worked with virtually every studio in operation in the early 1900s and would craft a career spanning six decades. Although far from a household name, Blanc was the first hint that prestige could mean something behind the animated image as well as serving as inspiration for many of today’s notable men and women of “a thousand voices,” such as Hank Azaria.

Disney finally broke onto the silver screen with its first feature film in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a look at its cast speaks volumes to the thought process behind casting at the time. Voicing Snow White was Adriana Caselotti, which was her only role, and for which she made $970. In the following decade, the burgeoning studio would release four more consecutive classics with Pinocchio, Fantastia, Dumbo and Bambi, all without any household names or lasting stars recognizable in today’s age. In many cases that followed, talent was chosen on singing ability, not acting or level of stardom.


Fast forward almost 50 years, where the times began to shift and the first hint at what was to come spoke its proverbial first words. That's not to say the voice actors from the '50s and '60s did not have recurring gigs; stars were just not born from these roles, because focus remained on the animation and catchy original tunes. The very first instance of a bona fide  star lending his chords to a colourful character was in 1992’s Aladdin, when Robin Williams, in the height of his popularity (in between $100 million hits Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire), gave life to the Genie. Not only did this set a quality benchmark that has arguably yet to be met, but it also competed the paradigm shift in animation.

The floodgates soon opened. The year 1995 saw two major films with choice voice stars: Pocahontas (Mel Gibson) and the debut from Pixar, Toy Story, (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and many others). Disney’s next four films would recruit the likes of Demi Moore, James Woods, Eddie Murphy and Glenn Close — to name a few — and Pixar would continue its hot streak with A Bug’s Life (1998) and Toy Story 2 (1999). This second “bug movie” of the year (the first being
Antz, also star-studded) recruited a huge cast including a notable Kevin Spacey as the evil locust Hopper.


After DreamWorks made its debut with the aforementioned Antz and Blue Sky’s Ice Age came in 2002, the metamorphosis of the genre was complete. Shrek and its sequels upped the anti and the studio never looked back, placing recognizable stars in strategic voice roles that landed front and center in all the marketing campaigns: Jack Black, Jerry Seinfeld, multiple appearances by Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell all received hefty paycheques for their time and even Pixar went with Owen Wilson for the “lesser” received Cars. There were two notable instances of hopeful relapse over at Disney with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled where A-listers were nowhere to be seen, and a number of recent Pixar offerings, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Ratatouille and Up went for the best choices, not the most eye-catching names. In fact, the posters for all those films had no actors listed but relied strictly on the goodwill earned by past efforts.


I digress however, as putting a big star in the lead role of an animated film is in no way a detriment to the final product if they do an admirable job on the animation and the material is of a great enough calibre to hold its own. It is when studios put the full burden of a film’s quality and ultimate success on a handful of names and forgo all faith in the feature itself. The symptom of having a too-recognizable voice is also well-documented and in many cases can strip a viewer cleanly out of the viewing experience. To use a theatre term, it's a kind of breach of the fourth wall.

There is nothing to suggest this trend will ever make a full reversal and with production of sequels to popular properties heating up, the ultimate creativity of the genre is waning. Faith in the viewer has become a dated concept it seems, replaced by massive marketing pushes and familiar thespians. The golden age of animation may be behind us, but if creative characters can give me a fun time for a few hours (hopefully with a decent dose of heart thrown in), I suppose this adorer or the medium can’t complain too much.






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