Comedians And Children’s Animation: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
There’s a special coming-of-age moment that most comedy fans in the millennial-and-below generations can probably remember – at some point in our early teens, we discovered that a voice attached precious childhood memories had also said some of the most vile, abhorrent, hilarious jokes in comedy history. Imagine my surprise when I heard Iago the Parrot tell his famous rendition of “The Aristocrats."
Successful standup comics have flocked to children’s animation in the three decades since Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams blew the doors open with their stellar performances in Aladdin back in 1992, but not all of these entertainers were cut out for Disney or DreamWorks.
While some of these comedy titans successfully used children’s entertainment to build an entirely new demographic within their fanbase, many more comedians signed on for cash-grab sequels and dollar store knockoff films that grace the bottom percentile of Rotten Tomatoes. Here are the best, worst, and weirdest examples of standup comics appearing in animated children’s films.
Robin Williams, Aladdin (1992)
Despite giving a legendary, paradigm-shifting performance, Robin Williams considered his time on Aladdin to be one of the low points in his career and vowed never to work with Disney again. Robin supposedly agreed to voice the role on the condition that his work on the film not be used for merchandising, but the company that rakes in $56 billion every year just from merchandise sales apparently decided that they preferred making more money than the entire GDP of Croatia than honoring alleged handshake agreements. Still, the cultural significance and sublime artistry of Robin’s performance make his role as Genie our first and finest entry on the list.
Shoutout to the late, great Gilbert Gottfried for his performance as Iago.
Eddie Murphy, Shrek (2001)
The king of ‘80s comedy and the man who saved Saturday Night Live from extinction could land a spot on this list on either side of the DreamWorks/Disney divide, but we chose to honor his performance as Donkey in Shrek over his earlier work in Mulan because of how weird it made that year’s BAFTA Film Awards. The British Academy of Film and Television somehow chose Murphy as their lone American nominee for the Best Supporting Actor category in 2001, making it the only time a voiceover performance has ever been nominated for a BAFTA.
Murphy wouldn’t win the award, losing out to Jim Broadbent for his chaotic turn as Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!. However, Shrek took home the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the film’s smashing success launched the cornerstone franchise that put DreamWorks on the map and established the studio as the single biggest competitor to their forebears at Disney.
Murphy’s performance as the endearing chatterbox and traveling companion to our leading ogre is one of the most iconic voice roles of all time and, out of respect for Eddie’s numerous contributions to children’s entertainment, we will abstain from making any of the raunchy jokes about Donkey’s interspecies relationship with his darling dragon wife that we so desperately want to make.
George Carlin, Tarzan II (2005)
It’s never a good sign for a respected, world-famous performer's career when they find themselves in the cast of a 72 minute direct-to-video children’s film. It’s even worse when that movie is a lazily animated, six-years-later sequel to a movie that didn't even feature said performer. But, sadly, that’s where George Carlin found himself in 2005 when he appeared in Tarzan II. The film takes place during Tarzan’s youth, with Carlin playing the role of Zugor, thought to be a fearsome monster but revealed to be a crotchety old hermit who is constantly harassed by our hairless ape hero.
Much has been said about George’s financial troubles in his later career when he amassed a $3 million debt owed to the IRS, and the decision to take part in Tarzan II screams “easy paycheck." To be fair to George, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a few quick bucks off of low-quality children’s entertainment, and he certainly wasn’t the only big name to cash in on the remarkably uninspired sequel. Glenn Close returned from the cast of the original film to reprise her role as Kaia, and Ron Perlman, Brad Garrett, and Estelle Harris all joined the project as newcomers to the “franchise”.
Disney has produced scores of hastily made, straight-to-VHS/DVD/streaming sequels to beloved animated films, and Tarzan II did nothing at all to stand out from that crowd. Kids probably loved Tarzan II, parents probably hated it, but at the end of the day, all the checks cleared, and now the film exists as a quirky little footnote on the IMDB pages of its star-studded cast.
Rob Schneider, Norm of the North (2016)
We’re not going to rag on SNL alumnus Rob Schneider’s filmography more than we already did in his own “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”, but it should definitely tell you just how bad Norm of the North was to learn that it’s in competition for the title of “worst reviewed movie of Rob’s entire career”. The Lionsgate project was considered by many to be the worst film of 2016, and, for a short while, it sported a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes before a handful of merciful reviewers took pity on the ill-conceived story of very special polar bear named Norm (played by Rob) who has the rare ability to speak to humans. In one such review, Ken McIntyre of Total Film described the project as “A harmless kids' toon that's probably the least annoying Schneider vehicle in years.”
Even with its $18 million budget, some lofty environmentalist themes, and an impressive supporting cast around Rob that included the likes of Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, and Gabriel Iglesias (the latter two could have earned this entry if they landed the starring role), Norm of The North was widely regarded as a bland, joyless, and uninspired entry in the talking-animated-animals-make-embarrassing-cultural-references genre.
Still, the film did (relatively) well enough to warrant two direct-to-DVD sequels, neither of which featured Rob.
Jim Gaffigan, Playmobil: The Movie (2019)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that comedy’s favorite family man has tried to make the leap to family entertainment. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the success of The Lego Movie and its sequels inspired other toymakers to cash in with their own feature-length, theatrically released films. The only surprising part of Playmobil: The Movie’s colossal, record-breaking failure is that the people who spent $75 million dollars on this doomed project apparently decided to skimp on hiring an actual screenwriter, and instead chose to have the same guy who writes the copy for their commercials do their 99-minute movie monstrosity as well.
Playmobil: The Movie is an hour-and-a-half-long advertisement, but not in the subtle marketing way that most animated kid’s movies are. What can loosely be described as the script of this film is basically a frenetic, desperate montage of music numbers and action sequences that failed to grab the attention of audiences or even successfully showcase the toys it was written to sell. This movie bombed so historically and on such a huge platform that it currently holds the record for worst opening weekend ever for a film playing in over 2,300 theaters.
We do have to give Gaffigan props for booking the gig, since his performance as Del the Food Truck Driver landed him second-to-top billing in a cast made up of stars like Anya Taylor-Joy, Daniel Radcliffe, Adam Lambert, Meghan Trainor, and Kenan Thompson.
Norm MacDonald, The Adventures of Panda Warrior (2012)
Weird doesn’t begin to describe this Chinese-made knock-off of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda. Despite the fact that The Adventures of Panda Warrior was made in 2012 and the production company, Legendtoonland Limited, had enough money to hire the likes of Norm MacDonald, Rob Schneider (welcome back to the list, Rob), Hillary Duff, and Tom-freaking-Kenny to voice the English dub, this movie looks like it was made in 1995 by a group of animators who were fired from the production of VeggieTales. As rough as the animation looks, the script is somehow much worse, as if it was written by someone who once had the plot of Kung Fu Panda described to them while they were heavily anesthetized.
Norm’s performance as – I kid you not – The Lion King is so low-energy and uninspired that it feels like his participation in the film is just one of his long-winded, meandering jokes that got out of hand, and by the time Lionsgate decided that the film was ready for an American release, Norm had already gotten tired of the bit.
This is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever watched, therefore I would like to present Legendtoonland Limited with the Cracked Award For Strangest Animated Movie Featuring SpongeBob And Norm MacDonald.
Top Image: Walt Disney Feature Animation
For exclusive ComedyNerd content, subscribe to our spiffy newsletter: