Why Do Animated Films Use Such Famous Voices?

I took my four children to the movie Coraline this weekend. After the movie, I asked them how they liked it. Their four answers: “great,” “good,” “O.K.,” and “Thank God it is over.”

Coming from my kids, who always say the latest movie is their favorite, those are not very positive reviews.

I have never been in a movie theater full of kids as quiet as it was at Coraline. That quiet, along with the plodding pace of the movie, left plenty of time to ponder things.

First, I couldn’t get over the fact that the name of one of the children in the movie was Whyborn, known as Whybee for short, as in “Why be born?” Whybee didn’t seem to have any parents, although he did have a grandma who would yell for him from time to time. It made me think of the unwanted children/abortion argument in Freakonomics.

Second, two of the voices in this animated film were done by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher. The last movie I saw was Bolt, with voices by Miley Cyrus and John Travolta. The list of stars who have lent their voices to animated movies goes on and on: Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Cameron Diaz, John Goodman, etc.

Why do big-name stars so dominate the voices in animated films?

One hypothesis is that they are better than other people at doing the voices. I’m almost certain that is not correct. I have to believe that there are a group of voice actors and books-on-tape readers who don’t have the faces to be movie stars but have great voices.

A second hypothesis is that the big stars don’t charge much for their voices. Doing the voice for an animated film doesn’t take much time or effort, at least according to this New York Times article. If that is the case, then maybe the cost of the actors’ voices is just a small part of the total cost of the movie; but I don’t think that is the case, at least not always. One source online reported that Cameron Diaz and Mike Myers each got paid $10 million for their parts in Shrek 2.

A third explanation is that people really like to hear the voices of the stars. I tend to doubt that story as well. With a few notable exceptions, my guess is that audiences couldn’t even identify the voices of the stars if they didn’t see the credits.

A fourth hypothesis is one that sounds odd, but will be familiar to economists. Under this hypothesis, it isn’t that famous actors are better at doing voices, or even that moviegoers like to hear their voices, or that stars are cheap. Rather, big-time actors are hired to read these parts precisely because they are expensive.

In order to be willing and able to give multi-million dollar deals to stars to do voices that a no-name could do for $50,000, a producer must be confident that the movie will be a big hit. Thus, the big star is hired solely to give a credible signal to outsiders that the producer thinks the movie will be a blockbuster.

Ultimately, I’m not sure any of these hypotheses really feel right to me.

Any ideas?


SigLNY

I have often thought about this question, especially given the seven figure paychecks that the stars receive for their efforts. The fourth hypothesis is, I think, the most plausible even though it makes the least rational sense.

It's important to note that the ubiquity of famous actors moonlighting as the voices of cartoon characters is a moderately new phenomenon. Disney had cadres of unknown voice actors who they used many times in their old animated films. The occasional celebrity was deployed but usually only because of their unique vocal talents, Ed Wynn in "Alice and Wonderland" or Buddy Hackett in "The Little Mermaid" for instance. These are hardly top tier stars. The game changer was Robin Williams in "Aladdin" who, for the first time, sold tickets based on his vocal performance alone. There was even chatter of a Oscar nomination at one point. This lifted the stigma which had previously held back famous actors from lending their vocal talents to animated movies. Combine that with skyrocketing amounts of money generated by these movies (given international distribution and DVD sales) and the ability for studios to pay top-tier stars high sums for little work--the combination was too good for stars to resist. But why would the studios want to fork over a few million dollars when they could cast an unknown for a fraction of that sum?

Firstly, these films have massive budgets and are expected to make massive profits. Why take a chance on an unknown when you could pay a celebrity who could perhaps, just perhaps, help sell the movie in a way that a no-name could not. Jay Leno is not going to invite an unknown voice actor on his show to promote the movie- but he will invite Tom Hanks on to do that. That's free publicity. It's also a game of one-upmanship. Once having celebrity voices in a movie was established as an important prerequisite studios were forced to maintain a high profile cast or risk looking sub-par. The executives who think this way may be wrong economically speaking (they are probably over-estimating the financial benefit of hiring A-List stars in the first place) but the psychological inclination to compete as fiercely as possible can override such bottom-line rationality , especially in the dream land of Hollywood where name recognition can mean everything. Pecking-order is all.

