Thursday, October 13, 2016

Do celebrity voices matter in animated films?

Ellen DeGeneres as Dory
When I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, there were trailers for three animated feature films, one after another. For the life of me, I swear I could not tell them apart. They all sought to tell earnest stories of friendship and following your dreams and blah blah blah, with a quirky-but-lovable cast of characters, familiar pop music on the soundtrack, and most of all, celebrity voice actors! All three trailers pushed their all-star voice casts hard. I'll come back to that in a minute.

Here's a sampling of animated films currently in production in Europe: a Poland/Spain/Belgium/Germany co-production set in 1975 about a Polish journalist in Angola writing about the civil war. A fantasy film from Belgium and France about a tween girl who makes a deal with the devil to become a witch. A modern-day fairy tale from France and Canada about a third-world homeless boy out to stop the growth of a dictatorship in his homeland through his dreams. From the UK and Canada, an adaptation of the American cult comic book The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. From Germany and the UK, a comedic interpretation of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve (with nudity). Do I even need to bother going into Japanese animation?

I hope you see my point.

Mike Myers as Shrek
Getting back to the matter of celebrity voice actors: this is a 2014 article about the proliferation of the trend and how it's beginning to threaten the livelihood of non-celebrity, trained VO actors. I admit, part of what drew me to the first Toy Story movie was Tom Hanks as the voice of Woody. The number-one incentive for using celebs, money, is addressed at length in the piece. It's almost impossible to ignore if you're a studio head.

Are all celebrity voices, however, equally distinctive? When Jen and I went to Videology's movie trivia night months ago, one of the categories in the multi-stage contest was identifying celebrity voices. The hosts would play an audio clip from a commercial narrated by a (presumably) known Hollywood star, and the contestants had to name the speaker.

Of all the stages of the trivia contest that night - I think there were six in all - this was the one with the fewest points earned. Every team in the audience struggled to name the voices, and the impression I had was, most of the contestants were above-average in terms of film and TV knowledge. Jen and me are certainly no slouches, either, but we and our teammates faltered too.

Mark Hamill as the Joker
Do kids even care that much about celebrity voices? When I asked my professional cartoonist friend Scott Roberts on Facebook, he didn't seem to think so: "The celebrity voices at one time didn't matter. I think The Jungle Book [1967] was one of the first animated films to promote the idea. Then it started to look bankable. Now if a film doesn't have an all-star cast, and it fares poorly, many people assume the lack of star power was the reason. Yet sometimes the chosen actors are criticized. I think it matters more to distributors and the studio than it does to a kid."

The novelty has long since worn off on me. I saw Kubo despite the celebrity voices, not because of them (though they were good). I had heard it was a well-done movie overall, and it was. This fall's wave of animated films may or may not be any good (though I doubt it), and in the end, you can't blame Hollywood for giving the celebrity VO cast the hard sell. Still, it shouldn't be the overriding reason anyone sees an animated film. A good one should have more going for it than that.

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