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Jack Black voices Lenny the vegetarian shark in “Shark Tale.”
updated 9/29/2004 2:28:20 PM ET 2004-09-29T18:28:20

You could say that the most famous person ever to do a voice on a theatrical cartoon was the first. In “Steamboat Willie,” the voice of Mickey Mouse was squeaked by Walt Disney himself. Of course, Disney was a complete unknown at the time, and nobody expected his name to live on decades after his death as one of the most powerful mega-corporations in Hollywood. Although he might have.

The voice actors in Disney’s early feature-length cartoons weren’t even credited. And when the Fleischer Studio tried to compete with Disney with a 75-minute “Gulliver’s Travels,” only the singers were acknowledged on-screen: the fairly unknown Jessica Dragonette (who stayed that way) and Lanny Ross (whose career highlight was a short-lived TV series in 1948).

Cartoon voices were a world apart from real actors. Often recruited from radio, they rarely did more than bit parts on-screen. The era's most famous man of a thousand voices, Mel Blanc, had a true face for radio, resembling a less-threatening version of Peter Lorre.

He might never have shown his face if not for Jack Benny moving his radio show to television and bringing everyone in his cast with him. In the ’70s, Johnny Carson would have Blanc as a guest on the “Tonight Show,” and audiences would oooh and ahhh at his demonstrations of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

Peggy and the Tramp
The 1955 Disney production “Lady and the Tramp” was the first feature cartoon with a marquee name: torch-singer Peggy Lee, not in a title role, but caricatured as Peg, a sultry Pug, singing “He’s a Tramp.” It was a song she wrote herself, along with “The Siamese Cat Song,” in which she did a duet with herself doing a Chinese accent. A sign of how clueless — perhaps intentionally — Disney was about the value of star performers in ’toons was that Lee was paid only $3,500. Thirty years later, she sued the studio for royalties and residuals.

But who needed real stars when the professional voice actors could do their voices? Probably the most successful imitator in cartoons was Paul Frees, who not only had a vocal range that allowed him to do Boris Badanov and the Pillsbury Doughboy, but who also did familiar voices like W.C. Fields, Boris Karloff, Ed Wynn, half the cast of “The Maltese Falcon” (Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet). Frees imitated Orson Wells for more Disney narrations (in cartoons, documentaries and Disneyland rides) than the real Welles did for anybody.

Ups and downs: From ‘Purr-ee’ to ‘El Dorado’
In the early ’60s, UPA, the cartoon studio best known for Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoingBoing, tried a feature-length cartoon with an “all star cast.” “Gay Purr-ee” starred Judy Garland, singer Robert Goulet, comic Red Buttons and Hermione Gingold (with Paul Frees and Mel Blanc in supporting roles), and like most Disney competitors, flopped.

Disney used performers Phil Harris and Louie Prima to contribute to a jazz-styled “Jungle Book” in the ’60s, but didn't really use big-name stars in their ’toons until Robin Williams contributed the voice of the Blue Genie in “Aladdin.” By allowing Williams to do his manic improvisation in the recording studio and then cherry-picking the best moments out of hours of material, the directors provided the animators an aural template that they could use to let their own imaginations run wild, and it was an artistic and financial success. Even as Williams was having his own legal problems with Disney over royalties — just as Peggy Lee’s case had been decided in her favor — Hollywood stars started to look at cartoons as a way to build their creative reputations while letting the animators do the heavy lifting.

Some worked, like Mike Meyers’ Scottish-dialect Ogre and Eddie Murphy’s Donkey in DreamWorks’ “Shrek.” Others didn’t, like DreamWorks’ last cel-drawn production, “The Road to El Dorado,” featuring Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Rosie Perez attempting to re-create Hope, Crosby and Lamour. The late Paul Frees would've done all the voices better. Despite that experience, “Shrek 2” successfully used Antonio Banderas as Puss-in-Boots, proving that often it’s best to use familiar stars as characters who don’t resemble the actors.

