How Celebrities Took Over Cartoon Voice Acting

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Puss In Boots, with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, is the latest animated flick with famous voices behind the characters. It wasn't always this way, though.

puss in boots banderas hayek facebook.jpg

Dreamworks/Puss In Boots Facebook

Is there a stranger kind of celebrity than the voice actor?

Countless children grew up watching the adventures of Tommy Pickles on Nickelodeon's Rugrats, but virtually none of them would recognize Elizabeth Daily, who voiced Tommy, if they passed her on the street. The same goes for Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime of Transformers), or Cam Clarke (Leonardo of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Ubiquitous but nearly anonymous, traditional voice actors reach millions of children who will always remember their voices—but never know their names.

At least, that's how it is on TV. But when it comes to movies, recent years have seen big-screen Hollywood voice acting dominated by A-List actors like Bruce Willis, Angelina Jolie, and Robert DeNiro. The latest celebrity-dominated animated film comes now in the Shrek-inspired Puss in Boots, which represents the unholy trinity of Hollywood's recent favorite trends: 3D, prequels, and spinoffs.

As with almost all contemporary animated films, Puss in Boots is being sold on a laundry list of big-name Hollywood actors. In fact, the celebrity voices behind the film are so integral its marketing strategy that the cast is the last thing you see before the release date in the film's trailer: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Amy Sedaris. It's so common to see big names attached to a big animated blockbuster that audiences have begun to take it for granted.

But animated films weren't always like this. Quick—name the voice behind Snow White inSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs. No luck? What aboutPinocchio? Or Cinderella? OrOne Hundred and One Dalmatians? Or even a film as recent as 1992's Beauty and the Beast? Hats off if you managed to come up with Paige O'Hara (Belle) and Robby Benson (Beast)—but you're in the great minority of filmgoers.

When did celebrities take over the world of voice acting? Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney's 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin. Though Aladdin boasted some of the world's most seasoned voice actors—including Frank Welker, whose astonishing range of characters include Scooby-Doo, Kermit the Frog, and Transformers' Megatron—there was one man who stood out from the rest of the cast: Robin Williams, who voiced the film's hyperactive Genie.

In many ways, it was the perfect pairing of actor and character, and Williams's manic energy made for a undeniably great Genie. But the casting decision came with a catch—it's also impossible to separate the Genie, as a character, from the public persona Robin Williams. Aladdin's Genie constantly breaks the fourth wall, winking at the audience and doing impressions, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jack Nicholson, that are just a little anachronistic for the film's ancient Arabian time period. Though the film was named after Aladdin (voiced, you almost certainly don't remember, by Scott Weinger), Williams's Genie is the character audiences responded to, and—more importantly to Disney—its most marketable character by far.

The celebrification of voicework can be traced through the films Disney released in the years after Aladdin, from The Lion King (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Whoopi Goldberg, James Earl Jones) to Home on the Range (Roseanne Barr, Dame Judi Dench). But the trend has been most prevalent in the computer-animated films that have dominated family-friendly cinema since Pixar released Toy Story in 1995.

The marketability of a big-name celebrity voice actor gave way, perhaps inevitably, to an even more insidious trend: directly basing a character's appearance on the famous actor providing its voice. The examples range from the Jerry Seinfeld bee inBee Movie to the Tina Fey-esque reporter inMegamind, but the apex is Dreamworks' 2004 animated film Shark Tale, which features creepy human-fish hybrids of actors like Will Smith and Angelina Jolie. Pixar, ahead of the curve as always, has attempted to back away from relying on A-List actors, with terrific results; the studio's two best films in recent years (and, arguably, of all time) are Wall-E­—whose robotic leads can only speak variations of their names—and Up, which starred Ed Asner and newcomer Jordan Nagai.

But for better or worse, Puss in Boots is yet another example of a film's famous lead voice actor defining its character. Banderas's Puss is essentially an animated, feline version of Banderas's Zorro, right down to the gravelly baritone and the penchant for slicing his initials into things. Needless to say, the Spanish, Zorro-esque Puss in Shrek bears absolutely no resemblance to the original French feline of Charles Perrault's quaint 1697 fairy tale.

With the marketing machine growing larger by the day, is there any room for a "man of a thousand voices" like the legendary Mel Blanc in contemporary Hollywood? The proud legacy of the voice actor carries on primarily on television and in video games, where underappreciated luminaries like Maurice LaMarche and Dan Castellanetta provide the voices for dozens of iconic characters, but unfortunately, conventional voice actors rarely get the chance to helm a contemporary animated film. Banderas's voice is perfect for Puss—the character was tailored to it, after all—but in the end, Banderas has one voice, and when the best voice actors have "a thousand voices," it's hard not to feel like they're being wasted.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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