The Pros and Cons of Celebrity Casting in Animation

A few musings on the popular and controversial practice of casting celebrity voices in animated films.

Credit: Pexels

Among the most recent additions to Netflix’s international roster of shows and films is The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, the third feature-length offshoot of the popular Nickelodeon series (US viewers will be able to see it on CBS All Access — soon to be renamed Paramount+ — in early 2021). Like the previous two films, it boasts some high-profile guest appearances, both physical (Keanu Reeves, as seen in the trailers) and vocal (UK actor Matt Berry).

It also retains the entire original voice cast: Tom Kenny as SpongeBob Squarepants and Gary the Snail, Bill Fagerbakke as Patrick Star, Rodger Bumpass as Squidward, Clancy Brown as Mr. Krabs and Carolyn Lawrence as Sandy Cheeks, among others. Some would say that’s a given, but these days there is no guarantee that animated properties will be consistent when it comes to casting, even with legacy characters whose voices are a crucial part of the appeal.

In fact, another 2020 release is a textbook example of this: the feature film Scoob!, which was produced with the intention of launching a cinematic universe revolving around Hanna-Barbera characters, was the subject of fan criticism due to the studio’s decision to recast four of the five main roles. Only Frank Welker, who has been the official voice of Scooby-Doo himself since 2002, was allowed to remain on board, presumably because no one famous enough can do a decent rendition of the Great Dane’s trademark vocalizations.

And even that decision came with a caveat: Welker, a living legend in the voice acting community (John DiMaggio, aka Bender from Futurama, once referred to him as “our god”), has also been the voice of Fred Jones since the very first episode of the original series in 1969 (save for the kid version in the prequel show A Pup Named Scooby-Doo), but for the new movie the studio went with Zac Efron.

Around the time of that film’s release (which was intended for theaters — hence the celebrity recasting — but went straight to VOD in the United States for obvious reasons), it was announced that Netflix and Aardman were teaming up for a sequel to Chicken Run. This was quickly followed by the revelation that Julia Sawalha, who voiced Ginger in the original, was not asked to return, officially because she now sounds “too old”. The actress went on to explain that she had submitted evidence to the contrary, which was supposedly not disputed.

In other words, the studio appears to have admitted to her that the stated reason is nonsense, which suggests the real concern is that she’s not sufficiently famous (some will point out that Mel Gibson, the original voice of Rocky, is also being replaced, but that is most likely due to his troubled personal life, which was not an issue at the time of the first film). The easiest way to sidestep that hurdle would be to surround her with celebrities in supporting roles, much like Paramount and Nickelodeon did for the SpongeBob movies.

This is a situation that many animation fans are familiar with, but how did we get here? It is worth pointing out that celebrity voices in animated films and shows is nothing new: Disney cast the likes of Basil Rathbone (then best known as the big screen portrayer of Sherlock Holmes) and Bing Crosby (a major comedy star and singer) as the narrators of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as far back as 1948.

Subsequent films featured major names such as George Sanders, Peter Ustinov, John Hurt, Vincent Price and Angela Lansbury. Walt Disney himself even tried to get the Beatles to voice the vultures in The Jungle Book; John Lennon said no, but the hairdos and Liverpool accents remained in the finished product. Don Bluth, a Disney animator who went on to create his own studio, cast Christopher Plummer in An American Tail and Burt Reynolds in All Dogs Go to Heaven.

More often than not, though, these established stars would be working alongside seasoned voice acting professionals, be it Mel Blanc (the original voice of most Looney Tunes characters), Sterling Holloway (a regular presence in Disney projects, most notably as Winnie the Pooh), June Foray (best remembered as Rocky the Flying Squirrel) or the aforementioned Frank Welker, who specializes in animal and creature sounds (you’ve heard him in everything from Aladdin, where he voiced Abu, Rajah and the Cave of Wonders, to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, where he lent his considerable pipes to the titular monster). Additionally, it was very uncommon to use the cast as a marketing tool for animation. The films themselves were the selling point.

And then Aladdin happened. The third film of what is known as the Disney Renaissance boasted none other than Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie, a role that was written with the actor in mind. Williams, being a huge animation enthusiast, agreed to do it for scale (the bare minimum one can be paid according to Screen Actors Guild regulations), on the condition that his name not be used in advertising materials.

