This weekend, comedic actor Jack Black makes his foray into the world of voice-over work in the CG animated film Kung Fu Panda. With the release, he becomes just the next in a long line of comedic talents, both stand-up and otherwise, to take the lead in a major animated film. And over the years, these animated leaps of faith have been met with mixed results, from great successes like Tim Allen in Toy Story to great disappointments such as Jerry Seinfeld with Bee Movie. So to give you some perspective on this ever-popular phenomenon and where it came from, I would like to walk you through some of the more notable comedic stars who have taken to voicing some very memorable characters. As well, I will take a look at whether or not their choices led to great success or epic failure.
Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin (1992)
This is probably one of the first times that a comedic actor not only made the jump into animation, but was recognized as the star of the show. Williams’ role as the Genie is to this day one of the most memorable characters in the entire Disney animation library, right up there with Baloo from The Jungle Book or the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella. Although, unlike those other helpful, guiding characters, the Genie had a more devious side. At least, that is how I remember him — from when I was 8 years old. Since Aladdin, Williams has gone on to voice a supporting character in Fox’s Robots, but nothing will ever live up to the Genie.
Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story (1995)
Sure he had that long running television show that was funny and he was coming off of the smash hit The Santa Clause in 1994, but Tim Allen could have never expected the amazing response that would come when he laid down the voice track for Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story. Still highly regarded not only as one of the greatest animated films of all time, but one of the greatest achievments in film as well, Toy Story ushered in a new era of animation. As well, with the amazing balance between Allen and co-star Tom Hanks, it also ushered in the era of A-list stars making up animated ensembles. Allen would come back for Toy Story 2 in 1999, which took things up a notch, and will eventually return again for Toy Story 3 in 2010, not able to escape from under the shadow of Buzz Lightyear — then again, with success like that, who would want to?
Mike Myers as Shrek in Shrek (2001)
After the untimely death of Chris Farley put the project in danger midway through, Mike Myers stepped in to pick up the pieces and allow fledgling studio Dreamworks Animation to continue work on a medieval comedy about a big green Ogre named Shrek. And in 2001, Shrek was unleashed unto the world, never to look back at those tragic and humble beginnings. Since the first film, Shrek has spawned two — soon to be three — sequels and has grossed over $1 billion dollars at the box office, proving that no matter how annoying Mike Myers may be with that odd Scottish accent, people will still flock to see the tales of a big green, socially awkward ogre every time.
Ellen Degeneres as Dory in Finding Nemo (2003)
It is easy to say that comedienne Ellen Degeneres has found more success with her daytime talk show and her standup comedy specials than she has in film. But it goes without saying that hooking up with Pixar to voice Dory, the airheaded lead fish in Finding Nemo, was probably one of her best cinematic decisions. As Dory, Ellen provided some zany comic relief to go along with the dry, yet equally as funny persona of Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks). And while she may not have stood out as the star of the film, as Pixar’s animation team would once again not be overshadowed in their brilliance, she seemed to fit pretty well in a film that would turn out to be a mammoth hit.
Will Smith as Oscar in Shark Tale (2004)
Sure, Will Smith has done action (Bad Boys), big summer blockbusters (Independence Day) and serious Oscar-caliber stuf (Ali), but I will always remember him for his dedication to comedy, a well to which he returns quite often. From The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Hitch, he has always been able to find a way to make comedies that are good, clean fun. And while his foray into animated stardom with Shark Tale was a box office success, bringing in over $300 million domestically, it could be pin-pointed as one of the lower points in his career, as it wasn’t a very good film at all. Filled with stars and light on story and impressive animation, Shark Tale was the wannabe Finding Nemo — and in that sense, Smith was the wannabe Ellen Degeneres, and that is not a very admirable position to be in.
Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion in Madagascar (2005)
Like many people who saw the 2005 release, I liked Madagascar — but it wasn’t really because of the presence of Ben Stiller. Sure, I have always enjoyed his brand of comedy — everything from Meet the Parents to Zoolander has been entertaining, but in Madagascar he seemed to be overshadowed by a group of covert penguins. In fact, the entire movie seemed to be overshadowed by said penguins and a crazy lemur that sounded nothing like Sacha Baron Cohen. So despite the fact that I enjoyed the film and it was a box office success, I don’t know if it was such a great success for Stiller. Although, he probably got a big check — so no worries, I guess.
Martin Lawrence as Boog the Bear in Open Season (2006)
Of course, there are more than a few movies on this list that prove that if you make a big budget animated film, it is bound to make money. With Open Season, Sony Pictures Animation churned out only $186 million worldwide, proving that Martin Lawrence and Aston Kutcher weren’t exactly Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. And aside from the lackluster casting, the film was just plain bad. As for Lawrence, he is better off putting on a fat suit and changing his voice into that of an old lady then he is lending his vocals to an animated bear.
Jerry Seinfeld as Barry B. Benson in Bee Movie (2007)
What’s the deal with all the honey? I will tell you what the deal is… it needs to be left alone, Seinfeld. Just because Steven Spielberg and the people at Dreamworks Animation think it is a good idea to make an animated movie that combines environmentalism with talking bees, that doesn’t make it a good idea! I will admit that there were a few flashes of brilliance in Bee Movie — as in, the Ray Liotta jokes — but other than that this was a serious waste. Seinfeld is probably one of the greatest comedic figures in the television history, but by making a movie like this, he was just sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong — in the honey.
Patton Oswalt as Remmy the Rat in Ratatouille (2007)
Patton Oswalt is the latest in a long line of mid-level stars who have found impressive success by teaming up with the magic-makers at Pixar. Like Disney in the 60s and 70s, Pixar is turning out timeless classics left and right. And by casting a chubby, often vulgar comedian as a food-loving rat, they seem to have once again struck gold. The real beauty in the success of this film — outside of the awe-inspiring animation — is the surprisingly perfect casting of Oswalt. I guess we just never saw it coming. But it worked, so who am I to complain.
Jack Black as Po in Kung Fu Panda (2008)
And finally we come to the man who inspired this little list, Jack Black. With Panda, Black is going to make everyone forget about that supporting role in Shark Tale and make them take notice of his star power. As well, this is one of the first films from Dreamworks Animation that has really stopped me dead in my tracks — the animation is gorgeous. As I have been saying all week, it is almost “Pixar Good”, and that is saying something. As well, there is something to be said about Jack Black’s restraint in the film. He appears to have had a lot of fun making a good film rather than just making a vanity piece. Hmm… That is a lesson that others on this list should have learned before making their own dives into the world of animation…
Sound Off: Which comedic actor do you think has made the best out of their time spent working with animated alter-egos?