I Don’t Want to Picture Your Pretty Face While Watching the Character You Voiced

By  · Published on March 21st, 2016

THE JUNGLE BOOK - Voiced by Idris Elba, Shere Khan bears the scars of man, which fuel his hatred of humans. Convinced that Mowgli poses a threat, the bengal tiger is determined to rid the jungle of the man-cub. "Shere Khan reigns with fear," says Elba. "He terrorizes everyone he encounters because he comes from a place of fear." Photo by: Sarah Dunn. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Among the many things I like about Zootopia is how it managed to play a trick on my hearing. I don’t think it was on purpose, but while watching I thought I was hearing the voices of Kristen Bell and Josh Gad as the characters Judy Hopps and Clawhauser, which seemed to make sense since both were stars of a prior Walt Disney Animation feature, Frozen.

But it’s actually Ginnifer Goodwin and Nate Torrence voicing the Zootopia characters (Bell does have a cameo as the voice of a sloth in one scene, however). Before seeing the movie, I wasn’t familiar with either actor’s voice in a distinct enough manner that I’d have identified them without the help of the credits. For me, that’s the way it should be.

I have no problem with famous actors voicing animated characters. I used to, and it was Robin Williams in Aladdin that made me think that way for a long time (Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo really kept my hatred for the idea going). But I don’t want it to be a distraction. Idris Elba voices a minor character in Zootopia, yet I didn’t think about it being him, mostly because the part is so brief.

The image at the top of this post, however, might be on my brain while watching Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Jungle Book. How could it not? It’s a very nice photograph of a very handsome man and the very beautiful beast he voices in the role of Shere Khan. Is that Disney’s intention? Do they want us to picture the good-looking actor so it’s like we’re watching him on screen?

Other attractive famous people who are part of the voice cast, including Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o and Christopher Walken, have similar portraits with their animal characters. Is it not enough that Johansson and Walken are distinguishable enough by their voices alone? Johansson’s sultry vocals are already plenty distracting in the movie’s trailer.

THE JUNGLE BOOK - Lupita Nyong'o voices Raksha, a mother wolf who cares deeply for all of her pups—including man-cub Mowgli, whom she adopts as one of her own when he's abandoned in the jungle as an infant. "She is the protector, the eternal mother," says Nyong'o. "The word Raksha actually means protection in Hindi. I felt really connected to that, wanting to protect a son that isn’t originally hers but one she’s taken for her own." Photo by: Sarah Dunn. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

These promotional portraits aren’t that different from animated film ads showing a side-by-side look at a scene from the feature next to a shot of the celebrity in the recording studio speaking the dialogue. At /Film, Peter Sciretta calls these photos “classier/better,” but I’m not sure I’d agree, at least not with the “better” part. To me, it’s the same dumb logic of trying to appeal to us with the actors’ faces.

The funny thing about this being The Jungle Book that’s frustrating me is that the 1967 animated version is the film that made me start to ease up on celebrity voices. It was once I’d realized, retroactively, that Louis Prima’s vocals as Louie were probably similar back then to Walken’s voicing the same character today. But the original didn’t also feature the voices of Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor. And Prima was cast for his voice, as a singer, more than as a famous face.

Much of the rest of the 1967 cast is also familiar, especially if you’ve seen a number of Disney classics, from before and after its release, but that’s the thing, they were mostly or predominantly employed as voice actors at the time. There are a lot of people famous first for their voices, including Mel Blanc, Tom Kenny, Frank Welker and Peter Cullen. That is or was their primary if not only job as performers.

Much as we see fewer interesting-looking character actors today than in the golden era of movies, because just about everyone in Hollywood is a pretty face now, I feel that too many parts that could very well be played by professional voice actors, people with interesting voices who maybe aren’t good looking enough to be in front of the camera, are being passed over for pretty people who belong fully on screen.

Consider Bill Murray, who plays Baloo the bear and interestingly enough doesn’t appear to have participated in this promotional photo shoot. He shouldn’t ever be thought of as a draw in voice alone. If we want to hear him and not see him, we can watch Garfield or its sequel. If we want a movie starring Bill Murray, we watch a movie starring him physically on screen. Making Bill Murray faces.

Without these famous mugs behind the names and voices, though, would Disney have trouble selling The Jungle Book? Well, not a lot of kids care that Ben Kingsley is the voice of the panther. And adults should be more appreciative of good voice acting instead of being drawn in by celebrities. We should all be going to see an animated film because it features the talents of Alan Tudyk. Why isn’t he a part of the Jungle Book cast?

You’ve heard Tudyk if you’ve seen any of Disney’s recent animated features, most recently as a weasel in Zootopia. He’s both a vocal chameleon and impersonator. Watching Zootopia, I thought his character was voiced by Steve Buscemi. In Wreck-It Ralph, he sounds exactly like legendary character and voice actor Ed Wynn. Tudyk has a familiar face, too, but I’ve never ever pictured him during an animated film he has a part in, if mostly because he tends to sound different in every role.

NEXT: 8 Animated Characters Who Look Disturbingly Like Their Voice Actors

A movie like The Jungle Book, because of how it’s promoted, makes me sometimes wonder why Hollywood doesn’t just put the actors’ heads on the animated characters’ bodies. Animators do sometimes throw in subtle resemblances. Look at Louie’s eyes below and you’ll see Walken’s eyes. But obviously a literal kind of head transplant on these animals would be weird (like that human-faced dog in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Only when Disney remakes the centaur bit from Fantasia will they do something close to that idea.

Instead, Disney gets to have its cake and eat it, too. The animals look like real animals, but the marketing team manages to make us see the human actors in the backs of our mind anyway. It’s like we’re watching two movies at once, superimposed or just kind of side by side like the duality of identities seen in each image in this disturbingly “classy” promotional series.


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.