21 Times Celebrity Voiceover Stunt Casting Paid Off

21 Times Celebrity Voiceover Stunt Casting Paid Off
Screenshot: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/Sony Pictures
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Last month, Universal delighted few, annoyed many, and baffled all but those with a pragmatic view of movies-as-product when it announced Chris Pratt will be taking over the role of Mario in an upcoming Super Mario Bros. animated movie. The actor was also recently cast as loveably outrageous cat stereotype Garfield for that franchise’s latest animated reboot, and has already voiced characters in both Lego Movies and Pixar’s Onward. Does this mean he is the world’s greatest voice actor? Well, he’s a famous actor, and he has a recognisable voice, but those aren’t really the same thing.

For studios, the appeal of celebrity voice casting is undeniable: star power puts butts in seats, or so conventional wisdom tells us. but it’s also the case that actors accustomed to performing with their entire bodies can’t always master the nuances of purely vocal performance. There’s a reason animation fans line up at conventions to meet people whose faces have never appeared on camera — I’m thinking of names like Tara Strong, Cree Summer, Steve Blum; in some circles, Mark Hamill is even better loved for his VO work than for Star Wars).

Voice acting is a distinct talent that some big names in live-action can sometimes master (either by creating a compelling performance or by making good use of a recognisable voice), and sometimes…not so much. But when it works, it really can deliver in all sorts of ways. Here are 21 times it did.

Kelly Marie Tran — Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

In the wake of her troubling experience as a Star Wars main character (she was hounded off of social media by trolls who attacked her for The Last Jedi’s apparently egregiously offensive attempts at diversity), Kelly Marie Tran takes the lead here, providing the heart and soul of a luxuriant Disney film that puts a comfortably familiar coming-of-age story into an engaging new context (for a big budget Disney film, anyway). It managed to succeed with audiences and at the box office, despite being released approximately mid-pandemic, and the heart Tran brings to her character played no small part in that.

Where to stream: Disney+

Maya Rudolph — The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)

Everyone’s great in this, including co-leads Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride, but Maya Rudolph has a tougher challenge: she’s playing a mum in a very nearly traditional vein — the person who holds the Mitchell family together amid some increasingly wild shenanigans. It’s easy to go big in something like this, and it’s tempting to go too big (something the actress excels at in her other voiceover work, including on Netflix’s Big Mouth), but Rudolph plays a character who’s a tiny bit more grounded — but still fun, compelling, and entirely herself.

Where to stream: Netflix

John Cho — Mirai (2018)

John Cho plays the nameless stay-at-home father in the English-language dub of this celebrated anime, and though he’s very much a secondary character in terms of screen-time, he plays a critical role in the narrative of the title’s character, who feels ignored and abandoned when his new baby sister arrives. Cho perfectly carries the ambiguity of the father’s affectionate, yet emotionally awkward and clumsy, nature.

Where to stream: Foxtel Go

Jamie Foxx — Soul (2020)

The key to any great voice performance is in finding a particular sweet spot — it needs to be big enough carry all of the character’s emotion, but not so big that it becomes silly. Jamie Foxx hits just the right note as Joe Gardner in Soul, playing a down-to-earth jazz teacher who winds up as a free-floating spirit and, for a time, a cat. His performance is grounded enough to be emotionally believable, but outsized enough to carry the movie’s zanier action.

Where to stream: Disney+

Samuel L. Jackson — Incredibles 2 (2018)

Jackson brings much the same energy to Frozone that he brings to many of his performances — he’s certainly capable of some top-tier acting (see Eve’s Bayou, for example), but he’s also a performer with the type of old-Hollywood-style charisma that radiates even in his voice work. The Afro Samurai miniseries and movie (and video game), are probably the best showcase for his vocal talents, but the Incredibles movies are close second — Frozone wouldn’t be half as cool if anyone else were voicing him.

Where to stream: Disney+

Kristen Bell — Frozen (2013)

Kristen Bell’s done plenty of voiceover work since the smash hit that was 2013’s Frozen, but before that was best known for Veronica Mars and films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (though she admittedly had a pretty solid grounding in VO with her work as the titular presence on Gossip Girl. Bell brought genuine, all-too-relatable emotion (and surprisingly strong singing chops) to the role of Anna, the teenaged princess of Princess of Arendelle and sister to Idina Menzel’s ice queen Elsa, helping propel Frozen and its sequel into the top tier of Disney successes.

Where to stream: Disney+

Gael García Bernal — Coco (2017)

Versatile actor Gael García Bernal gives a lively and energetic performance as charming trickster Héctor, a showy role that never once descends into silliness. The film’s bittersweet tone depends on that balance, and an over-the-top or phoned-in turn by such a key character could have easily ruined it. He also sings the most heartbreaking rendition of the film’s centrepiece song, “Remember Me.”

Where to stream: Disney+

Charlize Theron — Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

As young samurai warrior Kubo’s mother and snow monkey guide, Charlize Theron lends a great deal of heart to Kubo and the Two Strings. She sounds like the stuff of stunt casting, but she is obviously taking things serious, bringing tremendous energy to the role without ever overplaying.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — The Wind Rises (2013)

Used to relying on non-verbal cues, actors less familiar with voice acting frequently under-emote, a trap that would be easy to fall into in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, a frequently quiet drama about real-life WWII-era aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. In the film’s English dub, Gordon-Levitt finds just the right pitch, conveying the subdued tone of the character without losing the emotion.

