IN JANUARY 1938, Radio City Music Hall opened the biggest hit of its
five-year life. The reviews, while glowing, barely mentioned a word about the
star. Adriana Caselotti, a lyric soprano from an operatic immigrant Italian
family, was little known before the release of the film and would remain so for
the rest of her career. As the voice of Snow White in "Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs," she was subject to the micromanaging control of Walt Disney,
who barred her from public and media appearances to maintain a mystique
around his cartoon heroine.
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 Actor's 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 around the corner is Warner Bros.' live-action "Cats and Dogs"
(opening Wednesday), 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.
What is luring such an array of Hollywood's finest into the recording
studios to play second fiddle to an animation geek with futuristic com-
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
Pantoliano, who runs in human packs in "Memento" and "The Sopranos," also
treasures the informality. "It's kind of a relaxed atmosphere. You get to act
like an idiot without being fearful of what people might think. It's kind of
liberating. You can scratch your rear, get a free bagel and be on your way."
For others, 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" (although it was not sympathy casting, according to
Lambert, who says Fox signed for the picture six months before he announced
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."
They also may be among the most resourceful, as voice-over actors 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. Robert Goulet,
who sang Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" in "Toy Story 2," recalls
meeting Tim Allen with co-star Tom Hanks in the recording studio.
"I said, 'Well you two get along.' He said 'Robert, they all say we go out
bowling together, have barbecues, go on vacations together. We did 'Toy Story'
two years ago. I did it alone. He did it alone. Today is the first time we've
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.
"And there are some technical difficulties of having a lot of actors in a
room recording. There is a lot of overlap that you can't get rid of. So
sometimes it's preferable to do them in isolation."
Working in isolation can also allow high-powered stars to keep their diva
fits from harm's way. Goulet recalls working with Judy Garland on "Gay Purr-ee"
(1962), Warner Bros.' feline response to "101 Dalmations," in the days when
actors recorded for animation in the same room, at the same time. Moonlighting
from Broadway's "Camelot," he and his co-star recorded the film's Harold
Arlen-"Yip" Harburg score in just one night. Garland could be fiendishly
efficient, when she showed up.
"We did a TV special with Phil Silvers and rehearsed at her place," says
Goulet. "Phil and I got there at 10 in the morning. We waited and waited, and
by 4 in the afternoon she still wasn't there. Phil was furious and said, 'I'm
going home.' So we left. We got there the next morning at 10, waited and
waited. Finally, Judy showed up, and Phil, who was an old friend, laced into
her. She said, 'Oh Phil, grow up,' then went through the music at the upright
piano, scanned the lyrics, checked the harmonies, and after about 15 minutes
said, "Is that it? OK, see you on the set fellows. And out she went."
ALONG WITH "Lady and the Tramp" (which in 1955 showcased the voice and
songs of Peggy Lee), "Gay Purr-ee" and "101 Dalmations" (which borrowed MGM
contract star Rod Taylor in 1961) marked the infancy of star power in animated
films. While Billy Joel and Bette Midler graced a Disney-fied "Oliver Twist"
called "Oliver & Company" (1988) and James Stewart garnished "An American Tail:
Fievel Goes West" (1991), 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.
Williams didn't get the nomination, but the freedom with which he was able
to inject his nightclub anarchy into the screenplay later would be enjoyed by
Myers and Murphy, who were allowed to stretch "Shrek" to their comic
"We knew who we wanted in those roles," says "Shrek's" Warner, "and it
informed the writing and the storyboarding. The earlier you know, the more you
can design the film around that actor, create space for that actor's
personality to shine."
As is common practice, the "Shrek" actors were videotaped in the recording
studio for later reference by the animators. Explains Warner: "Mike Myers is a
perfect example of an actor whose humor often comes from his face not matching
his words: He'll say something sometimes in a monotone voice, but his face has
this incredibly funny expression that shows something else is going on
entirely. If you don't capture that, you don't capture the essence of these
The success of the Alan Menken-scored Disney cartoons ("Beauty and the
Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Hercules") has also opened doors for a
generation of Broadway performers often ignored by Hollywood. Tony winner Roger
Bart (for Snoopy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"; he's now playing
Carman Ghia in "The Producers") sang for the pubescent hero in "Hercules" and
believes theater-trained actors bring a more developed musical muscle to the
"What's helped me in making the transition to film is the understanding of
how to embody a character in my singing and making adjustments to their
circumstances, whether it be age or a little dog," Bart says. "Rock stars sing
the way they sing and it can be extremely effective, but different. Elton John
would be bizarre trying to sing like a 12-year-old boy who is having a huge
moment in his life about finding his parents."
While Broadway singers have been tapped for both singing and dialogue
duties (Paige O'Hara in "Beauty and the Beast," Jodi Benson in "The Little
Mermaid"), very often the responsibilities are divvied between two performers.
This puts a singer such as Bart in the slightly absurd position of doing the
Marni Nixon routine (the soprano who dubbed songs for Deborah Kerr in "The King
and I" and Natalie Wood in "West Side Story") for little-known actors who are
"I never did feel like Marni Nixon" says Judy Kuhn, a recent Obie winner
for Off-Broadway's Laura Nyro tribute "Eli's Comin'" who sang "Pocahontas" in
tandem with a speaking Irene Bedard. "They said, 'You are going to do the
dialogue unless we find a Native-American actress whose singing voice matched
yours.' I was cast before Irene, so it actually went backwards."
Given Cree Summer's paean to the color-blind potential of voice acting,
Disney's mandate to cast ethnically in "Pocahontas" and "Mulan" may strike some
as pushing political correctness to the limit.
"'Mulan' wasn't all Asian-American," says Ruth Lambert, who cast the film.
"It also had Harvey Fierstein."
For Lambert, such considerations are a thing of the past. She has left the
Disney mill on a high note, having tapped Judi Dench, Cuba Gooding Jr. and
Sarah Jessica Parker for voice service in "Sweating Bullets," set for a 2003
release. That animated film will bring back the Broadway musical tradition of
Alan Menken, on hiatus from the studio since "Hercules."
Lambert, who is becoming an independent casting agent, is not looking back.
"Once you've cast Judi Dench as a cow, it's time to move on."
Behind the Voices
Robin Williams� off-the-wallgenie in "Aladdin" attracted A-list
stars to animated films.
Disney corraled Tom Hanks to play Woody the cowboy in "Toy Story" and its
Another "Toy Story" regular is Tim Allen, the voice of space cowboy Buzz
Michael J. Fox caused a stir as "Stuart Little"; this summer he�s the hero in
"Lion King" vet Nathan Lane was the cat�s meow as a fiendish feline in "Stuart
As "Beauty and the Beast�s" Mrs. Potts, Angela Lansbury even got to croon the
Theater talent such as Roger Bart of "Hercules" add musical muscle to