Disney and Studio Ghibli: A Dubnalysis

Earlier this Summer, I wrote a piece discussing the lasting impact Studio Ghibli's had on the West thanks to their partnership with Disney. Also this past Summer, said partnership finally ended, with GKids, an independent company that took on much of the dubbing and distribution of the studio’s latter releases, announcing that they’d handle any and all licensing of Studio Ghibli material henceforth. With the end of an era upon us, I figured it was time to look back at the Disney/Studio Ghibli partnership, particularly the voice acting. Let’s discuss Disney’s dubs as a whole, what worked, what didn’t work, and whether or not they were for the better. Forewarning, minor spoilers and major opinions inbound!

Before I do this, I’m setting a single rule: I’m only covering Disney-dubbed efforts. This includes all Studio Ghibli movies from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to The Secret World of Arrietty, as well as The Wind Rises because it was released under Disney’s Touchstone label. This won’t include Grave of the Fireflies, which falls under a loophole, or either Only Yesterday or Ocean Waves, as they were only localized once the deal had expired. Princess Mononoke, however, does count, as it was dubbed under Miramax when Disney still had shares in the company. And because it’ll most-likely be brought up if I don’t mention it, I’m including the North American dub of The Secret World of Arrietty. I know there’s an earlier British dub courtesy of Optimum Releasing, but Disney had a hand in the North American release.

Anyway, let’s get this party started!

One of the biggest complaints people lob at Disney’s Studio Ghibli efforts is their overuse of star power. Disney likes taking big-name actors and actresses and using them to promote their movies, and Studio Ghibli was no different. While this might be troubling, it’s more issue of how Hollywood treats its film industry. Film's an incredibly self-masturbatory experience here, with studio execs using and re-using hot stars, and animation is no different. If it makes anyone feel better, Steamboy, licensed under Sony, got the same treatment.

Admittedly, I can see why this’d be an issue: picking a hot-button star can backfire if your choice is wrong for the role, and while, with the exception of Blaire Restaneo in Tales From Earthsea, the execs at Disney never flat-out chose poorly, there were definitely casting decisions that left much to be desired. This was most-apparent in the earlier dubs, as their first three efforts, i.e. Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, were helmed by Jack Fletcher, an ADR director who screamed 90’s…for better or worse. Ignoring the additional dialogue, added music and licensing issues with Japanese pop songs (“Rouge no Dengon”, for example, was replaced with “Soaring” in Kiki’s Delivery Service), his dubs were the most-experimental and have, therefore, aged the worst.

Take Castle in the Sky: the two leads, Pazu and Sheeta, are clearly pre-teens. Fletcher, however, decided to use James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin for Pazu and Sheeta respectively, no doubt to capitalize on the former’s run on Dawson’s Creek and the latter’s Oscar win in The Piano, and it shows. The two are the dub’s weakest elements, with Van Der Beek coming off as post-adolescent with a nasally voice and Paquin showing signs that she’d recently moved from Canada to New Zealand. It’s not entirely their fault, and they both seem like they enjoyed themselves during recording sessions, but, be it a combination of age and miscasting, they make their characters sound older than they should be.

That might be the only dub with that issue, but the weird casting of hot-button celebrities didn't end there. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Tombo Kapori is voiced in the dub by Boy Meets World star Matthew Lawrence. He fits the role quite well, but it’s still a bizarre casting choice. Tombo’s nerdy persona could’ve been better-suited to other actors, so why Lawrence? The simple answer is that he was a Disney celebrity, but it’s curious nonetheless. A part of me is secretly waiting for Ben Savage to sneak up behind him whenever he speaks, seeing as the two played best friends.

Perhaps the most-interesting celebrity casting in a Fletcher dub was Billy Bob Thorton as Jigo in Princess Mononoke. A left-field call, Thorton plays his character with a calm tempo, completely contradicting Jigo’s character. It makes him feel too warm, ironic given how cold he is. I don’t mind the 180-flip, I think it’s inspired in a weird way, but it’s definitely jarring.

Fortunately, the experimental casting ended once John Lasseter took over with Spirited Away. Unfortunately, the celebrity casting didn’t. For his debut as dub overseer, Lasseter packed the cast with Disney celebs, including David Ogden Stiers as Kamaji and the late-Suzanne Pleshette as Yubaba and Zeniba. Since much of the ADR team was comprised of Pixar staff, he also fit John Ratzenberger in as a side-character. And in keeping with the general theme of hot-button celebs, Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly were chosen to be Chihiro’s parents, with up-and-newcomer Daveigh Chase of Donnie Darko fame as Chihiro.

