This morning, Toshi and I took in a screening of "Despicable Me," the new animated film that stars Steve Carrell.  Although I'm not able to review it yet, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by the way the celebrity comedians who contributed voices for the film are all essentially disguised completely.  No one just stops in to do a cameo in their own voice.  Even Jack McBrayer, best known as Kenneth on "30 Rock," plays a different type of character than normal. 

It's nice, because a good comic actor freed of the visual recognition should be able to vanish completely into something, and "Despicable Me" makes very good use of Kristen Wiig, who plays the woman who runs the orphanage where the three little girls who are the stars of the film live when it starts.  Wiig gets to play a physical type she'd never play in real life, and she does a voice that didn't make me think of her at all.  It's perfect for what you're looking at, but it doesn't sound like "Kristen Wiig," and I think that's great.

Since "Saturday Night Live" went on the air, dozens of animated films have used cast members to do voices in cartoons, and often, they did their very best to get the comic performers to play themselves or barely disguised versions of themselves.  While I can understand it from a marketing point of view (after all, who wants to watch a Bill Murray movie if you can't tell it's Bill Murray?), I think it's a waste.  Animation is all about potential and freedom and unleashing something in a voice actor, not just tying them to what we already know about them. 

I think it started almost as soon as the show went on the air, and one of the first animated films to use SNL talent was difficult for me to track down for many years.  It wasn't until one of the Quentin Tarantino Film Festivals in Austin, TX that I finally got a chance to see "Shame Of The Jungle," also known as "Tarzoon," and here's what I wrote about it at that point:

"After THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, I got my first chance to chat with Quentin.  We talked about spy films in general, but quickly segued into a discussion of the last film of the evening, a title I’ve been trying to track down for a long time.  'Oh, yeah.  I just lucked out.  I saw it pop up on BIG REEL and grabbed it,' he said. He went on to explain more about the film in his intro once he took the stage.  He talked about the counterculture comedies of the ‘70s, particularly the animated ones.  It was a very quick sort of sub-genre that had its moment, then vanished.  FRITZ THE CAT, DIRTY DUCK, COONSKIN... these were X-rated cartoons that were aimed directly at the youth culture, films that were notorious and demanded to be seen as a sort of middle finger to conventional filmmaking.  There were also the live-action sketch comedy films like TUNNELVISION and THE GROOVE TUBE and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.  That attitude spilled onto television when SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was launched in 1974, and it makes sense that Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts, two of the best writers from the original SNL staff, were hired to turn the French cartoon TARZOON into an American release.  Thanks to a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, they weren’t allowed to use the name “Tarzoon” when they released the film here, so they simply reversed the audio, creating an unintelligible sound everytime they say the main character’s name.  Oddly, that’s the least surreal touch in the film.

Finally seeing a film you’ve waited 20 years or so to see can be very disappointing, but in this case, I think SHAME OF THE JUNGLE more than lived up to expectations.  It’s technically crude, it rarely makes sense, and the humor in the film is incredibly juvenile, but taken as a whole, it’s a joyous assault on the senses that you would have to be a total Grinch to resist.  It’s all about Tarzoon’s attempts to rescue his mate, June, who has been kidnapped by Queen Bazonga and her army of giant penises.  That thin narrative thread is all the filmmakers required to hang together about a thousand of the most offensive and foul sex jokes you can imagine.

The reason I’ve always known about this film is because they got John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest to contribute voices in the American version, although it’s really only Belushi who you’d recognize.  He shows up as Craig, the Perfect Master, a drunk dude flying around on a carpet that is carried by a bunch of ducks tied to a long curtain rod. It’s a strange appearance that appears to be largely improvised.  For the most part, this is non-verbal humor.  I don’t think O’Donoghue and Beatts had to do much work on the film, because it plays without dialogue.  There are jokes about the food chain in Africa, Cheetah f**king Jane, Cheetah swinging through the trees on Tarzan’s dick, mountains shaped like a naked woman complete with a cave where the vagina would be, and much, much more.  I laughed out loud every time they brought on the Molar Men, tiny little cannibals who are genuinely scary.  They eat every single thing in their path, including a stampeding horde of water buffalo.  Picha, the director of the original film, has an art style that reminds me of Sergio Aragones of MAD and GROO fame.  It’s very cartoony, exaggerated, but there’s a real artistry to it.  Watching the giant musical number where a thousand penises march into formations like a swastika and a peace sign, the crowd kept applauding the sheer audacity of it, and overall, this was a perfect way to end the first night of the fest."
 
The main reason Beatts, O'Donoghue, Belushi, Guest and Murray were all hired for "Shame" was because in 1975, "Saturday Night Live" was white-hot, as was anything associated with it, like the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," and if you were trying to reach that youth audience, the quickest way was to associate yourself with this sudden explosion in pop culture any way possible.
 
