If TV's biggest start think it's tough making the transition into movies, they should talk to the artists behind TV's biggest voices. When casting lead characters for animated features, the studios, in pursuit of maximum box office returns, usually opt for marquee talent like Will Smith (Shark Tale) and Mike Myers (Shrek), turning a deaf ear to the Mel Blancs of today. ''I've auditioned for plenty of animated features, and I had to wait until the TV character I did was bigger than the hula hoop [to get one],'' says Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, whose own movie opened on Nov. 19. ''The guys who are top-of-the-line TV animation guys are Fish No. 47 in Finding Nemo.''
Blame The Lion King. Most studios began stacking their animated movies with stars' voices after the 1994 Disney smash grossed more than $300 million in the United States with Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jeremy Irons. (Before that, Robin Williams made 1992's Aladdinmagical, but he was the film's only big name.) Execs concluded that big stars proved a big draw, even over the protests of their casting directors. ''The Lion King did stupendously because it was a good movie, not because anyone cared that it had Jeremy Irons,'' says Ruth Lambert, a casting director at Disney from 1993 to 2000. ''My feeling is, let's get a couple of [stars], but can we just hire the best actors for the rest of the roles?'' It's an argument she repeatedly lost, even with no evidence that stars ensure a big opening weekend for animation witness the 2003 flop Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, with Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and current underperformer The Polar Express, with Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks. (The $165 million Express stalled as it left the station, with only $23 million in ticket sales its first weekend in theaters.) Kids, after all, don't know Hollywood's A list from its C list.
At least one little animation studio gets this. ''We pick voices on the basis of how well they fit the characters,'' says Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, a Pixar production that stars the voice of movie lightweight Craig T. Nelson. ''If Tom Cruise fits, fine. But if it's Bud Luckey, an animator who's been at Pixar for years [and plays Incredibles' crusty bureaucrat Rick Dicker], that's good too.'' Likewise, Bird drafted NPR regular Sarah Vowell over some tween star like Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff to play the shy, sullen superhero daughter. Indeed, Pixar seems to prefer unsure things: Think Finding Nemo's Albert Brooks and a pre-talk show Ellen DeGeneres, or even Tom Hanks, cast for Toy Story in 1991 during his Joe Versus the Volcano-era career slump and before his back-to-back Oscar wins.
But why not extend the offers to TV's cartoon pros, who surely have the most valuable experience? ''In TV, you have to immediately deliver who the character is,'' says casting director Mary Hidalgo (The Incredibles, Lilo & Stitch). ''And nothing says character like a funny voice, which is too cartoony and grating to sustain an hour and a half.... It's a different style of acting.'' A theory which frustrates vets like Futurama's Billy West. ''We don't bring conceit to the roles,'' says West, who has also provided voices for Popeye and Bugs Bunny, among others. ''What we bring is a zillion choices for a director. The celebrity thing forces the art into its blue period. Out of a myriad of colors that are available, we're just using blue and green now.''