An interesting premise, but I’m afraid that this article is what Jack Schafer of Slate famously called a “Bogus Trend Story.” I don’t want to bore you with a thorough takedown of the article, since only I and other horders of animation minutiae might care, but suffice it to say that the the author of the article clearly took little time in looking into the history of even Walt Disney feature animation in composing this piece. No famous voice actors in animated features before Robin Williams? I guess Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Ed Wynn, Bob Newhart, and Peggy Lee weren’t famous enough at the time. Louis Prima (of “The Jungle Book”)? Never heard of him.
This is not to say that there is no kernel of truth in the thesis of the article: in the 1990s, during the rise of Jeffrey Katzenberg (formerly a talent agent) and Michael Eisner at the Walt Disney Company, much attention was paid to the idea that big box office names could help increase demand for an animated feature, particularly after the success with Robin Williams as the Genie. Hence: Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Lion King, Mel Gibson in Pocahontas, and Demi Moore in Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s also likely that these studio heads played a role in getting Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to headline the original Toy Story during the same period.
When Katzenberg then left for Dreamworks, he took that same ethos with him: star power sells. This is extremely clear in the films Dreamworks has produced since that time; the emphasis in the trailers and posters is almost always on the big-name celebrity voices in the cast. Do I think this has an impact on box office? Not as much as Dreamworks might hope. After all, the top grossing animated film of all time until 2010 was Finding Nemo, and that film was headlined by Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres. One of the most popular characters in the film - Crush the turtle - was actually played by the director, Andrew Stanton. Pixar has proved that good voice casting - defined by cohesively matching a voice to a character - is what is important in an animated film, and Disney as a whole has backed away from celebrity casting since the Eisner era. The most famous actor in “The Princess in the Frog” is probably John Goodman, and he appears in about 10% of the film and nowhere in the advertising. Hopefully, Dreamworks is getting their A-list cast for a steep discount for voice work, or else they are probably overpaying.