When Animated Voice Talent Can't Save A Film
by Barry Wurst
May 17, 2007
With mixed reviews of Shrek the Third pouring in, it must be said that voice talent may be enough to open an animated film, but isn't enough to sustain it at the box office or (most importantly) guarantee a good movie. It seems like this trend began when Robin Williams voiced the Genie in Aladdin - his work was so celebrated, sales of the direct-to-video sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, sky-rocketed, as Williams' involvement made it a must-see. Here are some other animated films that, despite the cast involved, never found an audience.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
Does anyone even remember this one?! Despite the prominent billing of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer and Joseph Fiennes, no one went to this summer of '03 attraction, which was an expensive flop. Let's be honest here: while Pitt, Pfeiffer and Jones are solid actors, no one goes to see their movies for their VOICES!
Here's another one no one saw, though it does have a strong following among animation aficionados (who have praised the high quality of the 2D animation, though not so much the screenplay). Having Rodney Dangerfield voice an animated, canine version of himself was clever, and the film works well, for what it is. Even with the good reviews it received during it's brief theatrical release, this one only found a cult following on video.
Quick, name the movie Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore did together! Actually, it's this one, a traditionally animated sci-fi epic that was a box office disaster. Fox promoted it well, making it a summer movie centerpiece and critics were mostly kind (though many pointed out how much the story is like Star Wars), but all the hype in the world couldn't open it. Why? It lacked a sense of humor (the "H" word is a key ingredient to the success of any animated film, it seems) and was overshadowed by everything else in theaters that summer.
The Ant Bully
This could be the king of top notch voice talent casts: Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Bruce Campbell (who steals the film), Lily Tomlin and Paul Giamatti all provided character voices, the poster prominently featured their names and, with Tom Hanks as producer, everyone expected this to go over big last summer. Not only did it open poorly, the reviews were bad and, even with an IMAX push, most went instead for Monster House (a wise choice). More tellingly - last year was overloaded with CGI kid flicks and this one didn't stand out like it would've even five years ago.
Like Arthur in the Invisibles (which I'll get to in a minute), The Weinstein Company took this successful European release, re-dubbed the foreign voices with American actors and released a modified version of it in theaters. The poster and ads pointed out that Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg, Ian McKellan, William H. Macy, Kevin Smith and Jon Stewart provided voices for the characters but nobody went. The culprit - the movie itself, which is awful. Stewart does the best job as a smarmy villain but the movie honestly deserved the bad reviews it received.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
I include this one not to pick on it, but to use it as an example of a film that, among other things, had an impressive vocal cast but was overlooked, big time. Even with my complaints about a murky story, this is still an impressive, sometimes exciting film that deserved its status as an artistic breakthrough in 2001. With James Woods, Steve Buscemi, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Donald Sutherland and (one of my favorite actresses, by the way) Ming-Na involved, you'd think even non-fans of the game would've turned up. Instead, the movie opened big on a Wednesday, was barely attended over the weekend and was declared a monster flop in one week!
Christmas Carol: The Movie
In America, this one was ignored and in and out of theaters briskly. If you live in Europe, on the other hand, you probably know the film because of Kate Winslet's hit single, "What If", which was a chart climber over there but not in the US. As for the film itself, this 2D, traditionally animated film (featuring Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans and Simon Callow, portraying the Dickens characters) is well crafted though not a definitive take on the story (not to sound too much like a Yank, but Mickey's Christmas Carol is even better).
The Iron Giant
Jennifer Aniston wasn't a major superstar when she, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel and Christopher McDonald provided the lead vocal roles for this, one of the most magnificent animated films ever made. Outside of Disney classics, this film, along with The Secret of Nimh and Waking Life, is one of the finest animated films. Ever. Fans know all too well why it didn't catch on in theaters (the trailers made it look like a dumb kiddie flick and it was released alongside a number of big summer blockbusters) but made it a hit on video and DVD. Seriously now, if you haven't seen it, stop reading this article, go out and get it. Brad Bird's debut theatrical film is a clever, thrilling and stunningly moving film. I missed it in theaters because I thought it looked lame. Once I caught it on video, I couldn't believe how wrong I was.
Arthur and the Invisibles
Luc Besson's Arthur and the Minimoys is said to be a great flick. This Americanized version is a stinker. The animation is textured, colorful and vivid and the story is intriguing, but the removal of French voice actors and the inclusion of big name American movie stars is, surprisingly, the kiss of death for this. The big problem is that the vocal performances (by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jimmy Fallon, Madonna, Snoop Dogg among others) don't match the lip movements of the characters. Interestingly enough, David Bowie's performance is the only one that matches his role and is truly inspired. I felt embarrassed for Madonna and De Niro, who can't make their silly dialogue compelling.
A Scanner Darkly
This one just breaks my heart. Yes, I know there's nothing traditional about how this was made and it hardly fits alongside the likes of Doogal or The Iron Giant. Long time listeners of the HypeCast know I've got a soft spot for this one. I don't know if it was the timing (the film missed it's original release date by more than a year and came out last summer), the trailers (which didn't illuminate an admittedly complex plot) or that there simply is no audience for a film this offbeat. Yet, when a critically acclaimed, sci-fi character piece starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson can't make a profit, while the uninspired Shark Tale becomes a blockbuster… okay, I'll stop crying… just gimme a minute.
The key to why something like The Incredibles works and Shark Tale doesn't is easy. In the latter, Will Smith is playing himself and not a character to get attached to. He's a fine actor but not made to stretch and invoke anything but his own pleasant persona. With the former, Craig T. Nelson is actually playing a character (one that doesn't look anything like him). Mr. Incredible goes through a good deal of changes (fancier film buffs would use the term character arch) and Nelson's generous, ego-free vocal performance makes the character real. Whenever you're listening to an animated character's voice and trying to figure out who the actor is (instead of losing yourself to the story), you know there's a problem.
Ill-chosen, all-star voice casts don't always hurt the box office success of a film, but they will hurt it as a work that will be fondly remembered and stand the test of time. The underwhelming Shrek 2 may have been a blockbuster, but it can't hold a candle to The Iron Giant, Mulan (featuring Eddie Murphy's best vocal performance) or The Secret of Nimh. Time will tell.
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