When comparing Pixar Animation Studios to DreamWorks Animation, as we are all so wont to do, there are a number of very easy lines of demarcation. The former studio has, to this point, only released one movie a year, while the latter is prone to releasing two or even three over any 12-month period. DreamWorks Animation films are typically littered with pop-culture references tailor-made to placate those parents suffering next to their kids in the movie theater; Pixar films rarely go for the easy cultural gag, and are often so successful that adults may end up enjoying the overall product more than kids. (It is telling that the use of the 80s song “Dreamweaver” in Toy Story 3 stands out so much as an exception to this rule.) Perhaps the most frequently brought-up contrast, though, is in casting: DreamWorks’ animated movies are perceived as being frontloaded with famous people, where Pixar movies are cast with whoever’s right for the role, famous or otherwise.
Pixar has spread a wide net when looking for men and women to play some of their most iconic roles, and as far back as Toy Story, that net lands most often in stand-up comedy. From Don Rickles to Larry the Cable Guy, Pixar Animation Studios may be best remembered for helping foster in children a more mainstream awareness of the deeper-than-you-might-think stand-up comedy world. (It’s also worth pointing out that DisneyToon Studios’ upcoming film Planes, not a Pixar film but related to the Cars universe, is keeping this thread alive by casting well-known and controversial stand-up Dane Cook as the lead, Dusty.) Most importantly, those Pixar films including stand-up comics in prominent roles don’t require them to act beyond their personalities too much, while still offering them an outlet to grow as performers.
Think, for example, of Patton Oswalt, who voiced Remy in Ratatouille and is one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation. (If you doubt this, and haven’t yet seen his 8-minute filibuster on what the new Star Wars movie should look like, watch it. And if you have seen it, or his other iconic bits, you know he’s almost without peer in his community.) Oswalt is a perfect example of Pixar not only casting a stand-up comic for a lead in one of their movies, but of casting someone not for being famous, but for being appropriate. While it would be misleading to say that Oswalt’s star hasn’t continued to rise over the last six years, he was recognizable outside of the alternative stand-up comedy scene mostly for his supporting role on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. And Oswalt’s work in Ratatouille, while exemplary, isn’t the sole reason why his popularity has grown recently, what with his recurring work in buzzworthy TV shows like Justified, or nuanced live-action work in dark dramas like Big Fan or Young Adult. However, it’s a textbook case of Pixar wisely relying on the voices and personalities of stand-up comedians to help create some of their most memorable characters.
It would be untrue to say that animators, whether working by hand or by computer, rely solely on the voice of an actor when creating a character. We’ll often hear actors describe the process of working in the recording booth with Pixar or Walt Disney Animation Studios or DreamWorks as being, weirdly, more challenging than working in live-action. Even though audiences will never see the full recording sessions for any actors working in animation—though that would be one heck of an amazing Blu-ray special feature, in case you’re curious, Disney bigwigs—those same actors are called upon to emphasize every character gesture, movement, facial tic, etc. But the voice is, of course, key, something shared in common with stand-up comedy. Sure, depending on where in the country or world you live, you could go to a local comedy club and see a touring comic, but most of us can only experience stand-up comedy through stand-up specials on Comedy Central or HBO, stand-up albums, or comedy podcasts. That last form of humor is fairly new, and wasn’t as omnipresent back in 2007 when Patton Oswalt gave voice to the rat who would be a Parisian chef. Still, Ratatouille co-writer/director Brad Bird has gone on record saying that he picked Oswalt for the role not because of his TV work, but because of a food-based comedy routine he heard.
