LOS ANGELES – Quick! Can you name who did the voice of Snow White? Or Cinderella? How about the Little Mermaid? It's OK if the names Adriana Caselotti, Ilene Woods and Jodi Benson don't immediately spring to mind — they were never promoted or paid as stars when their most famous screen characters debuted.
But now try naming the actors who voiced Shrek, the Genie from "Aladdin" or Woody the cowboy from "Toy Story," and it's easy to think of Mike Myers, Robin Williams and Tom Hanks.
Performing animation was not considered prestige work decades ago, but those three performances have changed things over the past 10 years.
Now, practically every cartoon features famous voices.
The new undersea gangster comedy "Shark Tale" (search) has a slew of them.
The computer-animated story of a scared little fish (Will Smith (search)) who becomes famous as a "shark slayer" by surviving a shark attack when an anchor lands on his predator features the voices of no less than 12 famed actors
Jack Black is his vegetarian shark buddy, Robert De Niro (search) the menacing undersea gangster mourning his son and Martin Scorsese a puffy-eyebrowed pufferfish. Renee Zellweger plays a love-stricken angel fish, "The Sopranos" Emmy winner Michael Imperioli Black's vicious brother, Peter Falk an aging gangster shark and Angelina Jolie a femme fatale.
Add to the mix "The Sopranos" actor Vincent Pastore as an octopus, Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug as Rastafarian jellyfish, and "Today" show host Katie Couric as the fish reporter Katie Current.
Decades ago, Walt Disney barred Caselotti — who was 18 when she earned about $970 for her work — from making any public appearances. He didn't want viewers to put a face to Snow White's voice. Caselotti, who died in 1997 at 80, often said she deserved more, but never sued for it.
What changed over the years?
For one, Peggy Lee, one of the rare celebrity voices to do a cartoon years ago, successfully sued Disney for more money after the videocassette success of 1955's "Lady and the Tramp," opening the door for better pay.
Studios now find that a star is one more attraction for audiences. And actors find it's easy work — which pays enormously.
Over two years, Black said he went in about a dozen times to record the voice of Lenny, his nebbishy, bashful shark.
"I did it all by myself, except I did a little bit with Will Smith at the end. That felt like kind of a symbolic meeting of the thingies, just in case some magic happened between us. For the most part, it's an isolated experience and I like it that way. There are a lot of advantages to doing it by yourself," he said.
What are the advantages?
"You don't have to worry about the other actor getting impatient," Black said. "If you want to do 50 takes, no problem. Then I trust the editors to cut together awesome conversations ... so it really sounds like we're talking to each other."
It's unclear how much Black and his co-stars got paid, but DreamWorks Animation, which produced "Shark Tale" has been generous with star in the past. Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy each reportedly received $10 million upfront for "Shrek 2," not counting their percentage of the profits from the year's biggest movie.
Animation is also something the actors can squeeze in between their other jobs. While working on "Shark Tale," Smith made "I, Robot," Zellweger took on "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" and Black was working on "School of Rock."
Meanwhile, a cartoon voice can give them a place in movie history as their cartoon passes through generations of kids — and they don't even have to shave.
"For the talent, the voice-over work is a minimal commitment," said Eric Wight, an artist who has worked on cartoons for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Charlie's Angels." "They can record an hour's worth in a couple hours. I always love being at these voice-recording sessions and they show up and they're practically in their pajamas and unwashed — very easy work for them."
Although Black said he tried to perform a character — changing his real voice to make it sound more nasally and wimpish — often the studio doesn't even want that.
They are hiring celebrities to be recognizable, after all.
"The first thing they established was that they didn't want me to do anything with my voice other than be myself," said former "Monty Python" star John Cleese, who voiced the ogre's king-in-law in "Shrek 2." "They didn't want me to try any kind of accent or different voice production. Once that was established, and they told me that in the first two minutes, it made my life a lot easier. I wasn't about to argue."
Antonio Banderas, who voiced the scene-stealing Puss-in-Boots from "Shrek 2," had a similar experience. "We wanted to make him a rough voice, a guy who has really, really been worked by life. In the first couple of sessions I threw out many different ways of doing it. I said let me do this line 10 different ways so you guys have the option," Banderas recalled.
He tried a Speedy Gonzalez-type accent, and a scary deep, low growl. Ultimately, the directors had him settle on a voice that was approximately his own — in smooth "Zorro" mode.
Not all star-casting has immediate appeal — Disney's 2002 comedy "Lilo & Stitch" was a smash but didn't have big-name stars. Meanwhile, that studio's recent "Home on the Range" struggled despite boasting the voices of Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench and Cuba Gooding Jr. — perhaps not the biggest draws among children.
For a while after his Parkinson's disease began to hamper his live-action acting, Michael J. Fox did a number of animated voices: as a nerdy treasure hunter in Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and the tiny, computer-generated mouse in "Stuart Little" and its sequel.
"It's great when you go in and all you have to think about is getting the voice. ... It is easier," Fox told The Associated Press in 2001. "It's nice to not have to worry about having the physical energy I may not have at that moment."
But mostly, Fox said, he wanted to be a part of movies his children could enjoy, along with their children someday.
Black said the iconic status of being a cartoon had similar appeal for him, which is why he agreed to do "Shark Tale" before a script was even finished.
"I've wanted to do it ever since I saw Robin Williams in 'Aladdin,'" Black said. "I thought he was so awesome in that. I think it might have been his best performance because it was cool to see him go all the way insane with this crazy cartoon character taking care of the body. I wanted to do something like that."