Celebrity Voice Acting Needs to Evolve or Die
The big movie of the weekend is the CG animated film DC’s League of Super Pets, which famously stars a range of established actors, headlined by Kevin Hart and eventual Black Adam Dwayne Johnson. Super Pets joins Disney’s Lightyear from earlier this month, along with the now finally released Paws of Fury, in being animated films whose cast is made up of big name actors rather than voice actors. And in recent months, the shine around this trend has started to fade, if not dim out completely.
Celebrity-led animated movies have existed almost as long as some of us have been alive, but it really took off with Disney’s Aladdin back in 1992. To convince Robin Williams to sign on to voice the Genie, animator Eric Goldberg was asked by directors Ron Musker and John Clements to draw Genie doing one of the late comedian’s stand-up sets. It was that animation that won over Disney and the actor, and the film itself succeeds mostly because of his performance. And since then, there’s at least three big animated films a year—typically from Disney in some form or fashion—that are feature recognizable actors starring as the main characters. In the case of some movies and shows, the celebrity voices are really the only thing it’s got going for it.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so much of an issue if these actors didn’t sound like they were just speaking into a microphone. You may be watching Disney’s Strange World, and there’s Jake Gyllenhall just talking like how he would in a regular live action movie that didn’t involve global disasters or duping a child soldier into giving him killer drones. That lack of energy and skill set kills an animated film or show no matter how good it is, and it becomes incredibly evident how much of a stunt said casting actually is. All of us have different examples to pull from in this regard, but for me, the most stark contrast comes in the form of 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11. For a variety of reasons, casting Ronda Rousey as Sonya Blade is one of the worst things about that game, and for a game with a strong voice cast ranging from Ron Yuan’s Scorpion to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung, her performance stands out all the more. And you know Netherrealm realized it because the character has no voice lines in the game’s “Aftermath” story expansion.
Voice acting’s a different profession than live action, one that requires a different amount of skills. If you watch an animated series or film, regardless of what country it hails from, you know this is true. Yes, there are some big actors whose voices are basically tailor made for vocal performances, like Keith David or Angela Bassett and JK Simmons. But by and large, you can tell when voice actors are treating a role like it’s their career versus a thing they can do between other, bigger projects. Some natural voice actors have their own brand of fame, and that should be cultivated instead of bringing them in for supporting roles while A-listers get top billing.
To be fair, there have been a solid roster of big actors who’ve proven themselves to be capable voice actors, or are at least in projects that demand they put the work in. When the celebrity voices excel, they really excel. A show like Bojack Horseman (or more recently, Tuca & Bertie) gets away with this by having its celebrities come in with their A-game, and in some instances, you may not recognize an actor until their name pops up in the credits. Arcane, which features notable TV and film actors Hailee Steinfeld, Shoreh Agadashloo, and Kevin Alejandro with vocal veterans like Reed Shannon and Jason Spisak, neatly splits the difference. Both tiers of actors have great material to work with, and the live action actors easily pull their weight.
The animation industry’s making an effort to improve working conditions and have the rest of the entertainment medium take it seriously. Somewhere along the way, it would be great if animated projects weren’t being forced to rely on celebrities to get notice or prestige. Like the saying goes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. And the medium’s got a range of vocal talent who knows how to say it.
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