Friday, February 17, 2006

the death of voice talent

With recent animated films like Curious George (2006) out in theatres, it is abundantly clear that Hollywood has lost its respect for voice talent. Why bother actually searching for talented voice actors when you can simply plug a marquee name on the poster? Children could care less who voices the characters as long as the film is entertaining. Hollywood is hoping to persuade anyone and everyone who wouldn't normally see an animated film like Curious George to fork out the cash just because they haven't gotten enough of Will Ferrell yet. Meanwhile, hundreds of voice actors across the country are thrown into the street, collecting unemployment.

I think this trend started with Aladdin (1992), by casting Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie. This was an inspired piece of casting because Robin Williams is 1) a talented voice actor, 2) not a bad singer, and 3) a comedic genius. Aladdin was wildly successful, probably one of Disney's most successful films ever (I don't wanna bother looking up statistics on that one), and I quite enjoy it. Because Aladdin was so successful, movie studios decided to pull this trick again and again, with less impressive results each time. Since then, popular actors have been bleeding their way into animated films, at an alarming rate. You know you've seen that behind-the-scenes footage of them without makeup and wearing sweatpants in front of a microphone in a recording room. You're supposed to think: "They actually do voices in cartoons too?! I must go see this movie!"

I'm not saying that the quality of animated films has diminished because of this (for instance Wallace & Gromit, veteran of the animated short film circuit, finally deserves its mainstream exposure for all to enjoy). I do think, though, that's it's terrible that talented voice actors aren't being respected because they don't have that marquee name. Why have we reached a point that animated films must be sold by the names featured in it? Who really goes to see a cartoon because of the famous actor voicing a role? Recent movies like Shrek and a A Shark Tale and the neverending stream of other inside-jokey meta-script cartoons have gone overboard (Mike Myers and maybe Eddie Murphy can pass because of their voice talents.... but Cameron Diaz? Why her and not some other actress?). Today, I dare you to find an animated film that doesn't carry a popular actor in its cast (except for Wallace & Gromit, mentioned already). You'd have to start chipping away at more obscure cartoons to get to the good stuff.

I'm not saying that screen actors with familiar faces don't make good voice actors either, because that's simply not the case. But, there are actors that specialize in voices who are likely passed over because they're not recognizable. Shouldn't that be the point, though? When we watch animation, we're not watching acting, we're hearing it. The voice should be the seller. Sometimes voice actors don't have the film "look", and that's exactly why they specialize in voice, because that's what they're good at and can be employed for. Voice acting is a completely different beast than stage or film acting, and now it seems to almost be a dying art.

This brings to mind that idea of "image capture" animation, with Tom Hanks wearing that funny virtual reality shooting-practice suit so he can play x number of creepy dead-eyed characters in The Polar Express (2004). Andy Serkis got the same job, sort of, playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the title ape in King Kong (2005). This furthers the disintegration of voice acting as a specialty by merging live acting with animation: are we really seeing these films because of Hanks and Serkis? I imagine we could care less, considering we can't actually see them through the computer magic.

I think voice acting has a little bit more longevity in television, before it gets gobbled up as it has in film. "The Simpsons", for instance, is a phenomenal example of voice acting at its best. They've got a fairly small cast, each voicing a variety of characters. Their voices are icons of pop culture, and much of the humor and love for the show comes from their voices before the animation. When the cast got together and threatened not to renew their contracts because they wanted raises a few years ago, Fox actually considered letting them go. Now, I'm not a fan of actors getting uppity and demanding outlandish sums for their work (Dear the Cast of "Friends": You all suck. Demanding $2 million an episode? What can you do with $50 million a year that you can't with $5 million? You all seemed to be getting by just fine when you were hired at base pay. All of you can go to hell.), but you can't have "The Simpsons" without the voices of the Simpsons! The thought that Fox considered actually recasting them is outlandish and careless and unappreciative of their talent. This would have never been a thought if they were live actors, like the sucky cast of "Friends" for instance. (Side note: "Simpsons" essential Hank Azaria seems to have made a rare crossover from voice acting to noticeable exposure in non-animated film and television.)

Another paragon of brilliant voice acting: "Daria". This show was so on target, and I give full credit to the phenomenal talent of the actors behind the character's voices. Each character had a distinct personality to the point of subtle comic perfection, and the show is worth rewatching to observe how they all speak. Just like "The Simpsons", the characters of "Daria" express their personalities and neuroses in the slightly turned-up mayhem of their unique voices.... imagine Marge Simpson's gravelly nagging, Homer's girlish giggle.... the list goes on and on, because they're all brilliant. In "Daria", Daria's sister Quinn and Quinn's friend Sandi are hilarious because of their simple disdain, all in the voice. It says quite a lot when an actor only has his or her voice to distinguish them. When you remember back to the best of animated comedy (drama too, to some extent), what do you remember most? The lines that were drawn, or the lines that were spoken?


is that so wrong? said...

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Mike said...

Hank Azaria is so funny in Along CAme Polly I can't believe it. He is only in the first 15 minutes and I think fondly on the movie only because of the part he was in.