Finally, perhaps A-List talent is selected as part of a back-end deal, a kind-of Hollywood backscratching. Dreamworks may say, "hey we've got millions to blow on this animated behemoth were making. How 'bout we pay you, famous celebrity, a couple of million to come for two days and do some voice over work. Maybe you'd also be interested in appearing in our lower budget Oscar-bait flick that we can't pay you diddly-squat for?" Whether or not their is any empirical evidence to support this claim I know not, but it seems plausible.

In a final note, it's interesting that Pixar, the Gold Standard for animation at the moment, has used very little celebrity acting in their last two films. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other direction and shamelessly casting celebrities as animated characters for little reason beyond their A-List status is starting to seem low-brow and even a bit tacky. Pixar wants to avoid having the voices take precedent over the story and visuals.

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Syd

It is all about publicity.

In Spain, when the movie is released, TV will show all the interviews with the big-name stars... even though the movie is "dubbed" into Spanish, basically meaning that the big names are not "in" the Spanish release of the movie in any meaningful sense, but they are still in all the publicity anyway!!

Imad Qureshi

I think famous actors are famous because of their acting skills not just because of the way they look and good acting involves god dialogue delivery. They hire these people because they can deliver those dialogues in much better way than any University of Chicago professor would.

Valpey

If an animated film is a hit it might make $120 Million. If it is a super-hit, it might make $350 Million. The variance here is enormous. Becoming a super-hit requires a number of elements to all line up as well as a great deal of luck . The probability that a film is profitable or not based on the price of above the line actors is fairly low; whereas the probability that a film becomes a super-hit or not because of the presence of above the line actors is relatively high. Even if you could improve the film as a work of art by hiring a dedicated voice-actor instead of a famous name, you would never improve the box office. The fact is, enough people did go see Toy Story because of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to more than justify their salaries many times over.

When we watch live-action movies our brains trick us into believing that we have actually shared intimate moments with the actors. We were standing two feet away from them when they made heroic decisions or learned painful truths. We trust them, and their voices are familiar, almost familial. So too in the animated film does this familiarity relate to how we enjoy the film.

This does lend itself to some weird juxtopositions however. In the failed animated feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the animated Male lead looked just like Ben Affleck but was voiced by Alec Baldwin - the effect was super-creepy.

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Brian

I think it's simpler than all that. The ability to put an A-list star's name in the marketing materials sells a movie. If you pay $10M for an A-list actor's voice talents, maybe that saves you $15M in national advertising? Or, maybe it just performs better than advertising.

There's also the back half of all this. Some investors and studios will only take on movies if they have recognizable stars in them - animated or not. It's a cynical view of Hollywood, but that's the facts.

Jane

The book was ever so much better. Wybourne does not exist in the book- he was manufactured solely for the movie, and added little to it, in my opinion. The plot and characters were so much better-constructed in the book as well.

I also agree that this is not for kids. I wouldn't take anyone younger than 12 to see this movie, or give the book to them. It's unfortunate that this was marketed to young kids.

Hmmmmm

I think there is an option missing. They use big names to get financing. It is much easier to get your movie project funded when you can say John Travolta will be doing one of the voices than if you say ....

Animated movies are much different now than when it was solely a Disney product. The studios have to fight for financing and PR and a big star is the ticket to that.

The poster who said that Toy Story was the start of this trend is spot on. Pixar would have had a lot of problems getting financing and PR without the big names. They also selected actors whose personality translated well to the format. Well Done. Boom a hit...and Hollywood loves nothing better than to copy a successful idea!

Loren Collins

For what it's worth, here's an article (from 1999) with a number of professional voice actors offering their take on this trend:

http://www.awn.com/mag/issue4.01/4.01pages/bevilacquaceleb.php3

Chad Bergeron

I think there's a certain strength to the argument that the actors are being employed just to get their name on the project. Honestly, I'm going to attract more backers and more moviegoers if I have Robin Williams (Robots) voicing my character than if I have John Hodgman (Coraline). (Sorry John, friendship or no, this isn't about you, per se)

S.Pikelny

When I saw Surf's Up, all I could think about when hearing Jeff Bridge's voice was "That's the Dude!" (from the Big Lebowski).

I think there is just an amusement factor (at least for the parents) to hearing a donkey voiced by Mike Myers, or a penguin voiced by Jeff Bridges.