The best and worst stand-up comedians—and you may well consider both ends of the spectrum to be represented among Pixar’s casting choices—have expressive voices, because more than their physical performances, what matters is what they say and how they say it. Most people think of Larry the Cable Guy, known best in the world of Pixar as the voice of the goofy tow truck Mater, and they think of his inimitable catchphrase “Git-R-Done!” Think of Don Rickles, and you hear him berating someone as a hockey puck, that gag brought to life so wittily in the opening sequence of the original Toy Story. Think of Ellen DeGeneres, whether in her stand-up, on her sitcom, or on her talk show, and you hear her charming, Bob Newhart-esque stammering clearly. (And what better way to translate that to animation than with a character brimming with enthusiasm but absent a long-term memory?) You could easily claim that Pixar’s helped boost or elongate the careers of many stand-up comics; would DeGeneres’ talk show have been as immediately successful when it premiered in September of 2003 if not partly for Finding Nemo’s worldwide popularity?
For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine an alternate universe where the only difference was that Pixar chose to cast famous actors like Nicolas Cage or Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, as opposed to people known equally for their stand-up comedy chops, in these roles. Take Larry the Cable Guy and Mater, for instance. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep them if you don’t want.) Leave aside, for a minute, whatever your personal feelings are about Mater, about Larry the Cable Guy, about Cars and Cars 2. As much as we know that these movies and this world were a pet project for John Lasseter as well as the late Joe Ranft, one that began well before Larry the Cable Guy (real name: Dan Whitney) rose to mainstream fame, the character of Mater seems to have only existed so this truck-hat-wearing comic could give him a voice. Frankly, the only other well-known personality similar to Larry the Cable Guy, and, by extension, Mater, who could’ve taken on the mantle would be the late Jim Varney. Varney, of course, came to prominence as another cartoonish Southern-fried character, Ernest; like Larry the Cable Guy, Varney played Ernest in a number of crass low-budget, poorly received low-budget comedies. But as we all know, Varney was already part of the Pixar universe, as the voice of Slinky Dog, Sheriff Woody’s best pal, in the first two Toy Story films.
In essence, what the filmmakers at Pixar are and have been doing for nearly two decades of making feature films is listening, and listening carefully. Jim Varney, Patton Oswalt, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry the Cable Guy, Don Rickles, Billy Crystal, Craig Ferguson, and more: these stand-up comedians didn’t have to stretch vocally to play their characters on a conceptual level. A flighty fish, a pleasantly daft tow truck, a grouchy toy, a manic monster, and more: it doesn’t take much thinking to imagine these people in these roles. But at their best, these performers were provided plenty of room to emote. For all her silliness in the first two acts, Finding Nemo’s Dory is particularly soulful and honest, almost raw, as she pours her heart out to Marlin. “I don’t want to forget,” she pleads, and in that moment, Ellen DeGeneres reminds us that she’s not just a talk-show host, a stand-up comic, or even an actor. She reminds us of her innate humanity. So, too, do the other stand-up comics who work in Pixar films.
Patton Oswalt reminds us of his humanity in Ratatouille, when Remy deals with being alone, after he’s separated from his family. Being off in the world by himself is tougher as reality than as fantasy, and Oswalt’s vocals achieve what Pixar strives for in all of their films: pure universality. You don’t have to be someone who dreams of being a chef to know what it feels like to be abandoned. You don’t have to be forgetful to want to stay with someone so badly because they make you a better person. And you don’t have to be a slower thinker than others to know what it’s like to cultivate a friendship and want that to last forever. More importantly, you don’t need to be terribly famous to deliver an accomplished performance, either in live-action or animation. We may not instantly think of great performances when we think of Pixar films. Maybe we consider the animation, constantly evolving into a striking level of photorealism. Or perhaps we remember the high-concept stories, or the breathlessly paced action sequences, or the often hummable soundtracks and songs. But the performances, as much as the character design, are key in Pixar films, and often so profoundly memorable because of the stand-up comedians behind the mike, supplying them. Within the world of Pixar films, some of the best actors are the class clowns, more adept at tapping into wells of neuroses, pain, and anguish while filtering them through a tone of good humor. To paraphrase the line from Ratatouille, not everyone can be a great actor, but a great actor can come from anywhere.