Claudia Leisinger


March 7 – 13 2005

With big bucks on offer for little work, it’s no wonder Hollywood stars are keen to take voice-over work in animated films. From Bambi to Ricky Gervais, Leigh Singer traces the history of the genre and discovers that it has not always been a generous gig.

For Donnie Dunagan, a highly decorated US Marine with two tours of duty in Vietnam, a former NSA counter-intelligence agent and battalion commander, one secret had to remain hidden from his men, throughout his 25 years of military service, at all costs.

‘I was in charge of real tough reconnaissance and commando guys,’ Dunagan, now a sprightly 70-year-old chuckles. ‘Every once in a while I’d see something about Bambi and would think, boy, if these guys ever found out I was his voice and I had picked up the “Bambi” nickname, I would have been history in the marine corp!’

Dunagan’s men never did learn that their commander spoke for the cutest doe-eyed deer in film history. Then again, it wasn’t a difficult fact to keep buried, simply because he, along with everyone else who contributed voices to Bambi and the other early Disney films, was never officially credited. ‘I suspect that was the modus operandi at the time,’ Dunagan reasons. ‘To this day I have a copy of a letter from a Disney executive that apologises to my mother for [my] not being in the credits.’

Today it would be unthinkable. As companies like Pixar (The Incredibles) and Dreamworks (Shrek) ride the current wave of popularity for computer-generated animation, A-list stars seem to be fighting over who can lend their vocal chords to the next big thing. Tom Hanks recently added five different roles in The Polar Express to his pull-string cowboy Woody in the Toy Story films; and look out for Julia Roberts (Charlotte’s Web), Ben Stiller (Madagascar), Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue (The Magic Roundabout), even Paul Newman, for the next Pixar movie Cars. Forget Shark Tale’s all-star cast of Will Smith, Angelina Jolie and Renee Zellweger, who could have envisaged the next Scorsese / DeNiro collaboration to be talking animated fish?

Then again, who can blame them? The paychecks are comparable to live-action work (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz reputedly earned $10 million each for the Shrek sequel) but the hassle isn’t. A few recording sessions in a sound booth without all that annoying camera and lighting get-up, no costumes, make-up or endless hanging around on set. And despite the behind-the-scenes footage on the new Shark Tale DVD of Jack Black and Will Smith larking around together, voice recording is usually a solo deal, so no need to worry about who has the bigger trailer.

In retrospect one wonders why big stars didn’t get involved in animation earlier. Surprisingly, considering their business savvy, Disney was slow to catch on. Jazz chanteuse Peggy Lee sang in The Lady and the Tramp (and sued the studio years later for her meager earnings from the gig) and the lead characters of Baloo (Phil Harris), Shere Khan (George Sanders) and co in The Jungle Book were adapted to fit the actors’ distinctive tones. Where the trend really took off into a whole new world, however, was with Robin Williams and Aladdin.

‘We felt that the genie was the star part, so to have a star play him seems to make sense,’ says Aladdin co-director John Musker, who worked Williams’s wild riffing into the genie’s shape shifting persona. ‘It wasn't a conscious thing in terms of Robin’s marquee value but I do think it was the start of that trend.’

Aladdin may not have been a deliberate marketing move but it spawned a PR bonanza. After all, you can’t book The Lion King’s Simba for “The Tonight Show”, but you can get Matthew Broderick. Subsequent Disney films like Pocahontas (Mel Gibson) and Mulan (Eddie Murphy) reached for the stars and found them all-too willing to be grabbed. The question is, is it automatically the best strategy? If it were simply a case of box-office pulling power, then how did Finding Nemo’s Albert Brooks and Elllen DeGeneres put Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Sinbad to the sword?

Having used stars like Hanks and Kevin Spacey for their films, one can’t say Pixar Studios avoids the A-list route but there does seem to be a more careful blending of character and performer. The Incredibles does feature Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson, but its lead Mr. Incredible’s spot-on vocals comes from actor Craig T. Nelson, perhaps best known for 1980s chiller Poltergeist. As for the scene-stealing pocket diva, designer Edna Mode, the voice belongs to the film’s writer-director Brad Bird.

‘When you do the story reel you use people in the studio to do the voices,’ Bird explains. ‘I also did Mr. Incredible and [villain] Syndrome too. The idea is that everyone is going to be replaced. Well with Edna, everyone just liked my voice so they kept it in there.’ Not tied to the star system, Bird’s voice provides some of the film’s most unexpected highlights.

Few would deny that charismatic A-listers can bring something extra to the party, but when the films appear more at the service of the stars than the other way round, as with Shark Tale’s stale Godfather pastiche, animation starts to ape the mistakes of live-action: plug in a big name and hope for the best. Robin Williams won a special Golden Globe for his Aladdin work, and regular awards for voicework have been mooted, but really, who are the real heroes of animation?

‘I’d like for the animators to get some kind of special recognition,’ notes Chris Wedge, whose Blue Sky studios is behind CG-hit Ice Age and the upcoming Robots (voices including Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry and one Robin Williams). ‘They put a lot of time in.’ Animators have long considered themselves actors; the problem is, their expert performances are easily overlooked amid the white noise white-wash of celebrity-driven marketing. They may even collude with it by designing characters with, say, the bushy eyebrows of Scorsese or Jolie’s pillowed lips, imprinting the star’s character ownership even more. ‘I would love to break back in the business today,’ enthuses Donnie Dunagan. Given today’s modus operandi, you can see what he’s saying.

Shark Tale DVD is released February 11th; Bambi: Special Edition DVD is released February 14th; The Incredibles DVD is out March 18th; Robots is released in cinemas March 18th .

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