Chris Devers

I'd always assumed it was simpler than any of your hypotheses:

The animation is for the kids. The voices are for the parents.

Consider a movie like "Ants", which among others had Sylvester Stallone and Woody Allen. Kids wouldn't necessarily know either of them, but they both have very recognizeable voices (and personalities), and their characters in the movie were done in ways that both looked & behaved like characters they've done in many other movies. In a movie that I otherwise didn't much care for, it was funny to see a scrawny little neurotic ant (that was really Woody Allen) and a big thuggish alpha-male ant (that was really Sylvester Stallone).

I suspect that without that appeal to the adults, a lot of parents wouldn't want to drag their kids to these movies in the first place.

Barney

I'm not sure about the publicity from famous names theory. Kung Fu Panda has about as many big names as anyone, but until the end of the movie, I only knew about Jack Black--there was no big push about the names behind the voices...so I'm going to go with the theory that some big-named actors just don't charge a whole ton for their voices.

Shay Guy

On the Pixar note, the role of Dory was written for Ellen DeGeneres not because she was a celebrity, but because Andrew Stanton thought she could do it best, in a way that was both distinctive and FUNNY. This was also what made Robin Williams's performance as the Genie work, along with his improvisation.

Another note: Disney's dubs of Studio Ghibli films. Most of these have used at least one celebrity voice actor. These have rarely been the most well-received voice parts, with the exception of comedians such as Billy Crystal (Calcifer, Howl's Moving Castle) or Phil Hartman (Jiji, Kiki's Delivery Service). Mark Hamill (Muska, Castle in the Sky) may regarded as another exception, mainly because he was doing what he did best. By and large, though, most of the more acclaimed dub voices have been from actors nowhere near as well-known as Kirsten Dunst or Christian Bale.

Jar Jar Binks

Further proof to refute your first hypothesis is The Simpsons, which first started as a bunch of small time actors and some exclusively voice-actors.

It doesn't get much better than that when it comes to voice actors, though.

ktb

I think it's probably a big assumption to say that they could easily find someone just as talented to do the same work. "Voice acting" (and only voice acting) is considered a dead end job in this country. If you don't believe me, you need to watch more dubs of foreign films. This can be very different in countries that take their animation more seriously (like Japan), where voice actors can be just as public, just as big a name, and just as well paid as regular actors.

Alyssa Carter

Even if you can't SEE the actor there is still a certain amount of credibility associated with the name. When people see famous actors (or hear their names) they associate the movie as being "better" than if it were full of no-names. Celebrity branding is huge, and brings your movie crazy credibility.

Jeffrey

Along the lines of #10 - I believe the animators actually get a lot of their material for characters based on the mannerisms and style in which the actors deliver their lines. They sit in the studio and watch the actors as they record. One might argue, then, that better actors produce better animated movies not only because of their voices, but also because of their acting.

In the end, though, I believe it's marketability. After all, plenty of big stars aren't even great at acting. They're good at selling, though.

Kurt

My understanding is that big-names have marquee value, even in animation. Look to Little-Mermaid-era Disney though (and even modern Pixar stuff). They knew how to voice-cast, and they didn't need to rely on stars as a draw because they WERE the draw. They were also practically the only game in town.

So they could be casting a candlestick in Beauty and the Beast and ask silly questions like "You think Jerry Orbach can do a French accent?" rather than flipping a coin between Jean Reno and Kevin Klein.

prklypr

No-name (but equally talented) voice actors are not going to be a big hit on the talk show circuit. Who cares if John Smith is on Oprah or Letterman or Conan? No one. But Mike Myers or Cameron Diaz sitting in the hot seat hyping the next animated movie will certainly get viewers to sit up and listen. It's all about the name, not the talent.

ironicgolem

I think looking at Japanese animation offers an additional clue. The market pool of voice actor talent in the US is poor.

If you observe fan behavior, you'll see that listening to imported animation with dubbed US voice acting is despised. The mavens there prefer Japanese voice actors (w/ subtitles) over their native language. Note that in Japan voice acting is a mainstream profession with specialized schools providing education. Also I suspect that US book narration is not an immediately transferable skill.

If you throw in the marketing perks of starpower, as most everyone else has argued, then it's a no brainer to go with a proven voice who helps you on the marketing end.