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Listen up Big names lend voices, star power to animated movies

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers

Quick, name a cartoon character voiced by Adriana Caselotti.

OK, then, name a cartoon character voiced by TV star Ray Romano.

As any 10-year-old will tell you, Romano voiced a wooly mammoth in the computer-animated "Ice Age" films.

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Caselotti? She was the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the world's first animated feature. But nearly 70 years ago cartoon voice actors served in anonymity. The truth is, if "Snow White" were being made today, Caselotti would never get the role. Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts would -- someone with show-biz clout.

The reason is money. In the decades since "Snow White," animated films have gone from movie industry afterthought to economic juggernaut. Three animated features -- "Shrek 2," "Finding Nemo" and "The Lion King" -- are among the all-time Top 20 box-office hits.

And along with that economic clout there's been a shift in how animated characters get their voices.

When Mickey Mouse first spoke, it was with the voice of his creator, Walt Disney.

Nowadays, though, animated characters converse with the vocal cords of Hollywood's highest-profile actors.

The cast of the recent Pixar hit "Cars" included Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman and 11 more of their famous brethren.

Famous voices sell, said Mark Evanier, an L.A.-based writer, director and casting director for numerous animated TV shows. It gives projects prestige and credibility. "It's about bragging rights."

Voice actor Corey Burton said producers count on the exposure celebrities get with interviews and personal appearances.

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"Since most celebrities do animated movies for a lark, not demanding their usual multi million-dollar deal, it's an inexpensive form of marketing and star names make it easier to interest the money people," he said.

Celebrity casting is not new, notes show-biz journalist Leonard Maltin.

"The first Disney animated features were cast without consideration of fame," said Maltin, who has written books about Disney animation. "When Walt cast the character of Snow White, he deliberately had the voices of auditioning actresses piped into his office. He didn't want to see the girl and be swayed by the way she looked."

Twenty years ago a major star would have considered lending his or her voice to an animated film as a step down. But now that animation is huge (with 14 animated features being released this year), even heavy hitters like Bruce Willis ("Over the Hedge") and Julia Roberts ("Ant Bully") have jumped on the band wagon.

And why not? The work is easy (no costumes, no location shoots, no having to lose weight or spend hours in makeup). Big stars can take home paychecks in the mid-five figures for a few hours' work. Lesser names may only get scale. And new Screen Actors Guild rules have increased the royalties to voice actors whose work finds its way to DVD.

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