Over the last few days, the Internet has been abuzz regarding this article, in which the author posits a so-called “Pixar Theory,” the notion that every one of Pixar’s films are connected and take place in the same, eventually apocalyptic universe. There is, unfortunately, no way for this writer to tackle that theory in any great detail without sounding like a Debbie Downer. Jon Negroni’s argument is, in essence, a Pixar fan’s attempt to out-do the conspiracy theorists on display in Room 237, the excellent 2012 documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. So we can, on the one hand, acknowledge the ballsiness of Mr. Negroni’s concept and the amount of thought and time he put into its existence, but it’s almost too easy to poke holes in the theory.
So instead, let’s focus today on a topic that’s come up in the Pixar Perspective in the past: voice acting. A couple of months ago, this column extolled as one of Pixar’s virtues their willingness to not always or only cast big-name celebrities for their animated movies, specific to how frequently they cast stand-up comedians like Patton Oswalt, Don Rickles, or Ellen DeGeneres in lead or major supporting roles. Though Pixar may lean more on recognizable names than on prolific voice actors like Maurice LaMarche, Billy West, Tress MacNeille, or Jess Harnell to play the leads, they often do not rely solely on celebrities to do the creative heavy lifting. (It is worth noting that Pixar does, like most animation studios, use some of those voice actors in small roles in their films, such as Mr. Harnell, who Samad Rizvi, The Pixar Times’ editor-in-chief, recently interviewed regarding his work in Monsters University.)
Pixar may use famous people—or people whose faces we recognize even if they aren’t household names yet, as with Kelly MacDonald voicing the lead in last year’s Brave—in their movies, but rarely, if ever, because they expect a person’s name and voice to fully and totally define their characters. Most, though not all, of DreamWorks Animation’s output, even now, operates on this fundamentally lazy plane of creativity. Though the argument applies heavily to DWA’s new film, Turbo, which opens tomorrow and owes a steep debt to Ratatouille, more than you might think from the marketing campaign, let’s look instead at two older and conceptually similar examples. One, from Pixar, is Finding Nemo. The other, from DreamWorks, is Shark Tale. The former transcends its setting, and is wall-to-wall with artistry and vibrant storytelling. The latter, for a number of reasons, is like watching a feature-length episode of The Flintstones. A big part of that creative stumble is the voice casting.
When a marketing campaign is unleashed for an animated movie, and the names of the actors playing the lead roles are trumpeted louder than even the story, it may end up being a warning that the movie is going to rely on you, the audience member, knowing those actors’ personas up and down. Take Shark Tale, which featured the voices of, among others, Will Smith, Robert de Niro, Angelina Jolie, and Martin Scorsese. Even Scorsese, someone who’s not predominantly known for his acting chops, is someone you probably can describe in a few words if you were asked to do so. Will Smith? He’s cocky and wise-cracking. De Niro? He’s a gruff, tough type who’s most comfortable playing criminals. Angelina Jolie? She’s enigmatically beautiful and alluring. And so, you have the characters they play in Shark Tale, never given any dimension beyond those basic, actor-specific traits. Shark Tale, unlike most of DreamWorks Animation’s other movies, goes as far as animating their characters to look more like the actors than like undersea creatures. Turbo does not, thankfully, show us exactly what a mollusk would look like if he was Ryan Reynolds-sized, but the voice work from actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg is such that, the more you know about their previous work in film and music, the more you’re expected to get a kick out of their performances.
Now, look at Finding Nemo. Like most modern animated movies, this film has a large ensemble cast well beyond the leads. Yes, we have DeGeneres and Albert Brooks in roles that, initially, play on our familiarity of their live-action personas: DeGeneres’ flighty, flaky on-screen demeanor is translated into the forgetful but charming Dory, and Brooks’ intense neuroses help fuel Marlin from the start. The difference between Finding Nemo and Shark Tale in how they employ their voice cast is that the former film doesn’t exclusively use its actors’ traits to inform their characters. Yes, Albert Brooks, in movies like Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Broadcast News, is defined by his self-loathing and neurotic attitude. And yes, Marlin is similarly stifled and frightened of the world around him, but Marlin changes throughout the film; Brooks’ excellent, emotionally pitch-perfect performance allows Marlin’s arc to be truly believable. The same goes for DeGeneres’ performance, but where Finding Nemo truly excels is in the deep, rich, creatively fertile ways in which the ensemble cast is employed.
