Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I Hear Voices

Pretty much all acting includes at least some vocal work, unless you're Marcel Marceau. Even if you're playing Helen Keller, you're likely to grunt a bit. But today's topic concerns acting only with the voice. The Washington Post recently ran an article regarding the invasion of the animated world by stars.

This is not a new phenomenon, but is attracting some attention due to the universally panned vocal performances in the new animated hit, Kung Fu Panda. Back to that in a moment.

Back in ye olden days (pre-Beauty and the Beast, let's say), nobody gave a flip about who was voicing our animated characters. Yes, Mel Blanc became a celebrity based on his huge repertoire of voices, but it's doubtful that civilians could name even one other talent known primarily for their voice work. June Foray, who voiced Rocky the Squirrel as well as many many characters for the Hanna-Barbera studio, remained an unknown throughout her long and successful career. (More people know Marni Nixon than Foray; Nixon provided vocal work behind the scenes in a number of hugely successful movie musicals, including singing the leading lady's songs in The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.)

The instances of a star, already established in another medium, lending a voice to animation were pretty rare, until about 15 years ago. There were exceptions. Who can mistake the sultry tones of the great Peggy Lee as she warbled and vamped in Lady and the Tramp?

Of course, she was singing her own tunes in that one.

The Jungle Book included a few heavy-hitters too, including Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, and Phil Harris.

The Little Mermaid's cast included several mid-level stars as well, including Buddy Hackett and Rene Auberjonois. And who can imagine the seawitch, Ursula, with any voice other than that of the spectacular Pat Carroll?

(Apparently, nobody, including the New York critics who blasted the current stage version of the show now on Broadway. The role is being played there by the supremely talented Sherie Rene Scott, who has nonetheless received lackluster reviews...)

Some of these mid-level stars mentioned above were household names, but none were on the same level of celebrity as the current crop of A-listers who now frequent the animation recording studio.

Nowadays, the Post article points out, it is highly unlikely to find a major animated feature released without a plethora of box office names attached to it.

The phenomenon of movie stars lending their voices to animated features seems to trace back to Robin Williams's maniacally hilarious turn as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin. And really, no one can fault that performance, which swiped the film while overpowering the plot.

The Post makes an argument with which I am certain my buddy Scott would vehemently disagree. (Scott makes his living in the voice acting genre, and is one of the "go-to" talents in the industry.) The article claims that, in some instances, the vocal star power adds tremendously to the film in question, as exemplified by Aladdin, and by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the Toy Story franchise (another sequel is due out next year). My friend Scott has seen his opportunities in these large studio films diminish in direct proportion to the increased employment of "star voices."

Scott has said many times (many, MANY times) that if actors like Hanks want to take work away from voice actors, they are free to do so, but they should then relinquish their movie roles to the actors they are robbing.

I don't have a problem with Scott's viewpoint. I've never done voice-over work (another reason I'm so poor), so the controversy is interesting to me, but not life-altering. I can say something with which I think Scott and other voice talents might agree: the stars I mentioned above, in The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid, were all well-cast in their respective cartoon roles. I would say the same about the voices in MY favorite animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tom Hulce, Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Kevin Kline are all memorable in their roles, though I have to say that the best vocal performances given in that film belong to less than well-known talents Tony Jay and Mary Wickes. The Hunchback proves one of the points being made in the Post article which started this discussion: the presence of an actual film star (in Hunchback's case, Demi Moore) gives the film additional promotional clout, but can actually diminish the quality of the work itself. Moore's singing was so deplorable that her songs were dubbed ("paging Marni Nixon..."), and it is certain that there were qualified voice actresses out there who could have voiced the role and sung the role just as well.

Which brings the topic back where it began. Kung Fu Panda was the number one film its opening weekend, and remains strong at the box office. Its cast includes Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu, and their work is receiving less than stellar reviews from the critics ("next to no personality," according to NPR). This will in no way restrict the use of stars in future animated flicks. The stats reflect that a large percentage of the audiences attending the film are age 17 or older, which apparently means that marquee names do attract an audience outside the children at which animated films are aimed. So producers will continue to cast recognizable names in their cartoons, regardless of their fitness for the job.

Animation studios deserve what they get, artistically speaking, and I hereby submit the following. If Tom Hanks or Jack Black wish to voice a character in a film, put them behind a screen and let them audition for the role, right next to other vocal talent like my friend Scott.
Who do you think would get the part?