The Animated Annoying Comic Actor Conundrum

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.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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14 Responses to The Animated Annoying Comic Actor Conundrum

  1. Scophi says:

    I agree about Reilly. I did enjoy his work in ‘Cirque du Freak’, where he had to play the straight man. Surprisingly, it was the only thing that gave that movie any weight. But I don’t like him as a comedic character. The same goes for Chris Rock.

    As for Robin Williams, I like his serious roles better than his comedic roles. I can’t stand to watch or listen to his ADHD comedic rants for more than a few minutes at a time. But I really enjoy him when he tones it down: ‘What Dreams May Come’, ‘Jack’, ‘Awakenings’, ‘Bicentennial Man’, ‘The Final Cut’…even his dark ones like ‘Insomnia’, and ‘One Hour Photo’.

    Interestingly, many comedic actors do just as good, if not better, work when they are not being funny. Jim Carrey in ‘The Truman Show’. Roberto Benigni in ‘La vita e bella’. Adam Sandler in ‘Spanglish’. Thomas Haden Church in ‘Don McKay’.

    • I agree about Williams, at least as far as his movies go — I can enjoy his manic rantings as part of his stand-up, but in a film it can wear thin after a while. But he can still do well on the more low-key comedies (I liked Moscow on the Hudson, for example, which was another of those semi-dramatic comedies).

      Very true about comedians often doing quite well in dramas.

      • Scophi says:

        My belief is that comedy is very dynamic and requires a range of skills…like timing, expression, delivery, and passion. I suppose if you have the talent to do comedy, you probably have the skill set to do drama. The talent transfers.

        Interestingly it’s often a one-way street. It seems that most comedians can do drama, but most drama actors can’t do comedy.

        (A few more good examples of funny men doing good drama are Billy Crystal and John Goodman.)

        • I’ve heard that theory before, and it sounds fairly plausible. And it makes sense a lot of dramatic actors wouldn’t be able to do it, since they haven’t honed the comedy-specific talents. Though as Airplane! showed, some are quite capable of making the transition (changed the career of Leslie Nielsen, that’s for sure.)

        • Scophi says:

          That’s true. Leslie Nielson, Lloyd Bridges, and Kirk Douglas offered great comedic performances late in their career.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    Another good example would be Ellen Degenerous. A lot of people don’t like her comic acting, even though she hasn’t done much lately outside of her daytime show, but there’s very few people who don’t absolutely love Dory in Finding Nemo. And I completely agree that it’s largely due to the ensemble nature of the animated films. A Happy Madison film has a small group of like-minded people who are in control as the writer, director, and stars. Maybe 5 people. Animated films often have more than one director, many writers, producers that have actual creative input, animators that create the physical action, and the voice actors, probably over 50 people with a large input on the movie when all is said and done. And if something doesn’t work, it’s a lot easier to notice with that many eyes on it.

    • You know, I don’t think I’ve seen Ellen Degeneres in enough to really say how I feel about her as a comic actress (I’ve seen and enjoyed her stand-up), but you’re right that she’s certainly not as universally-beloved as Dory.

      Good point about the insular nature of the Happy Madison films… I was floating around there, but you’ve articulated it a lot better.

  3. I’ve had this same thought myself. I find some people are much more enjoyable when they’re doing the jokes or playing the character that has been written for them, rather than trying to be a funny version of themselves.

    The exception that I have found to that rule so far is Billy Connolly, but then I’m not sure he’s ever made a film where he has that sort of creative control. I love his stand up, I love his dramatic roles (Her Majesty Mrs. Brown is brilliant) and he’s pretty much the only thing that interests me in seeing “Brave.” I suppose the nearest thing he has done to a self-serving ‘comedy’ (read: Any Adam Sandler Movie) would be his World Tour series, and even then its not the same thing…

    • I’m not all that familiar with Billy Connolly, myself. The only things I’ve seen him in are Muppet Treasure Island and Brave, and the former is a pretty small role. He’s good in both, though.

  4. ruth says:

    Great post Morgan! I’m not a big fan of Reilly as an actor either but from the trailer it sounds like he did a great job voicing Ralph. Same issue w/ Eddie Murphy as the hilarious donkey in Shrek. I guess some comedians should just do more VO work, ahah.

  5. Great post and very interesting analysis. I think not seeing the actor really helps a lot. Sometimes their appearance and over/under acting is what annoys you about them and just hearing their voice helps you think more objectively. I don’t normally tolerate but he’s great in Kung Fu Panda. I hate seeing Ashton Kutcher in anything, I think he’s pretty much talentless. But I LOVED his voice work in Open Season.

    • I haven’t seen Open Season (that one looked like a case where the film itself would annoy me), but I’d be willing to give Kutcher a chance in a different animated film, sure. I agree that he seems to be pretty talentless at live-action. Haven’t liked him in much.

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