As Oscar time rolls around, the year’s best acting performances are supposed to come under scrutiny. Who was more convincingly tragic, Sean Penn’s martyred politician or Mickey Rourke’s tormented wrestler? Is Kate Winslet finally due, or will Meryl Streep add more gold to her collection? And then there’s the elephant-in-the-room called Heath Ledger, who will almost certainly receive the second-ever posthumous acting Oscar (and deservingly so; the first was given to late actor Peter Finch in 1976.).
But there’s a class of acting, a school in which most of Hollywood dabbles at least once, that will go completely overlooked at the Kodak Theater this month: voiceovers. The Academy currently has no award for voice acting. Why not?
Until very recently, actors received little to no recognition for creating cartoons’ memorable voices. Animated films were sold on the strength of visuals and characters, but almost never on the name of the person in the booth. Did you know, for instance, that Matthew Broderick—Ferris Bueller—was Simba? Or can you name any film in which either Paige O’Hara or Robby Benson starred? (Those would be the voices of Belle and the Beast.)
In Japan, the land of one thousand anime, this has never been the case. Japanese voice actors, called seiyu, often become celebrities purely on the merit of their voices. The result has been a marked increase in quality for Japanese anime voiceovers in comparison to their often corny and low-budget American equivalents. (The original Speed Racer was a wonderful cartoon, but the English voices were regularly risible.)
The American situation began to change in 1992, when Robin Williams brought down the house as Aladdin’s big blue Genie. As a sign of the times, the animation-honoring Annie Awards opened a category for voice work in 1994. By the time Shrek demolished the box office in 2001, posters were selling the film as Myers-Murphy-Diaz-Lithgow. Today, the absolute A-list is regularly on board: Depp in Corpse Bride, Jolie in Kung Fu Panda, Pitt in Sinbad, and Clooney in an upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox.
So with voice-acting officially legit, it’s high time that the Academy Awards got on board. The Academy added the Best Animated Feature award for 2001, and the Golden Globes followed suit in 2006, but both currently fail to acknowledge non live-action acting. Each should seriously consider adding an award for Best Voice Actor in an Feature Film.
What would such an award do for the industry? It would encourage stars to bring the same intellectual depth to a cartoon that they might to artsy December Oscar-bait. It would give an opportunity for under-the-radar stars like Patrick Warburton to be recognized for their superiority over bigger names in the field. And it would further the legitimization of the animated film as art on an equal scale with live-action, an undertaking to which Pixar has already contributed immensely.
In the spirit of my suggestion, I’ve gone back 10 Academy Awards, and presented my choices for who should have won a hypothetical Best Voice Actor Oscar:
- 70th (1997): James Woods as “Hades” in Hercules. Woods gives the god of the Underworld a hilarious fast-talking car-salesman makeover in an otherwise utterly average film. (Runner-up: Hank Azaria as “Bartok” in Anastasia.)
- 71st (1998):Ming-Na Wen as “Mulan” in Mulan. With no truly incredible standouts in 1998, Wen does capture the transformation of Mulan from nervous imposter to confident warrior-woman. (Runner-up: Val Kilmer as “Moses” in The Prince of Egypt.)
- 72nd (1999):Tim Allen as “Buzz Lightyear” in Toy Story 2. Most of Allen’s film career has been a painful joke, but his Buzz is beyond memorable even in a second iteration. (Runner-up: Trey Parker as “Eric Cartman” in South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut.)
- 73rd (2000): Patrick Warburton as “Kronk” in The Emperor’s New Groove. Warburton’s hapless henchman was such a breakout character in the surprisingly funny film that he got his own direct-to-video sequel. (Runner-up: Eartha Kitt as “Yzma” in The Emperor’s New Groove.)
- 74th (2001):Eddie Murphy as “Donkey” in Shrek. Murphy barely beats out his three co-stars, if only because despite being an endless chatterbox, Donkey is always ten times more funny than annoying (Runner-up: Cameron Diaz as “Princess Fiona” in Shrek.)
- 75th (2002): Ray Romano as “Manny” in Ice Age. Who knew that that goofball from Everybody Loves Raymond could be such a poignant sad-sack of a mammoth? (Runner-up: Daveigh Chase as “Lilo” in Lilo and Stitch.)
- 76th (2003): Ellen DeGeneres as “Dory” in Finding Nemo. Of course. DeGeneres is hilarious and pitch-perfect as a memory-afflicted regal tang, full of bizarre non-sequiturs and childish playfulness. And she speaks “whale”! (Runner-up: Jeremy Suarez as “Koda” in Brother Bear.)
- 77th (2004): Brad Bird as “Edna Mode” in The Incredibles. This makes two Annie-identical picks in a row, but I can’t disagree. Bird’s diminutive costume designer packs almost every belly-laugh in the film into maybe three minutes of screen time. (Runner-up: Mike Myers as “Shrek” in Shrek 2.)
- 78th (2005) Peter Sallis as “Wallace” in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Make that three. This dimwitted Wensleydale-loving Brit may be outclassed by his own (silent) dog, but Sallis shines. (Runner-up: Ralph Finnes as “Victor Quartermaine” in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.)
- 79th (2006) Steve Carrellas “Hammy” in Over the Hedge. This performance was sadly overlooked. Usually playing a calmer sort of fool, Carrell absurdly cuts loose here, and his silly, hyperactive squirrel runs away with the film. (Runner-up: Paul Newman as “Doc Hudson” in Cars.)
- 80th (2007) Janeane Garofalo as “Collette” in Ratatouille. On paper, Collette is a dull, trite love interest. On screen, she shreds every scene with Garofalo’s biting French accent. (Runner-up: Nancy Cartwright as “Bart Simpson” in The Simpsons Movie.)
And this year? Well, I’m having difficulty picking just one or two… so, in continuing proper Oscars spirit, I give you my five nominees for best voice acting in 2008, alphabetically:
- Jack Black as “Po” in Kung Fu Panda.
- Susie Essman as “Mittens” in Bolt.
- Dustin Hoffman as “Shifu” in Kung Fu Panda.
- Mark Walton as “Rhino” in Bolt.
- Sigourney Weaver as “Ship’s Computer” in WALL-E.
You tell me who you think deserves a statue. I say any of them do, and it’s a damn shame they won’t have that chance.