Why Aren’t Voice Actors Getting the Big Roles?
This article is going to deal with the profession of voice acting, performers who provide voices for characters who do not have a real life, physical presence. We’re talking animation, motion capture, voice over and the like. When we draw a distinction between voice actors and actors we have to acknowledge that there’s many who have successfully worked in both fields, but for most of these examples we’re going to generalise and talk about those who work almost exclusively in one of the other.
With that little disclaimer out of the way, there’s been a trend in the past couple of decades to populate big name, big budget animated films with established Hollywood actors. This is not only passing over the more talented vocal performers in the industry today but doing the film itself a disservice. Let’s find an example: Hotel Transylvania. It’s a family friendly animated monster film that achieved only moderate reviews but was popular with kids. When you look at a picture of the cast you may notice something familiar about them…
…that being they’re all familiar to you. This is a group of people well known for their work in live action films and stand up comedy. Why have we cast this group of people in the place of actors who specialise in vocal work? Kevin James plays Frankenstein’s Monster, and if you listen to his performance without the visual you would have no idea what type of character he was playing. He does not alter his voice in the slightest to reflect the characters unique origins or his personality – it’s the same routine he does in every one of his movies. Ditto Adam Sandberg, David Spade, Selena Gomez, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon and Jon Lovitz. The only one who does anything different is, surprisingly, Adam Sandler. He does his usual routine with a hokey accent. And then there’s a main character voiced by Cee Lo Green, who isn’t an actor.
This movie isn’t terrible. It’s cheesy and although the plot is thinner than diluted paint thinner it’s fun for the kids. But the actors drag it down. Compare this to the cast of Futurama, seen here doing a live reading at Oz Comic Con.
That’s a rather modest, small group of people. You may notice something strange about the number, because this is the main cast of the show.
This cast is not only a very talented and attractive team, but amazingly versatile in what they can achieve. Billy West, on the far right of the group picture, voices four of those main characters.
Fry, the Professor, Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan. Four completely different characters, each with a completely unique voice. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who identified that all four of these characters were voiced by the same person. West is talented enough to switch between them on the fly – I’ve seen him do it in person. No warm ups, no pauses to get into character. It was amazing. If you listened to any one of these characters without the visual you’d have a pretty good idea of what type of character they were. Compare this to Kevin James as the Monster – you couldn’t hang a single trait on that character’s voice beyond ‘Kevin Jamesish’.
You’d think that the first choice for major animated movies would be the vocal talents like West, Tara Strong, Troy Baker, Jennifer Hale, Nolan North and Richard Horvitz and more, but Disney and Dreamworks rarely cast them in anything other than supporting and background characters. Instead they get most of their work in television and video games.
This wasn’t the case prior to the 90’s, but Disney picked Robin Williams for the role of the Genie in Aladdin. This was genius, especially as they gave Williams and long leash and animated around his lines. His comedic talents were perfectly complimented by Disney’s animators and a big part of the reason the movie is considered a classic.
William’s participation was a boon for the marketing department, because they now had a beloved and well known actor to hang the film on. This eventually led to a conflict between the actor and the studio as they disregarded his actor’s wishes to be treated on the same level as the rest of the cast. Disney put out The Lion King two years later and packed it with more familiar names like Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Rowen Atkinson and Nathan Lane.
If Disney laid the path for this trend, Dreamworks sprinted down it. Their first major release, Antz, was heavily marketed for it’s voice cast of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone and Gene Hackman playing thinly veiled versions of themselves. This is a clear example of marketing needs driving the artistic process behind the film. By the time we reached movies like Shark Tale and Madagascar the characters we animal versions of the actor’s public personas.
Remember Shark Tale? If you don’t it’s not because it’s lame (although it is), it’s because it’s lazy. Will Smith playing a sassy underdog, James Gandolfini playing a gangster boss type, Jack Black playing a chubby loser – it’s the roles the public identify the actors with. Every major decision for this movie was made by the marketers right down to it’s release coinciding with the release of Finding Nemo. The writers and directors just joined the dots.
This is why we ended up with Selena Gomez voicing a teenaged angst ridden vampire with all the energy of a deflating tire. It was a marketing move instead of getting someone who could go to town on the role. Like Tara Strong. She’s an amazing voice actor. Here’s a couple of roles you have heard her in:
Tara Strong has provided voices for hundred and hundreds of characters in the past 25 years. She’s played more superheroes than Chris Evans. In addition to Harley and Raven above she’s played X-23, Batgirl, Squirrel Girl, Scarlet Witch, Blink, Invisible Woman and more. Hell, she’s even played Selena Gomez in Robot Chicken.
I don’t want to disregard some of the great actors who walk the line between live action and voice actors, or the actors who have pushed themselves to create amazing characters when restricted to their voice to deliver the role. Mark Hamill is my favourite version of the Joker bar none. But I do want to see the community of amazing voice actors get their dues in the business and not be given background roles to more marketable names. Let’s hear it for the voices.