As I was coming home from watching Wreck-It Ralph the other day, something crossed my mind that has crossed it a few times before. I’m not a big fan of John C. Reilly, or at least not of his comedies. He’s had some good turns in dramatic works, such as Chicago, but when it comes to his comic features, he often comes across to me as being like a poor man’s Will Ferrell — even when he’s co-starring with the actual Will Ferrell. Now, I’ll certainly grant that there is a degree of unfairness here, as I’m largely judging his comedies by the trailers… but it’s only a very small degree of unfairness. After all, as I’ve noted before, that’s the trailer’s purpose. Based on what the studio has thought would make people want to see the films, I don’t want to see Walk Hard or Step Brothers.
And yet I had no qualms about seeing Wreck-It Ralph where John C. Reilly voices the main character, who bears a very loose resemblance to Reilly. And after I saw the film, I loved it. I still don’t think I’d want to watch Reilly trying to be funny, but when he’s voicing Ralph I have no problem with him. And this isn’t an isolated incident; there seem to be several comic actors where I only want to see them in animated form.
The first comic actor where I noticed this dichotomy was Eddie Murphy. Now, Eddie Murphy used to be funny. If anybody wants to deny that, there’s a long list of evidence from the 1980s, from 48 Hrs. to Beverly Hills Cop to Trading Places. He was box office gold at one time, and I’ve laughed as hard as anybody else at his films from that era. But I don’t think anybody is going to hold him up as an example of box office gold nowadays. He’s one of the most cited examples of a comedian whose career has gone into a rut, and a severe slide. His movies today can usually be counted on to hit at least two of my Bad Comedy Warning Signs. There’s probably no surer way to kill my interest in a modern comedy than mentioning Eddie Murphy’s involvement. And yet, even though I eventually tired of the Shrek franchise, Murphy’s voice-acting as Donkey was some of the funniest stuff he’s done in years. Even his verbal timing seemed considerably improved.
A jackass and an Eddie Murphy character.
The exact same could be said of Murphy’s Shrek co-star Mike Myers. His career path is almost a perfect echo of Murphy’s, right down to the reliance on gimmick characters. And yet, he makes a good ogre.
They aren’t the only ones. I’ve seen a couple Will Ferrell movies, and they’ve been all right, but I still have no interest in seeing Talladega Nights or The Other Guys. But I regretted missing Megamind and still mean to see it one of these days. I’m sure he’ll do fine in it. Steve Carell didn’t really catch my interest the few times I watched him on TV, but Despicable Me (also sadly missed) looks like fun. I’ve seen a few different Ben Stiller movies, and he’s consistently struck me as somebody who is pathologically unfunny… but I liked him as Alex in Madagascar. (Chris Rock, his co-star, is still sometimes funny in live-action.) I don’t care to remedy my overlooking Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels, but I do hope to remedy overlooking Kung Fu Panda.
So what is it that makes for this dichotomy? Why is that these comic actors, who I’m either indifferent to or in some cases am actively repulsed by, suddenly become tolerable, even likable, when they’re lending their voice to an animated character? It can’t simply be just the more comic appearance of the animated character.
But in some ways, I think that’s a large part of it. Not the look itself… but what the animation enables. A lot of these guys love to mug for the camera, and it often looks out of place even in a very comic film. When Will Ferrell or Eddie Murphy opens their mouth in a grin that almost literally goes ear to ear while shouting, even though this is a physical action from a real human being, it still manages to look rather unnatural. It’s a bit unsettling, and not in a funny way… and it also tends to wreck the timing of the jokes. But in an animation, the cartoon nature of the characters often means they can get away with more exaggerated expressions and still look “right”; further, the timing of any physical aspects of the comedy, from slapstick to facial expressions, is controlled by the animators, not the actor (and even in motion-capture, it can be corrected if need be.) The only issue of timing the comic actor needs to worry about in this case is the vocal timing, which is often what made them famous to begin with on the stand-up circuit. And going the other way, if a particular comic actor is known for under-emoting, that also ceases to be a problem when the animators control the character’s expression.
Is this his angry face? Or is he scared? Sad?
Hell, for all I know, he’s having an orgasm.
The other part of what I think is making these actors tolerable in animated form is something that I had been pondering for a while, but really solidified when I noticed a potential exception to the rule. Adam Sandler, as I’ve noted before, is a comedian whose works I’m usually inclined to steer clear of. This year he had an animated film, Hotel Transylvania. By the usual rule, I should be interested in seeing this… but I’m not. It doesn’t look particularly good (not awful, just not good), and the comedy I’ve seen in it seems to have the same delivery problems of Sandler’s live work I’ve seen. And then I noticed the cast list, filled with several of Sandler’s usual cronies (Andy Samberg, David Spade, Kevin James, Jon Lovitz…), and it was clear. Even though it’s not a Happy Madison production, Hotel Transylvania still comes across as being a film where Adam Sandler is the center of it and is effectively in creative control. And that’s not a feeling I get from most of these other animated films. Madagascar doesn’t feel like a Ben Stiller film. Shrek doesn’t feel like an Eddie Murphy film or a Mike Myers film. It feels like a film about Shrek and Donkey, and the voice actors are just voice actors. They aren’t the reason for the film, they aren’t in creative control.
I’m reminded of what I read once about the scripts for the Mork and Mindy TV series. There would be some written jokes, and then there would be a section that said “Robin goes off here”, where Robin Williams could just improvise and go wild as much as he wanted to. Now look at Williams’ movie career… he has some funny comedies, but he also has some amazingly ill-chosen ones. And he has some terrific dramatic roles. I find it unlikely that the directors on those films had “Robin goes off here” in their scripts; even if they allowed the occasional ad-lib, they were probably keeping a tight rein on him. Even in Aladdin (you knew it would come around to a cartoon eventually), where his character is essentially a blue supernatural version of himself, there’s still a small degree of restraint in the role that isn’t present when Williams is just doing his own thing. For one thing, he’s not the star. With a lot of these comic actors, I get the feeling that many of their movies are made with large sections of “Robin goes off here”, and for the most part they aren’t capable of pulling it off, not even Williams himself much of the time. Even if it’s not a matter of ad-libbing, and I’m sure it usually isn’t, it’s still a matter of their creative and comic vision dominating their film.
But with an animated film, it’s usually somebody else’s vision that’s guiding the show. The script may even be in place before the actor is even picked. Ad-libs and changes, and “Robin goes off here” are certainly possible, but anything that’s not in the script still has to be approved by the director before it gets filmed, because it means more (or different) work for the animators. Anything unapproved means it’s back to the recording booth. Many times these films have the actor as part of an ensemble cast, which further reduces the chances of their personal humor dominating the show. But even when they’re the star, there’s a critical change from the different medium: they’re expendable. It might hurt the cachet of a film a bit, especially if it’s a sequel, but it’s possible to recast the role without having to scrap months of work filming — only those character’s lines need to be re-recorded. They even did this voluntarily with Shrek when Myers — after recording nearly all his character’s dialogue — decided he had come up with an accent he liked better for the character (which also shows that when the actor does have a good idea, their input can still be included.)
I think that for me, that’s why these actors are more likable in animated format. It’s the difference between “a Mike Myers movie” and “a movie featuring Mike Myers”. There’s a sense that he’s there to bolster the film, rather than the film being there to bolster his ego. And when the actors are supporting the film instead of the other way around — and this holds true for any medium and genre — it leads to a better film.