By pure coincidence, Brad Pitt's two current roles are mythical heroes. To play the title character in DreamWorks' new animated action-adventure, "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," which opened on Wednesday, Mr. Pitt spent a total of some 20 hours recording vocal tracks in an air-conditioned Los Angeles studio well supplied with his favorite pizza. To play Achilles in Wolfgang Peterson's live-action epic "Troy," Mr. Pitt is now on location for 10 weeks in Malta, where his typical working day includes pumping iron to stay buffed to warrior dimensions and battling the Trojans under the blazing sun wearing a metal helmet, armor and a B.C.-style mini-skirt.
"'Sinbad' was a 10-minute drive from my house," Mr. Pitt recalled on the telephone from Europe, sounding wistful. "I'd go in, riff on some lines and come back home. It was pretty light and airy, the complete antithesis of 'Troy,' which requires a lot of training and investigation of the story. `Sinbad' was more about going in and having a laugh."
No hair and make-up necessary, not a personal trainer in sight and a four-hour work day: these are just a few of the enticements luring A-list actors, including Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Robin Williams, to headline animated features. "Sinbad" is an unabashedly contemporary interpretation of the swashbuckling tales from "The Arabian Nights," in which Sinbrad, as the animators referred to its hero, sounds more like a wisecracking dude from Malibu than a thief from Baghdad. Sinbad meets his match in Marina, Catherine Zeta-Jones's sassy and resourceful princess, and Michelle Pfeiffer wreaks havoc as the wicked goddess Eris.
DreamWorks' marketing campaign has aggressively exploited the names of its dream cast, emblazoning "Brad Pitt is Sinbad" on posters and running theater trailers with live-action clips showing Mr. Pitt, Ms. Zeta-Jones and Ms. Pfeiffer in the recording booth.
Hollywood studios and stars have figured out that hooking up on animated movies is a win-win deal: the studios get the celebrities' promotional power while paying them minimal wages (the standard upfront fee for all voice actors, stars included, is $10,000 a day), while the actors chalk up a prestigious credit with a small investment of time and energy.
Actors today think the coolest characters have fins, fur or feathers: Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks scored the biggest hits of their careers as fish in "Finding Nemo"; Bruce Willis barks his way through "Rugrats Go Wild" as Spike the dog; Bill Murray has signed on to be Garfield the cat; Eddie Murphy's donkey will be back in "Shrek 2." Mr. Smith will play a fish in "Sharkslayer," Mr. Carrey a raccoon in "Over the Hedge" and Mr. Williams a penguin in "Happy Feet." These are low-risk jobs: nobody blames the stars if the cartoon bombs. Drew Barrymore's and Matt Damon's careers didn't suffer over the failure of "Titan A. E."
It was Mr. Williams who incited this decade-long stampede to the cartoons in 1992, when Disney's "Aladdin" let his genie out of the bottle. Adult audiences were enthralled by his side-splitting patter, which included Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro imitations. It dawned on Hollywood that animation didn't have to be just for kids, and the form has experienced a creative and commercial flowering ever since, with animated films pulling in billions at the box office and being endowed with their own Academy Award.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks, has spearheaded the trend, casting Ralph Fiennes and Sandra Bullock in "The Prince of Egypt," Woody Allen and Sharon Stone in "Antz" and Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz in "Shrek."
While rivals have grumbled about Mr. Katzenberg's "trick casting," other studios have followed suit. Fox hired Ray Romano and John Leguizamo to provide voices in its 2002 hit "Ice Age." Only the mighty Pixar (distributed by Disney) is in a category by itself: "The star of the Pixar movies is Pixar," said Terry Press, the marketing chief of DreamWorks. Even so, Pixar has employed Tom Hanks (both "Toy Story" films), John Goodman and Billy Crystal ("Monsters, Inc.") and, most recently, Mr. Brooks and Ms. DeGeneres in "Finding Nemo" — and its "Bug's Life" was one of the first cartoons with television commercials that included behind-the-scenes film clips of a famous actor (Kevin Spacey) creating a character's voice.
The high caliber of the scripts and artistry in today's animated films is a talent magnet, but the studios also bend over backward to make voice work pleasant and convenient. Producers travel all over the world to record the stars: Ms. Zeta-Jones said she lent her voice to "Sinbad" in Los Angeles, New York, Canada and at her vacation home in Majorca, Spain, "slopping around in my beach shorts." It is critical to foster good will with the actors because their contracts do not oblige them to have their names or likenesses used in marketing, and most stars balk at any association with fast-food tie-ins or merchandising.
Everyone wants to avoid the kind of contretemps that Mr. Katzenberg got into with Robin Williams on "Aladdin." Mr. Williams, who was paid $485 a day, objected to posters showing the genie's face, which he considered a caricature of his own. The posters were ripped down, and Mr. Katzenberg's attempt to repair his relationship with Mr. Williams by giving him a Picasso painting backfired, only making him angrier.
For all this, does anyone really care who supplies the voice of a frog or a fairy princess? Certainly nobody remembers who played Snow White in Disney's 1937 classic animated version, for which Adriana Caselotti received no screen credit at all. In those days Walt Disney had a speaker hooked up in his office so that he could listen to actors auditioning on a sound stage without being distracted by what they looked like. Even in more modern Disney animated musicals, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," the voices were supplied by little-known Broadway actors. It was only after top talent like Mr. Hanks and Mel Gibson ("Chicken Run") began to populate the cartoons that the studios began to gear their marketing to the stars' fans.
"I can't imagine a 4- or 5-year-old is aware of the casting," Mr. Katzenberg said, "but you are the one who has to bring the 4- or 5-year-old to the theater."