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To most fans, the Sonic movies are nostalgic and surprisingly decent blockbusters, but its credits might change certain parts of Hollywood’s work culture.

While the entertainment industry has experimented with forms of self-expression throughout history, there has certainly been a hierarchy among different artistic mediums. Famous singers and musicians, regardless of genre, are some of the most pronounced success stories. They can even show up in roles they would otherwise be unqualified for, like acting.

On the topic of actors, the most creative parts of cinema, such as directing, acting, and sometimes scoring and screenwriting, are the positions most likely to make a successful artist famous. This, of course, usually only applies to live action film. Animation frequently gets the short end of the stick.

Any position in animation, from roles more centered on the medium to those with plenty of live action counterparts, is always treated as lesser than its live action equivalent. The pay is lower, for example, and residuals are usually nonexistent. Voice actors, despite partaking in projects outside of animation, like video games and radio shows, are also part of the neglected animation posse.

For a long time, they were treated as disposable mimics that specialize in a profession that is usually seen as a side gig, at best. During the early days of Hollywood, they were left uncredited until Warner Bros. began crediting Mel Blanc for his work on the Looney Tunes cartoons.

Nowadays, if voice actors are in anything more “prestigious” than television, like a feature film, they usually get second-rate crediting. The film version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, however, sets a strong example of how to begin addressing this issue.

The Marginalization of Voice Actors

As mentioned, voice actors are usually associated with animation, but they are not exclusive to the medium. Indeed, radio precedes both television and cinema, whether animated or in live action. Due to how radio’s very nature operates, performers that work on the medium are indeed voice actors.

Naturally, as animation went from a niche experiment to a mainstream art form, studios scouted radio performers, who made up the bulk of voice actors during the medium’s golden age. The aforementioned Mel Blanc was on radio before voicing cartoon characters, for example.

Despite Blanc’s fame and status as a source of inspiration among English-speaking voice actors, he was the exception, not the rule. Voice actors might have gotten credits on a regular basis once television animation became an established market, but they were underpaid and undervalued.

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This barely changed during the 1990s animation renaissance, which saw the emergence of the normalization of voice acting as a potential life-defining profession. Ironically, as an American voice acting scene was “properly” developing, it was already faced with a threat: the overwhelming power that celebrities hold.

There is a difference between celebrity voice actors and voice acting celebrities. The latter are people like Billy West, Tara Strong, Cree Summer, and John DiMaggio. Their primary profession is voice acting and they are known within these animation and gaming spaces. The former are voice actors because of their celebrity status. They were already famous, probably due to their work in live action projects, or even music, in some cases. As a result, their names have financial worth, which leads to celebrities playing the leads in big budget animated features.

The Mutation of the Celebrity Voice Actor

It’s not like celebrity voice actors were never a thing until relatively recent. As early as 1940, prominent public figures were cast in important roles in animated productions. In Pinocchio, Disney’s second feature film, Cliff Edwards, aka “Ukulele Ike,” plays Jiminy Cricket, the most important character in the movie aside from the puppet himself. However, what differentiates Edwards’ role from modern celebrity cameos is that he was cast due to his compatibility with the role, and not due to his status as a star.

The modern take on the celebrity voice actor began with Disney’s Aladdin, with Robin Williams playing the Genie. Cliff Edwards aside, Disney has cast quite a few notable performers in the Walt Disney Animated Canon. However, Robin Williams was one of the first celebrities in an animated picture, let alone a Disney flick, to be a huge part of modern pop culture and have audiences be aware of it. His presence in Aladdin was rightfully treated like a big deal.

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Despite Williams’ requests to not have his voice on Aladdin-themed merchandise, Disney bragged about the famous comedian’s performance as the Genie anywhere it could, effectively turning Aladdin’s breakout character into its newest mascot. This would hint at a dire future for voice actors and Hollywood films, even ones that were already famous.

Toy Story came out a few years after Aladdin with a cast mostly consisting of celebrities, with leads Tom Hanks and Tim Allen being the most notable actors. Space Jam came out a year later with a poster that billed Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny instead of the rabbit’s voice actor, Billy West. Sure, Bugs Bunny is an American cultural icon, but he is already on the poster. The production team could have afforded crediting West, especially due to his own role in the 1990s animation renaissance as the voice of Stimpy.  