In 1981, when the animated anthology film "Heavy Metal" was released, it was forbidden fruit for an 11-year-old like me, but by that time, I was already a big fan of "SNL" and "SCTV," and I'd been reading the magazine Heavy Metal for a few years, so there was no way I was going to miss seeing that on the bigscreen.  John Candy ended up with the best role in the film as Den, the lead character in the segment based on Richard Corben's fantasy stories, and there's something wonderful about hearing Candy's instantly-recognizable voice coming out of a character who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Joe Flahtery, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis all also contributed voices, a total of nine characters between the four of them, and the script was by Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, who had co-written "Stripes" and "Meatballs" before that, so they were definitely familiar with this particular talent pool.  "Heavy Metal" felt dangerous when it was released, the way "SNL" did in the early days, so it seemed like another perfect fit.
 
Let's be honest, though... most animation is aimed at children, and much of it is terrible. Over the years, we've seen "SCTV" and "SNL" veterans collect paychecks for some truly rancid movies, including "Rover Dangerfield" (which was based on a story co-written by Harold Ramis), "The Pebble & The Penguin" (a terrible Don Bluth film with voices by Martin Short and Jim Belushi), and "We're Back: A Dinosaur Story" (another Martin Short appearance).  Damon Wayans did a voice for "Look Who's Talking Too," replacing Richard Pryor who actually recorded his full performance before the producers decided not to use it, and it would be just as embarrassing an appearance as Bill Murray's work in the "Garfield" films if anyone still believed that Damon Wayans possessed anything resembling dignity or self-awareness.  Chevy Chase made what probably sounded like a safe bet on paper when he decided to star in "Oh, Heavenly Dog," which teamed him up with Benji, a superstar at the time, and had Chase lending his voice to Benji for much of the movie.  The problem is that Chase was a firmly adult comic persona at the time, and his work in "Oh Heavenly Dog" felt handcuffed, restrained, forced.  That could be a real problem for any of these people if they weren't comfortable working clean. 

Some of them adapted, though.  I think John Candy had one of those personalities that lent itself to animation beautifully, and the best example of that in a family film was "The Rescuers Down Under," where that compelling and outsized approachability of his really helped flesh out the character he played.  The same is true of Gilbert Gottfried's beloved work in "Aladdin," one of the only cases where the words "Gilbert Gottfried" and "beloved" can sincerely be used in the same sentence.  Yes, he was playing variation #9747 on the "wise-cracking animal sidekick," but Gottfried gave it an edge that made it unexpectedly funny and sharp.  And, yes, Billy Crystal crushed it as Mike Wizowski in Pixar's "Monsters Inc," and his rapport with John Goodman is a big part of what made that film so good.

Nelvana was a Canadian animation company that was a major player in the TV and indie feature world for a few minutes back in the late '70s and early '80s, and I always had a real fondness for their work.  "Rock & Rule" isn't great, but it's fascinating in its flaws, and a young Catherine O'Hara was one of the voices in it.  I saw "Animalympics" theatrically, and it's exactly what it sounds like... a spoof of the Olympics with animals instead of people, and it features voice work by Gilda Radner (who could have been a huge voice actor if only she'd lived longer), Billy Crystal, and Harry Shearer.  Shearer, of course, has had a major run on "The Simpsons," a show that also made incredibly good use of Phil Hartman, who I think would have been doing voice-work in animation for decades if only his crazy-ass wife had spared him.  As it stands, Hartman really only did a few animated features, like "The Brave Little Toaster," which is largely forgotten, or the English-language version of "Kiki's Delivery Service," which is hard to judge since he was just dubbing an existing movie and didn't really get to participate in the creation of the character.  His best animated work remains his long and deliciously weird run as Troy McClure, and I thank god we'll always have those episodes to enjoy.

In the end, I think it's weird to hire "SNL" cast members for kid's films, since kids really have no idea who they're listening to.  No six-year-old ever said, "Mommy, I haveta go see 'American Tail 2: Feivel Goes West' because it's got Jon Lovitz in it!"  No one who was on the fence about whether or not to see "Antz" ever said, "Well, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin make voice cameos in it, so we should go."  "The Nightmare Before Christmas" did not succeed or fail based on the presence of Catherine O'Hara.  You hire these people because they are gifted voice actors who can disappear into characters, not because you want to exploit their commercial clout.  If you approach it like that, it seems to me that you end up with good work that stands apart from any discussion of "hit" or "failure."  It is an amazing talent pool that continues to offer up new stars like Bill Hader, who is wonderful and charming as Flint Lockwood in "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs," or Tracy Morgan who played a secret agent hamster in "G-Force" or Tina Fey, who has the Lois Lane role in the upcoming superhero comedy "Mega Mind" opposite Will Ferrell, whose only major animated feature up till now has been "Curious George."  There's more animation than ever being produced, so it makes sense for even more of these actors to be recruited into this type of work.

Only time will tell if they'll be used right or not.

Have you missed earlier columns in this series?

"'MacGruber,' 'Wayne's World,' and the legacy of 'Shrek'"

"'Caddyshack' hits Blu-ray... so it's got that going for it"

"Riggle, O'Hara, Wilson, and the art of the supporting player"

"Saturday Night At The Movies" runs here every Saturday night.  Appropriately enough.

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