Trending: Time to sing a different 'toon

Another week, another all-star animation cast... But A-listers do not a great story make, says Simon Usborne

A little over a year from now, Epic will arrive at cinemas. How do we know? Because Twentieth Century Fox have just issued a press release. It devotes a short paragraph to introducing the studio’s latest animation (a teenage girl, in a forest, has to save the world) but several more to announcing its “Epic” casting.

For “epic” read “celeb-filled”. The film stars Beyonce, Colin Farrell, Amanda Seyfried and that other well-known actor... Steven Tyler. Later this month, meanwhile, the voices of Julie Walters, Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson will be heard in Brave, Pixar’s latest animation.

Can you name the voice behind Snow White in the 1937 Disney classic? How about Pinocchio or Cinderella? Probably not because, before feature animation became a billion-dollar industry gripped by a marketing machine that values celebrity above all else, cartoons were voiced by... voice actors.

Adriana Caselotti was Snow White. She received $970 and little attention for her work in Disney’s first animated feature. Regardless of inflation, celebrities today can expect much more for sitting in front of a microphone.

In 2001, the first Academy Award for best animation went to Shrek (Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz). This year, Chris Rock, the comedian and voice of Marty, the zebra in Madagascar, presented the Oscar to Rango (Johnny Depp). He took the opportunity to poke fun at fellow “voices”.

“I hate when people go on TV and tell you how hard it is to do animation,” Rock said. “It’s the easiest job in the world. I go in a booth and I go, ‘what’s the line?’ And the guy goes, ‘it’s time to go to the store.’ I go, ‘it’s time to go to the store!’ And then they give me a million dollars.”

If anything Rock did badly. According to the film site, IMDB.com, Tom Hanks earned $15m for playing Woody in Toy Story 3, not much less than he demands for on-camera roles. Was it easy? "I’ve done three big recording sessions and will probably have at least one more to do, possibly in about eight months,” he told Empire Magazine in 2009. “Then eight months after that I'll do a mop-up and have three more sessions after that. Those movies are beasts.”

Whatever, it’s hardly months on a New Zealand mountain-top. But for studios, celebrity pays whether or not characters are animated. Hanks helped Toy Story 3 to become the highest-grossing film of 2010 (it made $1bn worldwide). And at least he’s an actor. It’s not clear what Katie Perry, the singer, brought to The Smurfs last year beyond a name for the posters, and a line for her CV.

Out-of-work voice artists have Robin Williams to blame. In 1992, he was cast as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin and Hollywood never looked back. Until then, animations were the preserve of such artists as Mel Blanc, who was prolific during the golden age of American animation as, among other characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

If not millions at the box office, what could someone like Blanc bring to a film that, say, Depp could not? His very anonymity; he [itals] was [off] Bugs Bunny, not a famous person as a rabbit. Viewers were allowed to flesh out characters. The industry occasionally remembers this. Pixar’s Up was arguably better for its little-known actors. Thanks goodness one of the greatest characters of modern times had no voice at all. Woody Allen as Wall-E? That would be the opposite of epic.

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