Quick! Who played the title role in WALL-E? If you answered "Ben Burtt," chances are you're either a hard-core geek or someone who stayed for the credits and thought, "Who the heck is Ben Burtt?" Burtt, well known to Star Wars and Spielberg fans for his superb work as a sound designer -- he's won two Oscars and received two Special Achievement Awards from the Academy -- picked up his first credit as an actor for providing WALL-E with a voice. And he drives home the point that cartoons, or "animated films" if you prefer, don't need celebrity voices anymore.
Once upon a time, Robin Williams agreed to voice the part of Genie in Disney's Aladdin. Disney decided to capitalize on his stardom and advertised his supporting role heavily, probably the first time a celebrity voice was used to sell an animated film. Aladdin became the biggest hit of the year. This was the tipping point. Millions of adults, notably those without children who hadn't been convinced by the previous year's Beauty and the Beast, decided that cartoons were not just for kids anymore.
The rest is history. Celebrity voices became the norm, and if one celebrity helped bring in the box office bucks, three or five or seven must be even better, and voice casts soon became filled with celebs both major and minor. Celebs had another advantage: they could give interviews and go on talk shows to promote the movie. Inevitably they'd say, "I wanted to do something my kids could see."
As the practice proliferated, however, it became clear that not every celebrity was well-suited to be a cartoon voice. Whereas Robin Williams' quick-witted ability to ad-lib and morph into a huge variety of comic characters was an incredible asset for Aladdin, and integrated by the Disney animators into the part he was playing, very few celebrities have comparable talents.
We've ended up with celebrities jammed into movies for no apparent reason other than their perceived name value, and it's hurting the movies. Recent example: Kung Fu Panda features Jack Black (the part he was born to play), Dustin Hoffman (good, sounded like an old mouse), Ian McShane (good and evil), Angelina Jolie (wasted, sounds nothing like a fierce tigress), Jackie Chan (wasted, nothing monkey-like about his voice), Seth Rogen (wasted, nothing mantis-like about him), Lucy Liu (wasted, nothing snake-like in her voice). In fact, it wasn't until the credits rolled that I realized that Jolie, Chan, Rogen, and Liu had lent their voices to the production. Why not cast actors who were better suited for the roles, with voice talents that matched the characters with distinct personalities -- animals in this case -- they were playing?
Contrast that with Pixar's track record. Yes, they've used celebrity voices, but just as often they've cast lesser-known actors in key roles based on the actor's ability to play the character. As a result, we have Ben Burtt providing beautiful sub-gutteral emotions as WALL-E, Patton Oswalt as Remy in Ratatouille, and Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible, all giving good, credible performances that make us think of the character before the actor. Do I even need to detail why the voice work in The Simpsons Movie worked?
Kids don't care and adults don't need celebrities to tell them which animated movies to see anymore. The reign of celebrity voices dominating cartoon casts should come to an end, pronto.