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‘The Boss Baby’ continues Hollywood tradition of celebrities voicing animated characters

This weekend, “The Boss Baby” lit up the box office, making around $50 million to dethrone “Beauty and the Beast” as the king of the spring. While this concept — a talking baby who acts like a boss — might seem too simple to be such a hit, a major reason for its success was its genius casting of Alec Baldwin as the baby.

For those who don’t know or live under a rock, leading up to and after the November 2016 election, Alec Baldwin played a caricature of Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” brutally and hilariously satirizing the businessman-turned-president.

If “The Boss Baby” was released in an alternative history where Donald Trump never ran for president, it’d still be great casting, and the movie would’ve been successful. Alas, though, Donald Trump is our president, and the “Boss Baby” was able to tap into Baldwin’s new-found relevancy to produce a perfect-for-the-moment film.

With Baldwin’s Boss Baby now entering the canon of great celebrity animated characters, it’s worth a look at how we got here. Thus, these are my picks for most iconic celebrity animated cartoons of all time.

For reference, we’re not just looking at performance, but also at who is truly iconic. A celebrity is great, and a fun animated character is great, but when you find that intersection, you create a pop culture icon that will last forever.

Let’s take a look at James Earl Jones. He’s only in “The Lion King” for maybe a half hour, but he makes the most of every minute. While Jones is also Darth Vader, and has an otherwise illustrious film and theater career, when people hear that deep bass come out of his mouth, they think one thing: Mufasa. Jones is so irreplaceable in this role that while the new “Lion King” remake will feature a whole new cast, Jones will be back as Mufasa. To quote Cogsworth, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Next, Idina Menzel in “Frozen.” Elsa is definitely the least fun role on this list, as she is not really the most exciting or humorous character to follow, but a huge amount of her popularity stems from Idina Menzel’s portrayal. This is the perfect combination of pre-cartoon fame and a perfect role, as we already know Idina Menzel has the pipes for a role of this caliber, and throw that in with her popularity from “Wicked,” she was primed to be a Disney Princess. “Let It Go” had major success as an actual pop song, and that could not have happened with anyone else but Menzel behind the voice, with her name credited on the radio. When people watch “Frozen”, they are acutely aware they are watching a Menzel performance, not just an anonymous princess.

I’ll admit it, there’s a giant gap from Elsa to this next one: Eddie Murphy as Donkey in “Shrek.”

The top three are the medal winners, and this was a race that was a photo finish. Each are animated icons that are instantly recognized pop culture figures.

For Eddie Murphy in “Shrek,” there was a period where this was probably number one, but the way culture has shaken out puts him at number three. Oddly enough, in the great Shrek meme renaissance, Donkey has mainly been left on aside, with Shrek finally getting his time in the sun. Nonetheless, there was a time when every American under 18 could not go a full paragraph without quoting this hilarious mule, so energetically brought to life by Murphy. This single handedly revived Murphy’s career, though it did not stay afloat for long, and the Donkey merchandise sold in a swift and aggressive manner. While Donkey might not be the icon he was when this film came out, I struggle to think of anyone but him when I see Eddie Murphy.

The same could be said for Ellen DeGeneres and her role as Dory. Pixar does not spend 12 years making a star driven sequel for just anyone. “Finding Dory” was a smash this summer due to a combination of nostalgia for “Finding Nemo,” and our society’s general love for Ellen, but I think it is worth a visit back to 2003, when DeGeneres was really just a rather successful comic. Her talk show was new, and while she had a hit and progressive sitcom, she was a B+ list celebrity really at best.

“Finding Nemo” though, in a rather genius way, was the Trojan horse that made Ellen a star, as her voice was played repeatedly in every home in America. She became synonymous with Dory, which made Moms and Dads across America tune into her talk show… And look where we are now.

The late, great Robin Williams is the top on our list, though. “Aladdin” is one of the next films that Disney is updating for live action, and the reports are that everything is basically ready to get started except for one crucial aspect: the Genie. This will be the hardest element of the film to update, as how can you update perfection?

While Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie may not have sold as many toys or been quoted quite as much as Donkey or Dory, it is the gold standard as it is the perfect intersection of star and character. In fact, Donkey and Dory would not even be on this list if it weren’t for the Genie, as this was actually a decently big breakthrough for animation.

Prior to “Aladdin,” most voices in animated films were either voice actors or mid-range celebrities, but Robin Williams’ performance marks the first time a character was truly crafted to the sensibilities of a star. Williams’ role is iconic in this film, as he recorded hours upon hours of material, out-cartooning a literal cartoon. He invented the idea of the fun, celebrity sidekick, but created a standard that likely has not been reached again. Robin Williams has taken on mythic status as a film star, and the Genie is a major reason why.

Robin Williams created the mold for all of these iconic animated characters, Baldwin. Time will tell if the Cookie Closer will join them.

Erik Benjamin is a junior television, radio and film major. His column appears weekly in Pulp. He can be reached at ebenjami@syr.edu or on Twitter @embenjamin14.

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