LOS ANGELES Is it not enough that Angelina Jolie was kissed on the lips by the God of Good Looks, gets to play with Brad Pitt and shoot bad guys in $100 million movies? Must she also take food out of the mouths of people who use those mouths to make a living?
Jolie's role as the voice of Tigress in the animated flick "Kung Fu Panda," which also features the dulcet tones of Jack Black, is yet another example of the Hollywood Star-ization of the animated voicework industry. Last year brought Jerry Seinfeld and Renee Zellweger in "Bee Movie," this year heard Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in "Horton Hears a Who!" and Friday comes Disney's "Wall E," with the voices of Sigourney Weaver and Fred Willard.
And it's not just the starring roles. Look at the list of voices on the Internet Movie Database for "Panda" or "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" (coming this fall), and you'll find the first 10 or so actors are household names.
"When the 'The Lion King' came out, there was no big deal made about who was in an animated movie," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, which tracks box-office figures for the industry. "But you see now with 'Kung Fu Panda' it's all about star power and Jack Black."
So are microphones manned by big-name actors becoming a must for animated movies?
"I think if the brand is good, if it's a Pixar movie or a DreamWorks movie, kids, families, they don't care about who's voicing the characters," Dergarabedian says. "On the other hand, I think DreamWorks has said that 70 percent of the audience for 'Kung Fu Panda' was over 17."
The conclusion: Stars are expanding the reach of animated films.
Yet they're not necessarily wowing the critics. It's curious how many reviewers of "Kung Fu Panda" went out of their way to trash the vocals by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and David Cross, who play the movie's "Furious Five."
"It's not her voice that makes Angelina Jolie distinctive," wrote the Newark Star-Ledger's Stephen Whitty, "so it's unclear why she was given the part."
"Despite all that marquee vocal talent, (the characters) have next to no personality," said NPR's Bob Mondello.
"Star names for the Furious Five have relatively few vocal opportunities to shine," wrote Variety's Todd McCarthy.
Blame it all on Robin Williams. Previous to his vocal acrobatics in 1992's "Aladdin," vocalizers were as anonymous as key grips.
There was Mel Blanc, of course, perhaps the most famous voice-over artist of all time, the man who brought Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Mr. Spacely (of Spacely Sprockets) to audible life. And there was June Foray, the Hanna-Barbera/Looney Tunes stalwart and voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. But they were the exceptions. Even as late as 1991 with Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" which remains one of the masterpieces of Disney's so-called second golden age the studio used a virtually unknown vocal cast, with the exceptions of Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury (who certainly weren't cast to reel in the youth market). Once Williams brought real-life star power to cartoons, however, the putty tat was out of the bag.
"I can't help thinking 'Don't they already have enough money?' " laughs Veronica Taylor, a voice well-known to fans of "Pokemon" and lots of other Saturday morning cartoon shows. Taylor is a trained actress BA, MFA, Shakespeare, summer tours who says she "sort of fell into vocal acting" when she had her daughter nine years ago. It was all about the flextime. But that doesn't mean there isn't a certain amount of resentment toward what she calls the "celebrities only others need not apply" policy now surrounding Hollywood animation. (Spokespeople for Paramount and DreamWorks, which together brought you "Kung Fu Panda," had no comment likewise Disney.)
It's easy to see why actors want to voice animated characters, says actor Keith David. "The quality of animation has risen to the point where ... a lot of these features are like any movie, except you're doing it with your voice. The question is why they don't use more people who are equally as capable. There are people in the voice-over community who act as well as any star."
David, who has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows (including "Crash," "Superhero Movie" and "ER"), also has been the voice of video games, U.S. Navy ads and the Ken Burns documentaries "Jazz" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." And he knows the answer to his question.
"From a marketing standpoint, you can understand why they want P. Diddy," he says. "After you see the acting, you can wonder about the choice. Ultimately the whole policy is a bad idea, but you certainly can't fault them from a marketing point of view."