Where to stream: Netflix

Isle of Dogs — Bryan Cranston (2018)

Bryan Cranston doesn’t quite disappear into the role of stray dog Chief — there’s no mistaking his very recognisable voice. Still, there’s never the slightest sense that Cranston is slumming it in the microphone booth, and his gruff, moving performance sells the emotion of this quirky tale. Previously, Cranston did the English dub for Macross Plus, another impressive bit of voice acting.

Where to stream: Disney+

David Thewlis Anomalisa (2015)

It’s to the credit of the entire cast here (Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan) that this one often doesn’t feel like a stop-motion animated film at all — the performances selling Charlie Kaufman’s story of an awkward customer service rep whose spirits are revived, briefly, by a one night stand. Thewlis beings a believability and an aching poignance to the role.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

John C. Reilly — Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Ralph is clearly being voiced by John C. Reilly, but rather than thinking “hey, it’s celebrity actor John C. Reilly!” his distinctive voice and sad sack onscreen persona actually feel integral to the character, transforming what might have been a two-hour throwaway gag about a video game villain with dreams of heroism into something surprisingly moving.

Where to stream: Disney+

Chloë Grace Moretz — The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

English-language dubs of Japanese films have a justifiably mixed reputation, stemming from the old days of cheap and quick ports. That’s never been the case with Studio Ghibli, a global animation powerhouse with the clout to bring big-name actors onboard for its projects. Occasionally, that star power can be distracting, or it can be transformative — Jean Reno, for example, plays the title role in the French dub of Porco Rosso, a performance director Hayao Miyazaki is said to prefer to the one on the original Japanese track. Chloë Grace Moretz’s performance here feels like it loses absolutely nothing in translation.

Where to stream: Netflix

Dev Patel — I Lost My Body (2019)

Sandwiched between instant classics The Personal History of David Copperfield and The Green Knight, Dev Patel provided the lead for the English dub of the French film. The adult-aimed film about love and loss follows a hand detached from its body wandering the suburbs of Paris. It’s an underrated masterpiece, and Patel is great, as usual.

Where to stream: Netflix

Brendan Gleeson — Song of the Sea (2014)

Song of the Sea plays its relatively straight, blending Celtic mythology with real family emotion in the story of an embittered lighthouse keeper (Gleeson) raising a resentful son and a daughter soon revealed to be a selkie. Gleeson’s character’s blend of affectionate and acerbic are at the heart of the movie, and the actor voices the character in both the English- and Irish-language versions.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Alison Brie — Weathering with You (2019)

The English dub cast here is solid all around, with Brie bringing charming, bubbly energy to the role of adventurous college student Natsumi, who swoops in at a critical moment on her motorcycle to aid in a jailbreak. This one followed up Brie’s goofy role in the The Lego Movie; she gives a different, far more nuanced performance here.

Where to stream: Netflix

Oscar Isaac — The Addams Family (2019)

Though the two recent animated films have received justifiably mixed reviews, there’s really no question that Oscar Isaac is dream casting for a modern-day Gomez Addams. I’m not sure if this is a case of his talent as a voice actor or just remarkable work on the part of the casting director, to be honest.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

Issa Rae — Hair Love (2019)

A little goes a long way in the lovely Oscar-winning short, with Issa Rae as the only voice heard; she plays Zura’s mother, who is telling her daughter a story of fatherly love and unruly hair.

Where to stream: YouTube

Bradley Cooper — Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

It’s hard to square the Cooper of American Hustle and A Star Is Born with Marvel’s sassy, gun-toting space raccoon. That’s very much to Cooper’s credit — he’s clearing giving his all to a role that he might have phoned in, and you’d never hear Rocket and think “oh, it’s the guy from Alias!” (Sorry, Bradley Cooper will always be the guy from Alias.)

Where to stream: Disney+

Kelly Macdonald — Brave (2014)

No Country for Old Men and Boardwalk Empire’s Macdonald carries Disney’s Brave in the lead role — it doesn’t hurt at all that the Glaswegian actress brings an authentic Scottish accent to the role, a relative innovation in a world of voice work that frequently asks performers to play accents other than their own.

Where to stream: Disney+

Basically everyone in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the very crowded field that is Spider-Man movies, and the even more crowded field of superhero movies more generally, Spider-Verse is pretty much as good as it gets. While the unique animation style has a part to play, actor and singer Moore (Dope, The Get Down) carries much of the film with sheer charisma and heart as central webslinger Miles — and is more than matched by smaller yet pivotal turns from his fellow spider-people, including Jake Johnson as a weary Peter Parker; Chris Pine as a, er, less weary Peter Parker; Hailee Steinfeld as a flighty Gwen “Spider-Woman” Stacey; a world weary John Mulaney as Peter “Spider-Pig” Porker; and a totally in on the joke Nicholas Cage as Spider-Man from the noir universe. And that’s not even touching on Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali’s pivotal role as Miles’ beloved uncle-turned-antagonist.

Where to stream: Netflix

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