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“Megamind” – Do Celebrity Voices Really Draw Us to Animated Films?

"Megamind" - Do Celebrity Voices Really Draw Us to Animated Films?

I’ve typically been against the practice of casting movie stars’ voices in animated films. I think it all began with Robin Williams’ distractingly hammy vocal performance in “Aladdin,” which took me completely out of the story and simultaneously broke my excitement with the Disney Animation renaissance following the relatively celeb-free “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” When the first teaser trailer for “Megamind” hit back in March, I got the impression Will Ferrell was going to similarly ruin what could otherwise be a decent little superhero cartoon. I just couldn’t get the voice to match the blue-skinned, large-domed title character, no matter how hard I tried. In addition to my problem of always picturing the real, live Ferrell in my mind, it also seemed this would be another animated film with unnecessary overacting. A sort of mugging for the ear.

I’m anything but consistent, though, and can’t help but be attracted to Tina Fey’s voice in “Megamind” as well as the potential for some fun dialogue exchanges between her and Ferrell. But I still feel that I’ll simply be thinking of them too much as Fey and Ferrell rather than their characters. Jonah Hill didn’t bother me much in “How to Train Your Dragon,” so I’m not concerned with him. As for Brad Pitt, well, is he really a voice talent that’s counted on to bring in an audience he failed to bring, with a larger role, for “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” (named the worst celebrity voice performance in animation by About.com)?

Thinking about the overuse of celebrity talent for animated films brings me back to a 1999 article from Animation World, which then called the practice a “trend,” went through a bit of the history of casting star voices and addressing the possibility that it’s hurting strictly vocal actors. It reminds us of the talent behind the characters in “The Jungle Book” — though I tend to think of Louis Prima more than Phil Harris. But even if celeb voices were employed fifty years ago, it wasn’t as big a deal as it is today, whether or not it’s actually because there’s simply more animated films made today. Just imagine animated film characters with such distinct voices as Cary Grant’s, John Wayne’s, Marilyn Monroe’s and Katherine Hepburn’s. I’m surprised Hepburn didn’t actually do one, since she lived long enough to do as Orson Welles, James Stewart and Paul Newman did.

Here’s an assumption made in the AW article that was sadly prophetic:

One voice actor who asked to remain anonymous suggests, “If they were casting some of the classics of my youth for the first time today, they’d get Joe Pesci to play Bugs Bunny, Dan Ackroyd for Yogi Bear, and Whoopi Goldberg for Felix the Cat.”

Of course Aykroyd (misspelled in the article) is indeed the voice of Yogi Bear in the upcoming CG/live-action hybrid (with Justin Timberlake as his pal Boo Boo). Goldberg, on the other hand, was recently a non-iconic purple octopus in “Toy Story 3.” Joe Pesci surprisingly has never voiced an animated character.

In a “Freakonomics” column in the NY Times last year, Steven D. Levitt attempted to figure out why animated films use celebrity voices. He came up with a few theories including this one:

A third explanation is that people really like to hear the voices of the stars. I tend to doubt that story as well. With a few notable exceptions, my guess is that audiences couldn’t even identify the voices of the stars if they didn’t see the credits.

He ultimately figured that Hollywood uses them merely for those credits and the recognition that comes with them, though he should have also noted, as a quote in the Animation World piece does, that this recognition probably has a lot to do with a movie’s promotion. Stars like Will Ferrell and Tina Fey can show up in silly costumes at red carpet events and appear on talk shows (such as Fey’s visit with David Letterman last night, complete with a bonus voice-performance as Sarah Palin).

They also are often seen in the commercials performing in front of microphones in a sound studio. That definitely doesn’t help me forget the actor’s face and let their voice sink into the role when I’m watching the movie. Unless they’re really good. I can honestly say that after three “Toy Story” movies I’m no longer thinking of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen when I’m watching Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Perhaps Fey and Ferrell’s real-life personas will be as unobtrusive by the time “Megamind 3” opens?

Anyone else too distracted by celeb voices? Anyone admittedly drawn to animated films for the star talent?

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Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic)

[Comic-Con photo courtesy of Cinema Blend]

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