Movie stars would prefer it if we all agreed that everything they do is gruelingly hard work. But there's one thing they do more and more that some folks regard as remarkably easy and over-credited: supplying the voices for an endless stream of animated features. Since Robin Williams's unforgettable voice performance in the 1992 Disney blockbuster "Aladdin," celebrities have slowly insinuated themselves into the genre to the point of glut. A studio simply won't do an animated movie now without dickering over who will play the cute, fuzzy zoo animal or ironic snark-princess. By the late 1990s, celebrity names had migrated from the end credits (where audiences could satisfy any lingering curiosity about who that was as the voice of the evil ant or whatever) to top billing on the posters. Lionsgate's "Shrek"-y looking "Happily N'Ever After," opening next month, touts its "stars" on the poster and in the trailer: Freddie Prinze Jr.! Sarah Michelle Gellar! Andy Dick! Sigourney Weaver! (How is that selling us on the movie, exactly?) Still, there are inspired casting choices for some movies, especially as cameos -- for example, look for Larry King voicing ugly stepsister Doris in next summer's "Shrek the Third."
Salaries inched up over time -- what was once seen as a charming "do-good" for the kiddies is now a carefully negotiated seven-figure payday. The week or two of talking into a microphone for computer-animated quickies is now as lucrative, for stars, as three months of location work in an actual meatspace flop. Which is how Owen Wilson becomes a car, and how Halle Berry becomes a robot, and how Hugh Jackman can show up twice in a season -- as a mouse in the recent "Flushed Away" and as a penguin in the current "Happy Feet." (Also penguins: Nicole Kidman, Elijah Wood. John Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite" will voice one of many more penguins -- surfing penguins -- in an animated movie next summer.) Stars have said all along that it's harder than it looks, and that their performances enhance and inform all the animating that comes after they've laid down their lines. But they have also developed a dependence on the simplicity of the material -- the easy jokes, the dialogue that finds a market-tested, family-friendly sweet spot between hipness and liberal elitism, of which Hollywood celebs are accused all the time. (Who doesn't love a penguin?) It's almost like exceptionally cute community service for their Hollywood crimes, community service for which they can get nicely paid and perhaps absolved a bit for their R-rated fare. And maybe best of all, it can be done while wearing sweat pants.