The most celebrity-centric a Disney dub would ever be is that of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not a single character of note in that dub isn’t a celebrity, including Alison Lohman as the lead, and it’s incredibly jarring. Fortunately, it clicks, with some roles, like Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa, working brilliantly. It also managed to make Even Stevens’s Shia LaBeouf, who was a rising talent at the time, likeable as Prince Asbel.

In choosing these hot-button celebs, however, Disney left their respective careers with double-edged swords. LaBeouf, in particular, would explode in popularity shortly after his dub premiered, yet he’d never reach the same level of likability, or even be in a movie with the same degree of critical favour, ever again. Conversely, in the case of My Neighbour Totoro, the dub allowed for Dakota and Elle Fanning’s careers to really kick-off, while Porco Rosso gave a then-struggling Michael Keaton a stint as a voice-actor before Birdman would revive his film career fully years later. For the most-part, being in a Disney dub was like being in a Disney movie: it was gonna happen eventually, and for many of those involved it was a high-point in their career…for better or worse.

I say “worse” because not every celebrity would make it big. Daveigh Chase would fade in popularity over time despite her role as Chihiro. Uma Thurman would fade in popularity over time despite her role as Princess Kushana. Even James Van Der Beek would fade in popularity over time despite his role as Pazu. I don’t claim to know how the acting world works, and it’s hard to predict the careers of anyone, but it goes back to how choosing a hot-button talent is much like rolling the dice in a crapshoot game: sometimes it’s a boost to their career, while others it doesn’t help at all.

Fortunately, many of the Studio Ghibli dubs had a distinct advantage over other anime dubs of the past, present and future: hiring child actors for the roles of children. Disney’s run has seen many great child actors of their time, including the Fanning sisters as Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro, Josh Hutcherson as Markl in Howl’s Moving Castle and Kirsten Dunst as Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service. Disney would even hire child voice actors exclusively for throwaway roles in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Porco Rosso. It’s an important detail to note because good child actors are hard to find and train, and while an imitator could be a suitable replacement…it’s not the same. It’s not unlike buying canned lemonade versus reaming the lemons yourself: which do you think tastes better?

Additionally, Disney made inspired casting choices that no one else would’ve dared. For Whisper of the Heart, the roles of Shizuku and Yuko were given to real-life best friends Brittany Snow and Ashley Tisdale, while Mr. Nishi was voiced by veteran actor Harold Gould. The aforementioned My Neighbor Totoro gave the Kusakabe sisters to the Fanning sisters. Chihiro from Spirited Away is roughly the same age as Daveigh Chase was at the time of recording, as was Kirsten Dunst with Kiki. The only question marks were Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus as Sosuke and Ponyo in Ponyo. This was clearly meant to capitalize on Disney’s two-biggest brands, i.e. The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, but they did a solid job anyway.

Disney was also unafraid to cast real VAs for some of their side roles. Colonel Muska and The Mayor of Pejite were both voiced by Mark Hamill. Baby Boh was voiced by Tara Strong. Tress MacNeille became the go-to for many dubs, making her to Studio Ghibli what David Ogden Stiers was to Disney and John Ratzenberger was to Pixar. And Maurice LaMarche and John DiMaggio both got roles in Pom Poko. But the coolest casting was anime-legend Crispin Freeman as Prince Justin in Howl’s Moving Castle. It might’ve been a wasted role, but it was a dream come true for him and a nice nod to anime fans.

One of the often-ignored details in Disney’s dubs was their use of songs. Some films, like Whisper of the Heart, would localize their song selections, but many wouldn’t. Susan Egan actually sang “Les Temps des Cerises” in Porco Rosso…in French. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, William H. Macy and Werner Herzog all sang “Das gibt's nur einmal” together in The Wind Rises…in German. Ignoring how some of the actors would also don foreign accents to fit their roles, this is the kind of commitment that you wouldn’t expect if Disney didn’t care.

The final point I’ll make, going back to criticism, is that some of the dubs would change their respective songs for a Western audience. This either worked in the film’s favour, like in Princess Mononoke, or worked against it, like in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The biggest offenders, however, remain Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty. The former remixed the end song into a synth-rock ballad that’s hard to listen to, even if it’s only in-film for a minute. Conversely, The Secret World of Arrietty had Cécile Corbel’s beautiful ballad, which she politely translated into English for the UK release, replaced halfway by a generic tune that Bridgit Mendler, the protagonist’s VA, sang. These decisions confuse me to this day, but, thankfully, they’re not deal-breakers.

Would I say that Disney’s Studio Ghibli deal worked out? Yes. It might’ve been a financial strain, something I’ve already covered, but it was definitely seeped with passion. There were some casting decisions that were weird, or some song choices that were bizarre, and I’m not always fond of how these films were promoted and distributed on DVD, but you could tell that everyone involved genuinely cared. I only hope GKids cares that much now that they own distributing rights. I haven’t been let-down yet, but you never know!


Popular Posts