by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, May 27, 2013


Been on an animation kick as of late, what with ABC Family and The Disney Channel showing Peter Pan, Tarzan and Lilo & Stitch at all hours of the day, plus the kids' incessant playing of Wreck-It Ralph on DVD. It always impresses me how the best cartoon features still have the power to entrance us, even after all these years, with animation every bit as supple as their storytelling.

Even so, we skipped seeing Ralph in theaters - sometimes, it's hard to tell what will and what won't be worth the $40 family trip to the movies - but I imagine it plays just as well at home as it did on the big screen. Disney's 52nd Animated Classic basically does for video games what Toy Story did for toys, with clever cameos and in-jokes for old-school and hardcore gamers alike, and a sugar-sweet story at its center. What I like most about it, though, are the vocal performances - namely from its two main stars, whom you wouldn't normally associate with kid-friendly fare.

You may recognize - or perhaps you may not - actor John C. Reilly (Ralph) from his supporting turns in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and Boogie Nights, or Sarah Silverman (Vanellope von Schweetz) from her acerbic stand-up comedy routines. Only one of them, though, actually resembles their cartoon counterpart, and it's a kick to see Silverman's slightly upturned nose and adorable bucktoothed grin grafted onto a little girl's face:

Celebrity voice casts, of course, are nothing new to animation; Walt Disney himself started this trend with Pinocchio in 1940, when he cast singer Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. Cartoon characters that look like the actors playing them, on the other hand, are fewer and farther between.

Examples of this are virtually nil from the early 1940s onward (contrary to popular belief, the Beatles themselves did not provide any voice work for the 1968 comic fantasia Yellow Submarine - their characters were dubbed by soundalikes - and appear only during the film's live-action coda). It was only during Disney's 90s output that celebrity visages became more prominent among animated cels. You remember Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin...

Or Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson in The Lion King...

Or, most obviously, Danny DeVito in Hercules...

DreamWorks Animation, meanwhile, seems to have the market cornered on cartoon/celebrity doppelgängers, either because a), they can't think of anything better to do, or b), it fits right in with their patented formula of in-jokes and pop culture references first, story later. Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009) is one example, with Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert as the President of the United States:

2004's Shark Tale, however, is the nadir - a movie so desperate to attract adult audience members that its A-list cast (Will Smith! Jack Black! Angelina Jolie! Robert De Niro! Martin Scorsese!) practically became the focus of its entire marketing campaign. Note in particular Smith's telltale ears, De Niro's trademark mole on his right cheek, and Scorsese's signature eyebrows:

The Noughties also gave birth to the motion capture animated film, in which actors' performances are scanned into computers and re-created inside complex digital environments. Director Robert Zemeckis spearheaded this trend, with The Polar Express in 2004, Beowulf in 2007, and Disney's A Christmas Carol in 2009. The actors' likenesses are uncanny:

Then there are the cartoons that look a little too much like the actors playing them. Take Transformers: The Movie (1986), starring the once- great Orson Welles as a giant robot planet that eats other planets (insert fat joke here):

There's a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in watching your favorite celebrities replicated in animated form. Imagine the freedom one must feel, though, voicing a character that looks absolutely nothing like you:

 Cameron Diaz, Shrek (2001)

Ray Romano, Ice Age (2002)

America Ferrera, How To Train
 Your Dragon (2010)

Which is, after all, the big draw (sorry) of animation - taking you places live-action movies can't.

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