Shark Tale’s cast includes Smith, Jolie, de Niro, Scorsese, Ziggy Marley, Jack Black, Katie Couric, Renee Zellweger, Michael Imperioli, and Vincent Pastore (the latter two best known for their work on HBO’s The Sopranos). Finding Nemo’s cast includes Brooks, DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Allison Janney, Vicki Lewis, Brad Garrett, Stephen Root, and Austin Pendleton. (And, bringing it up again, Turbo’s ensemble includes Reynolds, Jackson, Dogg, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Luis Guzman, and Bill Hader.) Shark Tale and Turbo are films that are, arguably, filled with more celebrities, more actors defined by specific roles or traits. Actors like Garrett, Root, Lewis, and Pendleton are closer to the well-known Hey! It’s That Guy actor, people you know you’ve seen before even if you can’t remember exactly in what. As such, they can easily disappear into a role, the animators providing a role for them instead of the other way around.
In essence, the value of a voice performance in an animated film is directly connected to how much that film’s creators require you to recognize its source. One of the overriding sources of humor in Shark Tale is not the characters de Niro and Scorsese are playing, so much as some of its audience members realizing that the actor and director of films like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas are playing criminal cohorts in a family movie. And what is the joke regarding the characters Imperioli and Pastore play if not that, hey, they’ve also played mobsters before? Leave aside any awareness or admittance that maybe, just maybe, the wide number of children watching Shark Tale are likely not that familiar with the Mob-themed movies and TV shows that have littered American popular culture over the last 20 years. No, all that matters is bringing together big-name celebs to give full life to these characters. The script will do no such heavy lifting.
What can be most vexing about voice acting in mainstream animated movies is that the famous are used to fill the holes of a weak or familiar script. (Again, though opinions may vary once the film opens tomorrow, Turbo is arguably another victim of this unfortunate creative decision.) Monsters University, like Monsters, Inc., doesn’t fall into that trap, thankfully. Though Billy Crystal and John Goodman were well-known for their live-action work before the 2001 film, their work as Mike and Sulley is filled with hidden depths that rely on them less for their established personas and more because of their inherent, raw acting talent. The same goes for Monsters University, where even those few actors cast partly thanks to their live-action work and a familiar, singular persona—Helen Mirren as the suitably imperious Dean Hardscrabble stands out—are given more to do aside from simply reiterating what we know best about them. And while a number of the Monsters University cast members, from Charlie Day to Bobby Moynihan to John Krasinski, may be familiar to comedy fans, few were cast specifically because of a single, highly identifiable trait. They were cast, basically, because of the elasticity of their voices, because they can do more than read lines of dialogue in their normal vocal patterns.
Pixar’s films are not automatically a creative improvement upon those by DreamWorks Animation because of who they cast. As mentioned here in the past, Pixar’s first film aimed extremely high with its lead; Tom Hanks is many things, but one of them is, and certainly was in 1995, immensely popular. Hanks playing a purehearted cowboy seems like a deliberate nod to how often he’s dubbed the modern version of Jimmy Stewart. (Of course, had Billy Crystal played Buzz Lightyear, a role he was offered and famously turned down, it would’ve likely required him to be as antithetical to his comfort zone as possible.) What matters is that when Pixar hires celebrities to be in their movies, they are not just handing these people a paycheck and inviting them to coast. It’s always fascinating to watch voiceover recording sessions, partly because they’re not often included as special features on Blu-ray or DVD releases. But if you watch some of the work that Hanks and Tim Allen did for Toy Story 3—recording together some of the time, which is, in itself, rare—you’ll notice that the two men were not relaxing. They were working. They were acting.
Here is, boiled down simply, the difference between how DreamWorks Animation and Pixar Animation Studios deals with celebrities in their movies. When considering the term “voice actor,” the former company focuses on the voice, and the latter company focuses on the actor. Movies like Shark Tale and Turbo are peopled with actors who’ve been called on for the surface-level pleasures audiences may associate with their voices. Movies like Finding Nemo and Monsters University are peopled with actors who’ve been called on to do work as challenging as anything they may deal with in the live world. Being a voice actor, by most accounts, could easily become a job where, depending on your level of fame, you don’t have to work hard. One of Pixar’s great achievements in the last two decades is that its filmmakers do not associate voice acting with laziness. They make their actors work, instead of just reading dialogue into the void.