How times -- and the Tao of box office -- have changed. Gone are the days when anonymous hopefuls and journeymen character actors did the thankless toil of voice work. Over the past decade, as the technology behind animated films has been refined to accommodate the increasingly sophisticated (and seemingly insatiable) appetite for them, studios have been seeking out bigger and sexier names. And the actors have been responding to the call, falling over each other for the opportunity to display their new, favorite profile: hidden.
One need only sample the myriad animated and live-action fantasy films flooding the market this summer to measure their rising clout with luminaries of the Screen Actors Guild. Already opened are the fairy-tale satire "Shrek" (in which Snow White makes a cameo opposite computerized PDI-DreamWorks characters dubbed by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow), "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (with Michael J. Fox and James Garner as Disney's new hero and heavy, respectively) and Paramount 's live-action "Dr. Dolittle 2" (with Lisa Kudrow, Frankie Muniz and Steve Zahn among Murphy's pack of bears, raccoons, monkeys and weasels).
Just opened is Warner Bros.' live-action "Cats and Dogs," featuring the mewing and barking of Tobey Maguire, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Jon Lovitz. An unseen (and possibly unshaven, for all we know) Baldwin returns on July 11 for Columbia's computer-game spin-off "Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within," joined by Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames and "Mulan's" Ming-Na. And Warner Bros.' "Osmosis Jones," a comic sci-fi brew of live action and animation, will pit the voices of Chris Rock, David Hyde Pierce and Laurence Fishburne against a live Bill Murray. It opens Aug. 10.
Do any of these names actually translate into box office for such films? Not really, according to former Disney casting director Ruth Lambert, who helped bring Tom Hanks to the "Toy Story" films, James Woods to "Hercules," Mel Gibson and Glenn Close to "Tarzan" and Haley Joel Osment to an in-production film called "The Country Bears." "If you want to see Mel Gibson in a role, you'll want to see Mel Gibson, not the voice of Tarzan," Lambert says.
It's a family thing
What is luring such an array of Hollywood's finest into the recording studios to play second fiddle to an animation geek with futuristic computers? For many, it's a family thing. "It's an opportunity to get to be a part of something that my kids can go to see," says Joe Pantoliano, who created the voice of a Chinese Crescent dog with a talent for electronics in "Cats and Dogs."
When asked how one prepares to play a dog, he says: "One does not prepare. There is a nasty rumor that I went to the province of Crescent in China for six months, where I lived among the Crescents. But that's just not true."
The benefits of invisibility extend beyond the ability to go to work in curlers and a housedress. In the case of Fox, who is fighting Parkinson's disease, it meant a renewed chance to play the romantic hero in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire."
For Fox's co-star, Cree Summer (Princess Kida), who has been thriving on voice work since she was 11, it has meant greater marketability on another level.
"I'm an African-American woman," she says. "Voice-over means freedom to be more than the white girl's best friend or a prostitute. I get to be anything. Any ethnicity, any age. I can make inanimate objects come to life.
"It taps into a deeper place for an actor. It's fast. You've got to be on point, baby. They just throw a picture in front of you and say, `What do they sound like?' So here you are, you've got 10 minutes to reach back into your imagination and decide how you're going to bring this character to life. As opposed to live action: You got the right build, you're cute enough, OK, you got the gig. After doing both, I have such respect for voice-over actors. I find them to be the sharpest, funniest minds I've encountered."
Voice-over actors may be among the most resourceful, as they generally record their dialogue apart from the rest of the cast and are prompted by a reader who is brought in to feed lines. Summer, who is romanced by Fox in "Atlantis," had only two brief sessions with her screen Romeo.
For Ming-Na, who dubbed the lead in "Final Fantasy" and vocalized the title role in Disney's "Mulan" and its upcoming sequel, the challenges of working without the stimulus and energy of an acting partner are formidable.
"Sometimes you just sit there and give them five, six, 10 different versions of the same line, and you don't know what they are looking for. You need a great deal of patience and imagination to imagine yourself in these majestic or intimate scenes without anybody but yourself to play off of."
"Shrek" producer Aron Warner defends the practice as a logistical necessity. "Because animation is not the most high-paying job in the world, it isn't the absolute top priority -- you squeeze in your recording sessions when you can. So you have to work around three or four live-action shoots, actors on location in a million different places.
It wasn't until Robin Williams triggered Oscar-nomination buzz for his wiseacre genie in "Aladdin" (1992) that A-list stars began to sit up and take notice.