Cree Summer: Woman of a Thousand Characters

Mel Blanc was known as the man of a thousand voices. He was responsible for bringing sound and personality to such classic cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Barney Rubble and Mr. Spacely. That’s a pretty impressive range right there and doesn’t even include some of his more unsung creations.

Then there’s our own latter day Blanc, Dan Castellaneta. Although most obviously famous for supplying the voice of Homer Simpson and too many other Simpsons characters to mention, did you know he was also the voice of the grandpa on Hey Arnold, Earthworm Jim and the genie in Aladdin 2?

The Simpsons has also provided us with the amazingly versatile work of Hank Azaria who seems to have never found an accent he can’t caricature into genius. In short, the cartoon voiceover work of many talented actors these days is in high demand and being filled quite capably by men and women who can create entirely different characters from one show to the next and even within one show.

It’s strange then to see that one of the most omnipresent voice actors in animation today is a woman who seems to only have one character inside her. A character who sounds exactly the same no matter what gender or age group the character on the show is supposed to be.

I am baffled by the amount of shows on which Cree Summer does voiceover work. She seems to appear on just about every animated children’s show on television, from PBS to Nickelodeon to Cartoon Network to Disney. And I defy anyone to differentiate the voice she gives to any character from any other character.

Sure, it’s a great voice, but come on! I mean if Hank Azaria can have a conversation between Moe and Apu and they don’t sound anything alike, why can’t Summer create at least one differentiation in her delivery?

She can’t even seem to age her character. She played little Susie Carmichael on the original Rugrats and then made the transition to teenaged Susie on All Grown Up. While Tommy, Chuckie, Phil & Lil and Angelica all seemed to age, teenaged Susie doesn’t sound any different from little Rugrat Susie. What’s up with that!

Any why is that the annoying, overly possessive Elmyra from Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain should sound just exactly like a wise elephant in The Wild Thornberry’s Movie? Was Elmyra really wise and we just didn’t realize it? Was Phaedra the elephant really cloying and it escaped our attention? Is there absolutely no room for even the slightest change in voice from this woman?

While many female voiceover actors can go from playing male characters to female characters in such a way as we notice the gender difference, Cree Summer apparently lacks this ability. At least producers have noticed this shortcoming because she rarely plays male characters but when she does the voice is indistinguishable from female ones.

Now some of you may be thinking, sure Mel Blanc did a lot of voiceover work but much of it was very similar. Same with Castellaneta whose non-Simpsons characters often sound like subordinate characters on his home show. And then there’s Maurice LaMarche, the voice of The Brain on the show about Pinky. He seems to have made a career out of doing his Orson Welles imitation.

But at least when he sounds like Orson Welles, with his booming, somewhat pompous voice, he’s inhabiting a character that deserves that voice. And, also, he’s quite capable of doing a voice that sounds nothing like Orson Welles, such as Big Bob Pataki on Hey Arnold.

As for Cree Summer, it doesn’t matter if she’s playing a dog, an elephant, a spy kid or an alien on Star Wars: Clone Wars, they all sound exactly alike. Now I’ll admit this is hardly an earth-shattering issue, but when I myself and many of my friends and family members can all at a moment’s notice create a far wider and more dazzling array of voices than a woman who is at the top of the voiceover profession can, I just can’t help but wonder what’s the deal. I can’t help but wonder how much better these shows would be if so many of the characters didn’t sound the same.

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