A new generation of voices
A few performers have actually gotten career breaks from cartoons, most notably Nathan Lane for the voice of the Meerkat in “Lion King,” a production that also featured some interesting stunt casting: James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, doing the voices of the Mufasa and Sarabi, also portrayed African royalty (and Eddie Murphy’s parents) in “Coming to America.”

Nowadays, many actors are successfully pursuing two-tiered careers in live-action and animation, among them, the already cartoonish Gilbert Gottfried, Patrick Warburton (go-to guy for super-sized goofiness), “That ’70s Show’s” Debra Jo Rupp and “Cheers’” own Cliff Clavin, John Ratzenberger, who has had a role in every Pixar feature since “Toy Story.”

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Coming attractions
Now, three different CGI-animated features are branching off in three different directions in their handling of Hollywood voice talent.

“Shark Tale”
The first, DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale,” is making a big deal of its star voices, and it’s going against its own “Shrek” success by working to make the characters resemble the stars. And it was a little jarring to see the first billboards with two big marquees displaying the names of six stars taking up more space than the film’s animated characters.

Will Smith: Okay, he just had a big hit opposite a bunch of CGI mechanical men in “I, Robot”; he can handle being a cartoon fish.

Jack Black: This guy is a real-life cartoon character; why hasn’t he done ’toon voices before?

Renée Zellweger and Angelina Jolie: Wait a minute! Who goes to a movie with one of these actresses in it just to hear her voice? Cameron Diaz in “Shrek” was both a beautiful princess and a relatively attractive ogre, and she has more experience with comedy than either of these two, yet she was seriously overshadowed by Myers and Murphy.

Robert De Niro: The last time he dealt with cartoons was the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” movie, as a live-action Fearless Leader, and he didn't fill the theaters then.

Martin Scorsese: Now back the truck up! Famous for directing movies with R ratings, he’s voicing a blowhard puffer fish? Someone at DreamWorks must owe him a lot of favors.

“The Incredibles”
Video: 'The Incredibles' In another month, Pixar brings out its latest production, “The Incredibles.” This almost-too-familiar “superheroes come out of retirement” tale — well, familiar if you read a lot of comic books and watch a lot of cartoons — follows the lead of the mega-hit “Finding Nemo” in carefully casting semi-familiar whose voices fit the characters.

Earlier Pixar productions marqueed the participation of Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal, but “Nemo” set records with the talents of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. “Incredibles” obviously cast for type, not star-power; not even image — animated superheroes and no Patrick Warburton? Shocking! Mr. Incredible is vocalized by long-time television staple Craig T. Nelson. His wife, the comparably super Elastagirl, is voiced by Holly Hunter, whose southern twang is one of Hollywood’s most familiar. But this is the actress who won an Oscar for a role in which she didn't speak a word (“The Piano”).

When the reviews of “The Incredibles” come out, they'll probably be talking about the successful collaboration between Pixar's CGI veterans and traditional animation director Brad Bird and not any vocal performer’s “star turn” — and some of the reviewers will resent having to go to the trouble.

“The Polar Express”
Video: 'The Polar Express' Finally, as the Christmas season begins, the biggest holiday-themed production is likely to be the movie version of the children's book “The Polar Express,” the first all-animated movie by director Robert Zemeckis, whose original plans for a live-action interpretation would have been prohibitively expensive (requiring the mortgaging of half of Southern California).

Zemeckis brings along one star name, Tom Hanks, playing several different parts, one of which, The Conductor, does resemble him. He also does the voice of Santa Claus, meaning he'll soon be comparing grosses with his “Toy Story” co-star Tim Allen. My apologies to any movie fans for whom reminders of “The Santa Clause” are painful.

The next voices you hear...
By the end of the year, the success and/or failure of these three movies will go far toward pointing out the future use of star voices in animated movies. But not very soon; Pixar’s next production, “Cars,” has already recorded its voice tracks with movie legend/racing buff Paul Newman and NASCAR legend Richard Petty as talking cars. And John Ratzenburger, of course.

Wendell Wittler is the online alias of a writer from Southern California


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