I’ll be doing a postmortem of this on Wednesday. Also, this is my 100th post on the blog. What a way to celebrate!
Have I ever told you I’ve always wanted to be a voice actor?
I’ve always wanted to be a voice actor.
Voice acting, like animation, comic books and getting out of bed, is one of those things for which I have great appreciation but very little practical understanding. I can read that bit in The Sandman where there’s that shot of Dream after he says “No, I could not” and Death says “No, you couldn’t, could you?” and it all totally falls into place. I’ll think “wow, that’s amazing, what a brilliant piece of work”. But I don’t know how to draw or write a comic book. I haven’t suffered defeat after attempting to scale those heights. I used to wonder how anyone could adequately express what was so great about a piece of music if they weren’t a musician. How could you really, I mean really appreciate what’s going on here?
Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s impossible for me to truly appreciate that bit in The Sandman if I don’t write or draw comics for ten years, and maybe it’s impossible for non-musicians to truly appreciate the measured ease with which Bill Callahan creates a universe within a perfectly-paced guitar riff. I don’t know, but I do now understand why people get really geeky about crafts they’ve never attempted. I respect the hell out of voice actors, but I’m not one myself.
Voice acting might be the least-respected form of acting. Film actors are the most famous, and television actors are forever associated with characters we grow to cherish over many seasons. Theatre actors command the greatest respect, and even musical actors command their own little cults. Seriously. Did you know Les Miserables fans have arguments about who was the best Javert?
Voice actors, not so much. Maybe it’s because you never see their faces. Or you see their faces and they look nothing like the character. There’s a great part in Wayne’s World 2 when Wayne and Garth turn up for a radio interview. The show is run by ‘Handsome Dan’, a DJ with a smooth, rich voice. A tall hunk steps out. “Are you Handsome Dan?” they ask. “No,” he replies in a whiny, nasal voice. Turns out Handsome Dan is played by Harry Shearer – a legendary voice actor himself, but not exactly a tall hunk. It’s a great scene which captures the lack of association people have with the actors behind the voices we know so well. It’s understandable, but no less a pity for that. Voice actors are as responsible for the creation of a character as the writers and animators. What would Mr Burns be without the aforementioned Harry Shearer’s performance? He manages to sound frail yet powerful at once, which I’m sure you’ll agree is where much of the humour of the character comes from.
Yet the indifference toward voice actors is not confined to the public. Major studios have largely ignored the wealth of talent available in favour of big-name Hollywood stars. In my casual and unresearched opinion, this began in 1993 with Disney’s Aladdin and the casting of Robin Williams as the Genie. Prior to Aladdin, the only film actors providing voices in major animated films – that I can think of, at least – were Angela Lansbury as Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and Dom DeLuise as Tiger in An American Tail. Though now that I think of it, Jimmy Stewart played Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West and Orson Welles played Unicron in Transformers.
Well, anyway, it only really took off after Robin Williams did such a good job as the Genie. Disney’s next movie, The Lion King, starred James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Matthew Broderick as Simba. Pocahontas starred Mel Gibson, Billy Connolly and Christian Bale. I believe the studios began to see the potential of having big names on the posters for some extra marketing oomph, regardless of the actor’s ability to, you know, actually voice act. The soundtracks to animated films began to be written by people like Elton John, Phil Collins and Sting. However, if there was a jump-the-shark moment, it has to be Shrek in 2001, which starred Mike Myers, Jon Lithgow, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. Don’t get me wrong, they all did fine jobs… but they’re not really voice actors.
Compare a film like The Little Mermaid – and I bet you can’t think of a single actor in it, or who wrote the soundtrack – to 2013’s Despicable Me 2. Despicable Me 2 starred Steve Carell, Benjamin Bratt, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand and Ken Jeong, while the soundtrack was produced by Pharrell Williams. Or Megamind in 2010, with Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross and Brad Pitt. Is Despicable Me 2 a superior movie for securing film and television actors to do a voice actor’s job? I don’t want to be too harsh to recent films, but I can’t help wondering what kind of fantastic animated films we might be seeing if studios bothered to hire people who do this kind of thing for a living instead of who’s the most famous.
I might not be a voice actor, and only dream of it, but I’d like to think I appreciate these artists for the hard work they do. Next time you’re watching a film with voice acting, spare a thought for the men and women who work to bring these characters to life. And maybe don’t bother seeing Despicable Me 3 or Shrek 12. Best not to encourage cynical behaviour.