Give The Voices Some Love

The announcement of this year’s Academy Awards nomination saw the return of an old(-ish) staple in the awards season debate. The “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” category honored Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), June Squibb (Nebraska), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), but not Scarlett Johansson’s much-lauded performance in Her. I haven’t seen the film yet and so can’t comment on the wisdom of that decision, but it does highlights a recurring challenge for the acting categories: How to account for the particular piece of acting that constitutes a vocal or motion-captured performance?

Johansson is th voice of an operating system in Spike Jonze’s movie, but the question has recurred most famously for a couple of performances by Andy Serkis; as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Serkis’ acting formed the basis of the CGI animation behind both of those very convincing and crucially important characters, arguably the best thing about their respective projects, but Serkis still was not eligible for an Oscar nomination. I understand that it would be hard to evaluate his contribution against other performances of a wholly different type, but then again, isn’t that the case with all acting? How do you choose between a gut-wrenching emotional performance and one that is pure, comedic gold? At the risk of recommending the Grammy-fication of the Oscars, I think the Academy should consider instituting a separate category for this type of acting. I doesn’t have to be awarded every year, but for years in which there are standouts, I don’t see much wrong with going in that direction.

The thought struck me the other day when I was watching one of my childhood favorites, The Lion King (1994). I rewatch it once a year or so, and it’s one of those movies that delights just as much today as it did when i was 9, and thankfully, it’s not just because of  the nostalgia factor. Some of the animation, while charming and singular, looks a little clunky to the modern eye (apparently, Disney’s ability to draw convincing crocodiles didn’t improve in the least from 1955’s Peter Pan to The Lion King), but the film is chock-full of laugh lines. Much of it is attributable to some of the best supporting characters in the Disney canon – Timon & Puumba in particular – and some great musical numbers (the terrifying Be Prepared is my favorite), but a lot of it comes from truly great voice acting.

But this is where my main, English-language audience and I probably split on our fond memories of growing up with The Lion King: I’m sure Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Whoopi Goldberg and Jeremy Irons did iconic work that shaped the experiences for American viewers, but when I watch it, those roles are instead voiced by Eirik Espolin Johnson, Mari Maurstad and Even Stormoen. I can recite parts of the movie verbatim, and I regularly hum along to its signature songs – but in Norwegian. I Just Can’t Wait To Be King is cute, sure, but my nostalgia only kicks in with Snart blir jeg majestet. (I even have a soft spot for the Norwegian versions of the Elton John songs.)  I have every reason to assume that what makes the film great comes through in every language, but the exact quality of the jokes and the way the emotional moments work on me, is processed through the filter of the Norwegian dubbing. To see the US version would, inevitably, make it a different film.

It’s all about the first impression, though. Nowadays I usually prefer to see an animated feature with original voices. There’s always a risk that something will be lost in the translation to Norwegian, and having been raised on kids entertainment dubbed by the same fifteen or so voice actors, I actually find the stunt casting of the US versions kind of refreshing, sometimes.

Which brings me back to honoring this particular kind of non-traditional acting, but it voice work or motion-capture. No one disputes that actors do an extraordinary amount of work with their faces and voices in order to a paint a well-rounded portrait of a character (think Colin Firth in A Single Man), but in the kinds of performances I’m talking about here, that’s actually all they have to work with. I would’ve loved for, say, Ned Beatty to have gotten some Oscar love for his versatile performance as Lotso in Toy Story 3. Or how about a comedy Golden Globe for Eddie Murphy’s turn as Mushu in Mulan?

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