Casting some big name in your animated feature solely to boost ticket sales, regardless of if they fit the role whatsoever, is a practice mainly attributed to DreamWorks Animation and their practice of shoehorning as many celebrities into a film as possible. How many big names can you stuff into the likes of Shark Tale, Antz, Bee Movie or Monsters vs. Aliens? Only one way to find out! This method of casting has spread like wildfire to other American animation studios, especially Blue Sky Studios, which hired Nicki Minaj and Drake to play mammoths that had six lines each, tops, in Ice Age: Continental Drift.
Yes, DreamWorks Animation may have popularized this form of casting, but they’re certainly not the first ones to use it. The likes of pre-DreamWorks Animation films like Aladdin and The Lion King hiring big names to play characters into their animated movies were no mere flukes, they were only yet another example of celebrities coming into the world of animation. Sometimes it was because the role they were asked to play spoke to them, other times it was simply for a hefty paycheck. Regardless of the reason, the likes of Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow and Christopher Lee managed to appear in The Last Unicorn, a 1982 Rankin-Bass film that predates the first DreamWorks Animation film (Antz) by a whopping 16 years.
Hell, even as early as the 60’s, big names could be found in the world of animated family films, most notable in The Jungle Book, where a whose-who of top-caliber 1960’s talent like Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders and Louie Prima populated the Disney musical. Interestingly, this film provides a fantastic example of what happens when celebrity voice-overs are used to create an actual character and not just provide an opportunity for an actor to go on The Tonight Show and shill your animated movie. Just look at how Sanders solidifies the posh personality of bloodthirsty tiger Shere Kahn or how Harris creates a lovable creation out of Baloo through his skillfully delivered one-liners.
It’s not just in the past where one can discover some examples of big name actors providing excellent vocal performances. Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda, Tom Hanks in Toy Story, John C. Reilly in Wreck-It Ralph, the work that these actors pull off in their respective movies makes it feel like they were cast for their voice acting ability above all else. Compare that to Rihanna in DreamWorks Animations newest feature Home, where for some reason she’s playing a 12 year old girl without inflicting her voice to make herself sound younger. Zach Braff had a similar problem playing a High School aged Chicken Little in the movie of the same name.
These sort of performances can take one out of the movie they’re trying to watch, with the inability for certain actors to actually create a new character through the art of voice acting becoming a severe handicap for many animated movies, both new and old. Going forward, the filmmakers behind forthcoming animated features should keep in the mind that the best voice actor for your character should get the part. Amy Poehler as Joy in Inside Out? Perfect choice! Dane Cook in Planes: Fire and Rescue? That’s when these filmmakers should remember that talented voice actors like Billy West, Tress MacNeille and Tom Kenny are around.