(To celebrate the release of Missing Link, we’re revisiting the stop-motion animated films of Laika this week and discussing why they’re so special. First up: how The Boxtrolls highlights the art of voice acting.)

Depending on who you listen to, working as a voice actor in animated projects is either very easy or very hard. On its face, to anyone who hasn’t gone into a recording booth, it might seem like the easiest job in the world. You get paid to read lines of dialogue (without having to memorize them), and you don’t even have to get dressed up in a costume. Want to wear sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt? Why not? People will only hear your work, not see it.

Voice work might seem easy, and because of that common misconception, it’s equally easy to take for granted a great voice performance. One such underrated performance comes from a titan of modern acting: Sir Ben Kingsley in Laika’s The Boxtrolls.

An Outlandish Villain

In the 2014 film, Kingsley unsurprisingly was cast as the menacing villain of the story, Archibald Snatcher. The odious, oozing, and bulbously proportioned Snatcher serves as the exterminator in a fanciful Victorian-era town that’s apparently beset upon by a truly distinctive pest: underground-dwelling creatures called Boxtrolls, so named for how they shield their squat bodies. Snatcher desperately wants to be the most powerful man in town, which means he has to become one of the upper-crust, who reside in a club known as the White Hats. This group of stuffy old men are seen sitting around, eating fancy cheese all day long. That’d be all well and good for Snatcher, except for one problem: he’s deathly allergic to cheese. No matter: he strikes a deal with the White Hats to rid the town of Boxtrolls, after which he can join their group.

The setup of Archibald Snatcher as a character is, even in writing it down here, inherently ridiculous. And so too, fittingly, is Kingsley’s performance. Ben Kingsley’s filmography is a roller coaster, with or without this character. His debut role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi garnered him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and he started off the 21st century with an all-time vicious performance in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, but he’s also appeared in jaw-droppingly terrible films like A Sound of Thunder and BloodRayne that can only make you wonder how big of a paycheck the roles in those films offered. Yet Kingsley’s voice is one of his best tools, a dexterous utility that allows him to play Gandhi, or Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, or, yes, Archibald Snatcher. Perhaps one of the best compliments you can give Kingsley for his work here is that he’s almost entirely unrecognizable from his typically dulcet tones.

The Art of Voice Work

We take for granted the use of the voice in an animated film, or in any role that requires extensive voiceover. Only a few years ago, there was a serious argument around the awards eligibility or lack thereof of Scarlett Johansson for her supporting voice work in Spike Jonze’s Her. Though she didn’t get an Academy Award nomination, Johansson was honored by a number of critics’ groups for a performance that’s vital and important to the success of the overall film. (And, not for nothing, she gave an excellent, bursting-with-emotion performance that absolutely merited awards attention.) If you buy into the notion that voice work is easy, almost lazy work — an idea that was mentioned at no less than the Oscars by comedian/actor Chris Rock — then the notion that these performances deserve awards might seem ridiculous.

But, and really just in this very specific way, Chris Rock is wrong. (In that linked clip, he mentions how manual labor is hard work, which is obviously true. It doesn’t make voice acting “the easiest job in the world”.) His experience of voice acting may well have been a breeze, to be fair. Films like the Madagascar franchise are not, largely, known for being hallmarks of modern animation, so who knows how hard the voice actors worked. But you don’t have to look far to find actors who would disagree with Rock.

Even leaving aside the many working voice actors whose names aren’t synonymous with stardom who would argue the challenges of the job, Tom Hanks, in the process of making the Toy Story films, has talked about how physically taxing the work can be. It may seem impossible that such behind-the-scenes work could ever be challenging, but the exacting nature of Pixar filmmakers, getting every possible variation on a single line of dialogue, makes it thus. It might vary based on studio or performer, but voice work is often more challenging than acting, because an entire character’s emotional state has to be communicated verbally, as opposed to with the whole body.

Voice work hasn’t always been recognized — the Annie Awards, which present awards to different animated films every year didn’t create a category for the voice performer in features until 1998. Even then, not every winner of the category seems logical, at least with years of hindsight. (To wit: Toy Story 2 walked away with the award for voice acting for a male…for Tim Allen. Tom Hanks wasn’t even nominated that year.) But sometimes, the Annie voters get the award right, as they did in 2014 when they awarded Kingsley for his work in The Boxtrolls.

Avoiding Celebrity Casting at Laika

In a period when computer animation attracts A-List actors like moths to a flame, it might be easy to presume that the Annies simply wanted to give an award to a big name to attract attention. But Laika has made its name with remarkable filmmaking that doesn’t rely on big names. The studio’s debut feature (outside of their contract work on the Warner Bros. release Corpse Bride) was the moody and striking Coraline. That Neil Gaiman adaptation, helmed by Henry Selick, steadfastly avoided A-list casting; though actors like Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Keith David, and Ian McShane are all well-suited for their roles, no one would mistake them with being a celebrity whose above-the-title presence can lure in audiences. The Boxtrolls wasn’t much different, with a primarily British cast also including Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (of Game of Thrones) as the lead character, a human boy adopted by the Boxtrolls and raised as Eggs.

The voice work in Laika films is, like the voice work you hear in Pixar, as much about casting as it is about the actual performances. For example, in the Toy Story films, the economical scripts are helpfully brought to life not only by performers like Hanks, Allen, the late Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, and Joan Cusack, but by our awareness of what types of roles these actors play. When you hear Wallace Shawn as a neurotic dinosaur as Rex, all you need is a single line to understand Rex’s entire character. The same is true for many Pixar characters, and for many Laika characters. (The same is true at studios like DreamWorks as well – even if the Madagascar films don’t quite work, once you hear characters voiced by Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, you kind of get an idea of the type of character they’re playing.)

A character with a name like Archibald Snatcher in a story like this is, as brought to life by Kingsley as much as by the inventive stop-motion animators at Laika, a disgusting and weirdly pitiable creature. Every time you hear Snatcher, it’s the aural equivalent of being on a ride with unexpected dips and turns; each line reading is a bit off-kilter, and oddly, sometimes ominously sing-songy. Snatcher is a physically imposing character, but also weirdly repulsive and unpleasant; even his own henchmen seem a little wary of him, let alone terrified. The extreme quality of Snatcher is heightened when you learn that Kingsley performed the role a bit oddly: he did it physically reclined, to the point where he’s nearly lying down in the recording booth. It helps give further context to what it is about Archibald Snatcher that’s both so repellent and fascinating.

Voice work is not the only reason why any animated character can be so beloved or praised – plenty of animators will tell you (not inaccurately) that their own work can be perceived as a form of acting. Think of primarily silent characters like Dumbo or WALL-E, relying not on an actor but on technical wizards to craft characters on the page or computer that can render you heartbroken. But voice acting is as much a craft as doing so on camera. It’s a tricky business, and one that can just as easily be treated as playtime as actual hard work with a possible payoff. Though his career hasn’t always been consistent, for what was his first voice role outside of narrating films, Sir Ben Kingsley treated the character of Archibald Snatcher as seriously as that of his other classic performances, making a truly memorable villain for the ages.

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