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Dr. Toon: American Idol Goes Over the Hedge

This month, Dr. Toon examines the connections between Over the Hedge and American Idol that lie secretly below the surface.

When Taylor Hicks (left) attained media immortality, a strange connection was made between American Idol and Over the Hedge. Both of them are similar products with a similar purpose. Courtesy of Fox.

When Taylor Hicks (left) attained media immortality, a strange connection was made between American Idol and Over the Hedge. Both of them are similar products with a similar purpose. Courtesy of Fox.

During the time I was wrapping up a recent column for Animation World Network, two other events were simultaneously taking place. One was the release of DreamWorks latest CGI offering Over the Hedge. The other was the finale of the countrys most pervasive cultural artifact of late, American Idol (which is nothing more than a variation on the old TV show Ted Macks Original Amateur Hour). I am not an Idol fan, although I respectfully bow to the shows ability to transfix a disproportionate majority of our population. I am a Hedge fan, and I freely acknowledge the accomplishments of the SKG troika in recent years (Shark Tale being an exception).

What I did not realize until the moment that Taylor Hicks attained immortality (or what passes for such in todays culture) was why I somehow felt a strange connection between American Idol and Over the Hedge. Both of them are, at a very basic level, somewhat similar products with a similar purpose. They are also not exactly what they are presented to be. There is a superficial level sold to the public, but underneath, there seems to be another agenda.

It may seem incomprehensible to draw any parallel between a talent search and a digital animated feature, and, at first, I did not until I saw my own wifes reaction to American Idol. Over the weeks, she had cheered certain contestants, railed against the perceived unfairness of certain eliminations and picked her personal favorites. On the next to last episode, she actually voted from a cell phone. When the final deal went down on May 24, 2006, she was leaping ecstatically as Soul Patrol downed McPheever in what seemed to me like triple overtime.

During those same weeks, I watched my colleagues at work virtually subsist on American Idol. If we had water coolers, there would have been rings worn in the flooring around them. I noted that more people voted in the finale than voted for the president (even though it seems some love-struck individuals voted as many as 700 times using a redial feature). I came to realize that my wife and most of the country were not transfixed by a talent show, a competition or even entertainment. They were not always cheering for ability; they were rooting for (or against) individuals and their personalities as the contestants reached for the hallowed ground of celebrity.

Hicks was the lead item on the news, front-page story on the paper, first word on everyones lips on May 25, 2006. Hicks was more than a just guy with a salt-and-pepper mop and a good voice Hicks was now an A-list celebrity. Within a month, he was featured on TV as a singing pitchman for a major automotive company.

There are inordinate numbers of people in America who can sing, and do so quite well. Perhaps you can, or you surely know someone who does. All of you reading this (especially in Hollywood) are acquainted with someone who could have credibly held their own with at least the semifinalists. American Idol is actually about the creation and maintenance of celebrity. By the time the finalists step forward, they have been imprinted on the national consciousness for weeks on end, and even those who have been eliminated are invited back to encore for their fans.

The inclusion of actual musical celebrities throughout the competition and in the finale suggested the true agenda behind the show. America needs an endless supply of celebrities. American Idol is a factory for future ones. The contestants truly can sing, but this may not even be the main point of the competition.

Over the Hedge featured an engaging story, extraordinary animation and very likeable characters that did not need to be voiced by celebrities, but nonetheless they were. All Over the Hedge images courtesy of DreamWorks SKG.

Over the Hedge featured an engaging story, extraordinary animation and very likeable characters that did not need to be voiced by celebrities, but nonetheless they were. All Over the Hedge images courtesy of DreamWorks SKG.

Over the Hedge is an animated film that features an engaging story, extraordinary animation and very likeable characters. They are, in fact, so likeable that they did not even need to be voiced by celebrities. Nevertheless, every one of them is. It as important to our culture to promote our celebrities as it is to create them, and, because of this, it is nearly unthinkable for Hollywood to cast an animated film without using a surfeit of stars. Bruce Willis, as RJ, needs no introduction. Garry Shandling is a TV and movie star as well as a rather conservative turtle.

Much the same can be said for Steve Carell, Wanda Sykes and Thomas Hayden Church. Nick Nolte is a bona fide celeb, and most of us have followed William Shatner through his various enterprises over the years. Avril Lavigne is a pop music star with no previous animation credits. Catherine OHara, at least, has a notable background in cartoon voice work.

