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Toon titans

“Well you might as well talk to me because nobody else will talk about it. I’m not afraid of anybody,” says voice actor Billy West — who over the past two decades has worked on the likes of Ren & Stimpy and Futurama — when asked about the use of Hollywood actors in animated feature films.

world Updated: Mar 05, 2011 23:39 IST

“Well you might as well talk to me because nobody else will talk about it. I’m not afraid of anybody,” says voice actor Billy West — who over the past two decades has worked on the likes of Ren & Stimpy and Futurama — when asked about the use of Hollywood actors in animated feature films.

Over the past 20 years, West has watched from the inside as traditional actors (as opposed to career voice actors) have taken over the animated feature film industry. It’s such common practice now, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was always like this.

Take the latest animation release, Rango, which has been marketed a Johnny Depp film. Depp’s name fills the screen of the trailer within 20 seconds. The film’s posters tell you, in no uncertain terms, that JOHNNY DEPP IS RANGO. He just happens to look like a CG chameleon.

But it wasn’t always like this. From the beginning of animated feature film history in the 1930s right up until the early-90s, you wouldn’t have had a clue who was voicing these characters. Bar a few notable exceptions from the worlds of music and radio, casts were populated by specialist voice actors, whose names certainly did not adorn promotional material.

But a change in Disney’s production staff during the late-1980s, instigated to revive the company’s fortunes, opened the floodgates.

Many of this new wave of Disney suits were ex-theatre producers, and they retooled accordingly: Beauty And The Beast required singing talents, so the crew went to theatrical casting directors, resulting in the employment of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach, established stars of both stage and screen.

And then came Robin Williams. Fox’s magical rainforest yarn FernGully, released in April 1992, was somewhat pioneering, utilising the voice work of Williams alongside Tim Curry and Christian Slater, but it fared poorly.

The role of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, however, was written specifically for the star, who then ad-libbed substantially, and the film, released the same year, raked in millions. Much of its success was justifiably attributed to Williams.

The industry has never looked back. Still, the actors took some coaxing, not least because voiceover scale pay is generally much less than for a regular acting role. Even when there’s been more money on the table, “cartoon” work has sometimes been viewed as corny.

Williams was reportedly paid $75,000 for Aladdin, although Disney still had to woo him by cutting some audio from his stand-up work over rough animation.

Comedian Don Rickles was prickly: “When (director) John Lasseter said he’d like to test my voice for an animated feature he was doing. He said, ‘You’ll play a toy, a Mr Potato Head.’ And I said, ‘Go away! I’ve worked my whole life to try to be a success. I don’t need to be a toy.’” But Rickles too was eventually conviniced. “Years ago, celebrities wouldn’t bother with cartoons; they’d look down their nose at them,” explains Billy West. “But since they crashed the party here, nobody looks down their nose at it.”

And indeed, other studios quickly followed Disney and Pixar’s lead: Universal’s Balto (1995) featured Kevin Bacon and Bob Hoskins; Fox’s Anastasia (1997) boasted Meg Ryan and John Cusack. Woody Allen voiced the lead in DreamWorks’ Antz. And now, you’d be hard-pressed to find an animated film produced by a major studio that isn’t rammed with major talent.

West sees this as a case of Hollywood protecting itself. Pixar occasionally bucks the trend: Patton Oswalt’s lead casting in Ratatouille were unknowns, mega-successes such as WALL-E and Up didn’t boast big names.

Ever since Aladdin’s success, more and more animated characters have been written with specific actors in mind. “On Shrek, Eddie Murphy was locked in as the donkey before we’d even designed the donkey,” says Kelly Asbury, who directed last month’s animated Gnomeo & Juliet. “It happens a lot that a name actor will be signed on to a project in its germ stage.” That’s not to say that Murphy isn’t fantastic as that donkey. “Sure, Eddie’s an example of where it did work,” agrees Asbury. “But it happens all the time where they throw in gigantic box-office stars and it doesn’t do the film any good whatsoever.”

But the industry changes also reflect this generation’s obsession with celebrity, sometimes to the detriment of the art. Studios are now scared not to pluck from the A-list pool.

“Kelly Asbury wanted Emily Blunt and James McAvoy for Gnomeo & Juliet,” says the producer Baker Bloodworth, “and the studio quite rightly looked at this entrepreneurial movie adventure and said, ‘You should be getting bigger names. We have an enormous financial risk on the line.’ There was a lot of pressure on us to deliver big-name talent.”
Marketing definitely becomes easier. “When you have a name actor, with a face that people recognise and a name that can go on posters or billboards, that’s always a plus,” says Asbury. How else can Justin Timberlake’s turn as Boo-Boo be explained in last month’s Yogi Bear? Billy West, who’s voiced Boo-Boo in the past, says Timberlake’s performance sounds like “a parody of a parody”.

The ultimate irony is that the film’s demographic — kids — neither know nor care that Timberlake is involved. Tom Hanks tells a story of how he once met a mum with a kid clutching a Woody doll. Hanks took the doll and signed the sole of one of its shoes, only to have the kid look at him aghast, like he’d “defaced a Picasso. He didn’t know who I was; all he knew was that some jerk just scrawled a ballpoint pen all over his Woody toy.”