I am a Boise State student with a passion for music and film.
Well, this is my first film editorial in a long time, though not for lack of trying. I just haven’t been able to think of a subject that was worth an entire article. But I think I’ve finally found one and you the reader can be the judge as to whether it is worth the entire article.
Anyways, on May 20, 2019, Hugo Award-nominated film critic and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis (man, as a longtime fan, that feels so good to write) released a video essay entitled How Aladdin Changed Animation (By Screwing Over Robin Williams). You can find the video here if you need to catch up, but to summarize, Ellis describes how Robin Williams’s memorable vocal turn as the Genie in Aladdin influenced modern animation’s obsession with casting major celebrities in voice roles and marketing the films on that fact, and how Williams himself cut ties with Disney once he saw how they were using his voice to push the marketing. However, it is one particular section of the video that I wish to focus on and offer up my opinion on it.
There’s a portion of the video called “The Aftermath” where Ellis describes Hollywood learning the wrong lessons from Williams’s casting and other animation studios starting to fill up their casts with famous celebrity voices, and how it all came off as cynical. One of the films she mentions is DreamWorks’s 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, which was practically awash in A-list celebrity talent. And it is this point with which I have a slight disagreement. Now to be fair, Ellis does mention Prince in a somewhat neutral context, stating its celebrity cast as a simple point of fact rather than something that’s good or bad. However, I myself believe that Prince’s cast comes just as much from genuine inspiration as from corporate-minded reasons, if not more, like Robin Williams' casting for the Genie. And the reason why is twofold.
Reason #1: The Marketing
Below is a picture of one of the posters for The Prince of Egypt.
Now, follow the links listed here; these are the trailers for Prince.
….Wow, that last one really didn’t know what movie it was selling.
Either way, none of the trailers really give the impression of “Hey, look at the boatload of celebrities we have in our film!” They give off a vibe of an upstart animation company that just wanted to show the public this artistic film they worked really hard on and are just trying to sell it on its own merits, much like most of the films in the Disney Renaissance.
On a side note: yes, that last TV spot was pretty tone-deaf, trying to sell the film as a fun family adventure.
*Cue “One Of These Things is Not Like the Other” song*
Just to briefly go off on a tangent, I think I have a pretty good theory as to why that TV spot, plus a few other ones that were released when the film was coming out on video and DVD, had that tone. When The Prince of Egypt was first released, it wasn’t as big of a hit as DreamWorks—and especially Jeffrey Katzenberg (or “Petty Asshole” as Lindsay Ellis appropriately calls him because that’s what he was, despite my grudging respect for him)—was hoping for. They wanted it to be the next Lion King—a critical hit that also broke all kinds of box office records.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. While the film was definitely not a bomb—it was the highest-grossing non-Disney traditionally-animated film before The Simpsons Movie in 2007—it was more of a sleeper hit than an actual blockbuster. I think DreamWorks and Katzenberg thought they lost out on potential dollars in theaters, so maybe they thought changing the tone of the marketing to something more broad and fun would help it find a more lucrative existence on home video and DVD.
Anyways, onto Reason #2.
Reason 2: The Dramatic Tone
While Prince definitely has a star-studded cast, one cannot deny just how much of a pedigree each and every one of those actors had accumulated up to that point. Both Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes had reputations as great actors at that point in their careers, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Jeff Goldblum, etc. These people all had a pretty strong acting pedigree by the time 1998 rolled around.
And not only that, but they fit the characters and the tone that Prince was trying to communicate. As Ellis points out in her essay, the reason that Williams’s performance as the Genie works so well isn’t because he was a famous celebrity, but because he actually fit the character. And I believe the same goes for the cast of The Prince of Egypt. While I’m not gonna act like fame had absolutely nothing to do with these people getting cast, I do believe that they fit the more dramatic, subdued tone that the film was trying to communicate.
In fact, it’s one of the things I admire about Prince: the voice acting. I love how subdued and serious it is, as opposed to some of the Disney Renaissance films where some of the voice actors either pitch up their voice or make it sound more “bouncy” for lack of a better term. And I understand the reason they do this is for the benefit of the animators. But Prince decided to go in a different direction with characters who moved in a more realistic fashion and thus required the appropriate vocal performances, which I think all the actors pulled of with aplomb.
In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with Lindsay Ellis’s statement of casting for the benefit of the character rather than just because an individual happens to be famous. But I also think that Prince represents the actors fitting their characters in spite of their fame rather than because of it.
But as the wise man once man said, that’s just my opinion.