There was a time, in the early years of the art, when animated films were made using non-celebrity talent. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) did employ some character actors who were working in the movies, but for the greater part of animations history, features were made using unsung talent or people working as actual voice artists on television. In some of the shorts made by Warner Bros. (and other studios), voice actors imitated celebrities rather than use the actual stars.

This situation changed gradually during the 1960s. Prior to that era, characters were developed and then voices found to fit them. Within a decade, the opposite would occur. Celebrity voices would be hired and the characters would be developed around them, often to the point where the animated characters retained the celebritys more recognizable features or mannerisms.

Even Disney was not immune; starting with The Jungle Book, (1967) characters were adapted to mirror recognizable Hollywood actors. This could be amusing and delightful. Hearing Robert Goulet, for example, perform as an animated cat or Paul Lynde cavort as a cartoon rat was a treat for audiences who recognized the celebrities. As time went on, filmgoers had more and more celebs to identify, because hiring them as voice talents became an increasingly indispensable component of producing an animated feature.

Animated TV series come and go; some are superb, some mediocre and some dismal. Very few of them reach iconic status, and the majority of them are forgotten two or three years after their final storyboard session. An animated feature with chartbusting potential, however, is a significant investment involving hundreds of people, years of labor, prodigious investment in leading-edge technology and publicity budgets that can surpass the allotment for producing an animated series. Everything possible is done to ensure success, such as hiring Billy Crystal as a cyclopean monster, Michelle Pfeiffer as a sinuous goddess or Angelina Jolie as a sultry fish. A-list celebrities trump anyone else when it comes to providing voices for the features, and this situation will likely continue into the future.

The trend intensified after 1990; by the time DreamWorks released The Prince of Egypt in 1998, the entire voice cast was comprised of notable Hollywood actors and actresses, with pop music stars Whitney Houston and Boys II Men thrown in for good measure. It seems we have reached the point at which, if a feature did not hire such a cast, audiences would feel somehow cheated. This is the age of tabloids, armies of paparazzi, cable stations devoted to celebrity and the cultish following of people who are famous for no discernible reason.

Adam Sandler, much for the worse, even made an animated film starring himself. We are seeing a distinct difference between the actors who make a living as television voice artists and the all-star celebrity casts who voice animated features. Many celebrities are taking their first shots at the genre, as opposed to those voice artists who have worked for thousands of hours over countless animated series.

Have we reached the saturation level of celebrities voicing animated films? Above John Ratzenberger (left) is directed by John Lasseter for Cars. Photo credit Debby Coleman. © 2006 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Have we reached the saturation level of celebrities voicing animated films? Above John Ratzenberger (left) is directed by John Lasseter for Cars. Photo credit Debby Coleman. © 2006 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Veterans such as Rob Paulson, Cheryl Chase, Tress McNeille, Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker, Tara Strong and Billy West, among others, may have voiced more toons than Bruce Willis will ever see in his lifetime, but they have far less chance of lending their talents to a major Pixar, DreamWorks or Disney opus. Even these experienced artists must bow to an inevitable fact in todays star-obsessed culture celebrity sells, even when dressed up as a raccoon or a hedgehog. Even the low-budget indie Hoodwinked played by this formula.

During the research for this column I noticed that many of the celebrity voices featured in recent animated movies have already signed up for various features that are currently in production. Animated features have begun to play like an extension of People or Us magazine. While this may seem unfair to those who eke out a living doing voices on short-lived TV series, it is merely a reflection of what America expects of its entertainment vehicles. The recent domination of celebrity culture in animated films neither destroys the medium nor benefits it the current situation is the result of giving Americans the celebrities they desire.

The same is true for American Idol. People magazine has now determined that Hicks is among Americas hottest bachelors. Hicks romantic life really has nothing to do with his singing or talent; it has everything to do with his newfound celebrity status.

As I continued writing this months piece, two more events surged into the never-ending mainstream of American celebrity. Every magazine cover in the nation seemed to feature the Current Woman Temporarily Possessing Brad Pitt in advanced stages of pregnancy. Gallons of ink and billions of photos of the baby and its mega-famous parents closely followed this event. At roughly the same time Pixar birthed Cars into theaters everywhere, featuring an all-star cast of well, you know who they are by now. Well, so be it, then. If Willis makes for a convincing raccoon, or Mike Myers a fine green ogre or Paul Newman a sage old rust-bucket, at least the saturation level of celebrities voicing animated films can get no higher.

Until, that is, Hicks voices a street-smart, singing frog in some future high-budget CGI feature.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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