If one of the most successful voice actors in the business couldn’t get top billing in a feature film, then other people in the industry could not be blamed for thinking the future looked bleak. To make things worse, the celebrity voice actor would morph into another direction with the 1998 release of DreamWorks’ Antz, in which several celebrities, such as Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone, voiced characters clearly based on their images.

Sonic’s Relationship with Voice Acting

Ben Schwartz, Sonic’s voice actor for the movies, and the Blue Blur himself.

Of course, voice actors are treated as lesser when compared to their live action counterparts to this day. The normalization of celebrity voice actors, even if there are truly talented ones, like Mark Hamill, has created a hierarchy. It assimilates voice acting into the general acting profession rather than recognizing live action and voice acting as similar crafts with important nuances that separate them from each other.

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As a franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog is no stranger to all spectrums in the definition of voice acting. The Blue Blur’s very first voice actor was Jaleel White, best known for playing Steve Urkel on the hit ’90s show, Family Matters, meaning that having celebrities voice Sonic characters is nothing new. Nevertheless, the Sonic cast has been rather talkative since the series fully went 3D with Sonic Adventure. As such, there is a connection between these characters and the people that voice them.

Even that didn’t stop the entertainment industry from acting the way it did. Indeed, Sonic’s first “official” game voice actor, Ryan Drummond, was eventually replaced by his 4kids counterpart, Jason Griffith, who was in turn replaced by a more “established” voice actor, Roger Craig Smith, when the “modern” Sonic era started. With a few exceptions, such as Eggman, most Sonic characters went through the same cycle.

How the Sonic Movies Fixed a Massive Problem for Actor Representation

Although they share names with the series’ original mainline games, the two Sonic movies have a flexible vision of what the Sonic universe should be. As a result, while characters’ personalities might be familiar, they are still given different flair. This is true for Ben Schwartz as Sonic, but also for Jim Carrey and Idris Elba, two celebrities that respectively play major characters: Dr. Eggman and Knuckles the Echidna.

The lone wolf, or fox in this case, is Colleen O’Shaughnessy, who is Tails’ current voice actress in the games, as well as the only member of the mainline Sonic cast to reprise her role in the films, albeit only for a post-credits scene in the first movie. O’Shaughnessy became a member of the main cast following Tails’ bigger role in the second movie, but with a catch: she did not receive top billing alongside her more famous co-stars. The credits changed after fans protested O’Shaughnessy’s exclusion.

The Importance of Sonic 2’s Advertising

O’Shaughnessy is obviously not the first professional voice actor to get credited alongside “regular” Hollywood stars. However, it is the nature of her credit that might convince other studios that all performers, regardless of the medium and niche, are equally worthy and all contribute to their projects. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie set an earlier, and overlooked, example by billing every actor the same way, and putting the celebrity cameos, such as Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Tambor, and Scarlett Johansson, after the main cast.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 doing the same thing in practice by billing O’Shaughnessy the same way as Carrey and Elba, even if it was only due to outcry from the fanbase, could set an excellent example in the future. Sonic is one of the most popular video game characters of all time and his blockbuster escapades are considered some of the few decent Hollywood video game adaptations in history. The Sonic series might regularly polarize its fans, but it is still a big name.

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It’s also important to note that Paramount is planning to turn the movie version of Sonic the Hedgehog into its own smaller version of a Marvel-like cinematic universe, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is already confirmed to be in production and star Shadow the Hedgehog. Regardless of who plays Shadow, they are pretty much guaranteed to receive the same treatment as every other actor. If Shadow is not voiced by a celebrity, then a hopeful pattern will be created.

By caving to fan demands and giving O’Shaughnessy top billing in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Paramount might have unintentionally proven that the hierarchy that puts live action on a pedestal at the expense of animation and adjacent mediums is ludicrous. While this idea may seem utopian, the Sonic 2 credits might lead to the improvement of voice actors’ socioeconomic conditions in the American entertainment industry.

