Must have been a slow news day for Forbes to cause reporter Lauren Straub to make the effort to research and rank “Animation’s A-List Actors” which Straub defines as the “10 most successful actors at getting audiences to tune into ‘toons.”
Straub says, “To collect the list of animation’s A-list, we looked at the animated films released since 1980 that earned at least $50 million domestically and compiled a list of every actor who portrayed a top-billed character in at least one of the movies. We ranked the actors based on the film’s box-office earnings and the actor’s media presence tied to the film. If an actor was in more than one movie, the figures were averaged.”
And the resulting list:
I think it’s important to note that Straub’s list ignores the co-stars of the films mentioned: Ellen DeGeneres’ Finding Nemo co-star Albert Brooks; Owen Wilson’s Cars co-stars Dan Whitney (aka Larry The Cable Guy), Bonnie Hunt, and Paul Newman; Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda co-stars Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, and Jackie Chan; and Ben Stiller’s Madagascar co-stars Chris Rock and Alec Baldwin. This makes the list appear to be subjective selections, which in my opinion negates the entire point of the article.
The article continues:
Casting an animation role isn’t as simple as finding a big name. “As a casting director, I’d like to hire the best person for the job,” say Ruth Lambert, a casting director. But, she adds, big-name stars are a way for production companies to get better distribution and better financing, especially in the international market. “A lot of times we end up hiring people not because they are right for the part but for what they can provide.”
Though A-listers can bring comedic talent that transcends star power. Lisa Stewart, a producer on the upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens, says the project’s stars brought an invaluable talent for improvisation. Producers would bring Seth Rogen or Stephen Colbert into the recording studio with some lines and “let them go,” says Stewart. “We’d just be on the other side of the booth in hysterics.”
Straub also incorrectly credits Robin Williams as “one of the first big-name actors to voice an animated character,” when it actually originated with Walt Disney hiring stars from radio, stage, and film to voice characters in his animated features some 50 years before the studio hired Williams to voice the Genie in Aladdin. Furthermore, it was not The Lion King but Transformers: The Movie (1986) that was genuinely the first animated feature where a studio actively recruited several celebrities for lead characters and used their “star power” to promote the film (as I discussed here previously).
Straub goes on to offer other inaccuracies and contradictions in her article, although she did finally get it right when she said, “The lasting appeal of a film’s characters clearly trumps the fleeting popularity of today’s voice-over stars.”
I’ve no doubt that Pixar’s films like the Toy Story movies, Cars, and The Incredibles would have been no less entertaining regardless of who voiced the lead roles. With Pixar’s track record, they could have cast complete unknowns and yet those films would still have been successful because they strive to maintain a high standard of quality…which doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the studios cranking out formulaic animated crap. Pixar also understands and emphasizes what is most important about a film: the story and the characters. And if studios could make quality animated films with an entertaining story and likable characters, and cast actors who actually fit the characters rather than casting celebrities based on their potential box office draw, the films would likely be more commercially successful. And there’s plenty of evidence that star voices have done little to boost the success of some animated films, like the recent The Tale of Despereaux, for example, which barely cracked $50 million at the box office despite the celebrity voice cast.
While casting Hollywood stars may indeed convince a small percentage of the public to see an animated film, it ultimately boils down to the film’s overall entertainment value as to whether it becomes successful (although there are exceptions, like the critically-acclaimed The Iron Giant, which Warner Bros made no real effort to promote).
Animated films are generally made for kids and families anyway. And if kids aren’t interested in seeing it, celebrity casting adds little to no value towards making the film a hit with the target demographic. As casting director Lambert says in the article, “I have a 7-year-old son, and he doesn’t care who’s in the movie. He just wants to be amused.”