Disney agreed to the terms at first, but eventually reneged on the deal, causing Williams to turn down the chance to reprise the role in the direct-to-video sequel and television spin-off, where he was replaced by Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson (Williams did return for the third film, after a regime change at Disney).

Behind-the-scenes controversy notwithstanding, this led to a new mentality of star-driven animated films, particularly those made by DreamWorks Animation (whose founder Jeffrey Katzenberg had been in charge of Disney’s animated division when Aladdin was produced).

Not only was it a given that Eddie Murphy, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie would lend their voices to a project; they would also promote it on red carpets (the first two Shrek movies premiered at the Cannes Film Festival) and talk shows, and their names would appear in huge letters at the start of the closing credits (or, in the case of Illumination Entertainment, the opening credits).

Not that there’s anything inherently bad with celebrity voices: they can lend some additional prestige to a project, especially if the celebrity in question is actually into it.

Say what you will about James Woods as a person, but he clearly enjoys playing Hades in Disney’s Hercules franchise, having agreed to voice the character pretty much at all times, no matter the context (the lone exception is a direct-to-video film called Mickey’s House of Villains, where voice actor Rob Paulsen stepped in for the singing parts).

Similarly, stars like Alec Baldwin, Kristen Wiig or Benedict Cumberbatch appear to relish the opportunities that come with a medium where the only limit is one’s imagination.

There are, in fact, some on-camera performers who have made a whole second career for themselves in the world of animation, like Mark Hamill, Tim Curry, Clancy Brown and Seth Green.

John Ratzenberger, aka Cliff from Cheers, has been Pixar’s lucky charm since 1995, appearing in all of the studio’s feature films (he also voices characters in the Planes movies, which are not made by Pixar but take place in the Cars universe).

Alan Tudyk, best known as Wash from Firefly, has achieved a similar status over at Walt Disney Animation Studios, having had a role in all of their films since Wreck-It-Ralph.

The problem is when the celebrity doesn’t quite fit, and the marketing overtakes the creative aspects. Chris Rock does a fine job voicing Marty the zebra in the Madagascar films, but he was right to point out how little sense it made for him to tag along for the third movie’s world premiere and press junket in Cannes, talking to journalists from countries where the film wouldn’t be playing in English, thus nullifying Rock’s involvement.

And dubbing aside, there’s another aspect: celebrity voices are usually there for the adults, who in turn are most likely to just pick whatever looks most appealing to their kids. And the little ones are far more interested in the characters sounding right, as Disney found out the hard way with the live-action Christopher Robin: Tigger was originally voiced by Irish actor and comedian Chris O’Dowd, but test audiences didn’t like his performance, so Jim Cummings — who had already reprised his role as Winnie the Pooh, and also voices Tigger in most projects — was brought in to re-record all the lines.

From that standpoint, Warner’s decision to recast almost everyone for Scoob! was even more baffling, since the studio, much like Disney, usually makes sure its legacy characters remain vocally consistent and avoids replacing the incumbent voice actors unless absolutely necessary (the main exception is the Looney Tunes franchise, which has a rotating roster of performers for most characters).

Adding insult to injury, the regular cast was reportedly not informed of the decision beforehand, and some of them took it pretty hard: Grey Delisle-Griffin, who inherited the role of Daphne in 1999, has said she’s unlikely to ever see the film because of how much the part means to her personally (her predecessor, the late Mary Kay Bergman, was her friend and mentor).

In fact, the studio is one of the companies behind the new Animaniacs reboot, now streaming on Hulu. Steven Spielberg, who executive produced the original, is back in the same position, and insisted that the original cast be retained for the new incarnation of the series. Presumably, the same principle will apply for the Tiny Toon Adventures revival that is in the works for HBO Max.

So why wasn’t that courtesy extended to the Scooby-Doo movie, an extension of a storied franchise that doesn’t really need celebrity voices to get noticed? One can only hope, at this point, that any sequels will stick to the original formula. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And those voices, like all their peers in the animation community, most definitely ain’t broke.

Freelance entertainment journalist, specializing in comic books, film, TV and streaming.

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