The Current Conditions of the Animation and Voice Acting Industry

It is safe to say that the contradictions between the privileged and the marginalized are becoming clearer thanks to the Internet providing people with paths to learn these truths. While there are a lot of conversations about discrimination against a person’s inherent traits, the inequality between professions is beginning to get highlighted. This persists across all industries, but due to its prominence, Hollywood’s problems tend to get the most exposure.

Despite creating classic characters like the Mickey Mouse gang and the Looney Tunes, as well as contemporary cultural icons like the Simpson family and SpongeBob SquarePants, animation is frequently given the short end of the stick.

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Animation jobs, whether staffed or contracted, offer less pay, job security, and residuals than their live action counterparts despite studios being perfectly capable of well-treating their employees. This goes beyond the well-known stigma of animation being only for kids that destroys its credibility as a “serious” art form.

Animation is not only popular, it is tremendously profitable. Animated projects regularly top the ratings and box office. Many of the most viewed films and series on streaming platforms are animated. There are no reasonable explanations for the material marginalization of animation workers, including voice actors. Their projects are successful, but they frequently cannot show their contribution to said success due to poor payments that live action workers would seldom deal with.

#NewDeal4Animation and How Voice Actors Are Affected

The COVID-19 pandemic showed the power of animation, not only because of the stories being told, but due to the very nature of the animation production cycle. While the dangers of the coronavirus put most live action productions to a halt, animation continued to thrive due to its artists being able to work remotely. Still, this did not earn the respect from the higher-ups in Hollywood, who continue to treat animation and its people like a commodity.

Recently, the #NewDeal4Animation movement emerged as a way to raise awareness of the exploitation in the animation industry and the unequal pay, which obviously affects voice actors too. In a way, Paramount’s mishap with the Sonic 2 poster could not have come in a more perfect time. Voice talent being neglected in favor of bigger names in the midst of said talent’s main industry taking a stand is too convenient, but it was necessary.

#NewDeal4Animation was brought up by several critics of Paramount’s initial decision to omit O’Shaughnessy from the Sonic 2 poster, indicating that the inequality between the various branches at Hollywood affect entire professions and industries, and not just secondary roles in the creative process. Once again, if the voice actress of a famous character like Miles “Tails” Prower was dismissed as a potential star, then it creates a gloomy environment for performers with a smaller public presence.

In the end, O’Shaughnessy getting top billing for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the bare minimum, in addition to being a performative move on Paramount’s part. However, the bare minimum is sometimes the best way to make progress. If the cards are played correctly, workers can lobby to make voice actors benefit from #NewDeal4Animation as much as the writers and visual artists that work on these shows and films.

Why the Future for Voice Actors Looks Brighter

There has already been some success for animation unions in 2022. More animation departments, including ones working for long-lasting and deeply impactful shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, are voting to join unions. There are more discussions about better pay, benefits, and work conditions. People have been awake for a while, but the willpower to confront these issues, no matter how minor in the long run, is slowly awakening too.

If people that work exclusively behind the scenes can get their own deal, then so can voice actors, who are often the most notable members of an animated work’s crew aside from the creators. In fact, a lot of creators are voice actors. They are part of what brings hundreds of beloved characters to life, and some of them have become celebrities themselves due to their work on popular animated media and video games.

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With Sonic the Hedgehog 2, there is a chance that studios will finally accept that voice actors are as important as any “regular star”, especially if the most prominent voice actors start openly protesting the mistreatment. This was best shown with the Futurama reboot initially not having John DiMaggio, one of the biggest voice actors in the American industry, reprise his role as Bender because he criticized the lack of proper pay for himself and his co-stars, whose names are just as big as DiMaggio’s.

#NewDeal4Animation is hopefully the first of many movements to improve the entertainment industry, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 will hopefully not be the last blockbuster to equally bill voice actors and celebrities. Big names in animation have been speaking out, and the old school mindset that a lot of executives seem to embrace is being challenged more frequently. Sonic 2’s marketing shows that audiences have power to make voice actors the respected performers than they should have always been.

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