Question: What do the animated classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Bambi all have in common? Answer: The voices were done by little known or unknown actors, and not the big-name stars who regularly do voices today.
While these were all wildly successful cartoons (which, incidentally, are still making money today) it's fair to say that had the same Disney or Pixar executives been around then that are around today, Tramp would've been voiced by Mickey Rooney, Snow White by Paulette Goddard, and Bambi by Claudette Colbert.
Of course, it's not hard to see why the arrangement changed. Like most everything else, it was done for economic reasons, the premise being that even though these animated features are kids' fare, the presence of marquee stars would generate larger audiences. But is that really true? If the kids begged to see Ice Age, would their parents have refused to accompany them to the theater unless a "real" movie star's voice was featured?
Moreover, if increased revenue is the eternal, bottom-line goal of Hollywood, why wouldn't the studios look for ways to cut costs rather than increase them? You'd think the advantages of using "unknown" voices would be too obvious to ignore. Besides saving millions of dollars in salaries (Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy each received a reported $10 million for Shrek 2), there's irrefutable evidence that no-name voices work.
The Simpsons became a mega-hit TV series without marquee voices. They did it with terrific writing and a talented ensemble of relative unknowns. The same goes for Winnie the Pooh, Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Flintstones and any number of other cartoons that used second or third-echelon actors for the voices, and achieved results that were spectacularly and enduringly successful.
Not only are lesser known voices infinitely more economical, but it can be argued that an anonymous voice has the additional advantage of allowing the audience to embrace the character more fully because we're able to "lose ourselves" in the performance.
Consider: Which is more compelling -- a cartoon animal with its own unique personality, or one with Jim Carrey's readily identifiable voice? Hearing the Carrey animal speak, don't we subconsciously visualize Jim Carrey sitting on a stool in a recording studio, wearing sweat pants and headphones, reading his lines?
Also, what about spreading the wealth? No one is suggesting that Hollywood should be in the charity business, but isn't there such a thing as wretched excess? There are approximately 200,000 SAG members out there, all of them trolling for paying gigs, and at any given time something like 85% of them are out of work.
I know an actor who is a tour guide at Universal Studios. He's appeared in a couple of my plays. He's a master of voices -- high-pitched squeaky ones, deep ones, funny ones, scary ones, dialects of all sorts, you name it. He's articulate and has a wonderful sense of comic timing. Not only would this guy have played the heck out of an insect in A Bug's Life, he would've done it for union scale.
The built-in absurdity of this whole movie star paradigm became apparent a few years ago when I rented a VHS copy of Toy Story, in Spanish, to practice my foreign language skills. The entire movie -- every character -- was dubbed.
We all understand how dubbed movies work. Instead of English, the actors converse in a voice-over foreign language. For example, when you see Jaws in Spanish (which I've seen), you still get to watch Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider do their thing, but you watch them do it in Spanish.
Not so with Toy Story. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were the stars, the featured voices. Their names were splashed across the front of the box. But because the movie was dubbed, there was no hint of Tom or Tim. No Tom or Tim face, no Tom or Tim voice. Nothing. The only trace of Tom and Tim were their names on the marquee... which gave a whole new meaning to the term "false advertising."
David Macaray is a playwright ("Larva Boy," "Borneo Bob," "Revenge: A Love Story") and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org