Decline of voice character-actors?

I finally saw The Jungle Book remake, and the contrast with the original cartoon (one of my all-time favorites) was quite striking.  Sure, there was the live-action and CGI vs. hand-animation — take it or leave it — the darker tone, the different ending (not to my taste).  But what jumped out most to me was how much better the voice acting was in the original cartoon.

To be fair, Idris Elba was a capable Shere Khan.  I’d take George Sanders personally, but I’m extremely partisan towards George Sanders.  And Ben Kingsley acquitted himself well as the Bagheera straight-man.  But Bill Murray played … Bill Murray, who I happen to be a tremendous fan of, but was far short of Phil Harris’s Baloo.  And Christopher Walken was enjoyable as Christopher Walken, but again was overshadowed by Louis Prima.  The contrast was highest in their versions of the two signature songs, performances I would say were “trying hard”.  Scarlett Johansson sounded like a telephone operator, made me really miss Sterling Holloway.

What gives?  I guess one theory could be that the remake traded A-list celebrity names for voice-acting ability.  I could imagine that someone went to see the remake because it featured Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson, but — guessing here — I think it’s less likely someone would have gone to see the original just because of the draw of George Sanders, Phil Harris, or Louis Prima.  This probably makes good business sense.  I see hints of this effect in other recent projects too.

Another theory, advanced by Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, is that there’s a decline of character itself.  That argument goes, movie studios used to groom actors like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant not just for their acting ability, but also because of their distinctive manners and personas.  Everyone has probably heard a Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant impression, but how do you do an impression of Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson, for example?  I think there’s probably something to this.

Another element of this that I haven’t heard mentioned is that the decline of smoking is reducing variation in voices.  Of course, fewer people smoking is a good thing.  But Phil Harris’s voice, to take one example, wouldn’t have been as distinctive if he weren’t a heavy smoker.

Maybe there’s some combination thereof.  At any rate, I’d recommend watching the 1967 The Jungle Book first, and then maybe catch the remake if you’re bored and can watch it for free.

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