Toon Zone Interviews Voice Acting Legend Jim Cummings on "The Tigger Movie"
If you’ve watched cartoons on TV or in the movies or played video games since the late 1980′s, odds are you’ve heard Jim Cummings’ work at least a dozen times. One of the busiest voice-over actors working today, Cummings has amassed a vast volume of cartoon, animated feature and video game voice work since he blazed his way into the voice-over industry in the late 1980′s, providing voice matches for iconic characters like Pete (nemesis of Mickey Mouse in many classic Disney cartoons); Hanna-Barbera’s Dick Dastardly and Morocco Mole; “The Jungle Book” characters King Louie, Kaa, Colonel Hathi for Disney; the Tazmanian Devil for Warner Brothers; and even Smokey the Bear, mascot of the U.S. Forest Service.
Jim has also created original character voices such as Don Karnage (TaleSpin); the title character and several supporting characters on Darkwing Duck; Mr. Bumpy, Destructo and Closet Monster (Bump in the Night); Monterey Jack, Fat Cat and Prof. Nimnul (Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers), Bonkers T. Bobcat (Bonkers), Cat (CatDog), Psycrow and Bob the Killer Goldfish (Earthworm Jim), Fuzzy Lumpkins (The Powerpuff Girls), and many more.
However, perhaps the most prominent and widely-recognized characters he’s voiced are Winnie The Pooh and Tigger, roles formerly performed by the late Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell, respectively. He plays both characters in the recently re-released “The Tigger Movie 10th Anniversary Edition DVD,” and Toon Zone’s Craig Crumpton had the opportunity to do a last-minute phone interview with Jim just prior to the DVD release. As with his career, the interview stretches well past Pooh and Tigger into his other roles as Ray the firefly in “The Princess and the Frog” (and the controversies surrounding the film), his role in the live-action “Comic Book: The Movie,” and more:
TZN: For The Tigger Movie 10th Anniversary DVD release, did you have an opportunity to record any new bonus materials?
JIM CUMMINGS: No. I understand there are some DVD extras there, and I haven’t checked them out myself yet. But I took the precaution of redrawing the entire movie and animating it by hand myself. So I hope you enjoy it.
CUMMINGS: I made parts of that up. (laughs)
TZN: I heard the remastering process for DVDs was extensive, but I didn’t know they asked the voice talents to do that.
CUMMINGS: I went through boxes of crayolas. (laughs)
CUMMINGS: When it comes to a character like that, the closer to the original, the better. That’s the bullseye. I think Disney really gets it right in that regard, because these cartoons — the animated shorts, the movies — they stay around forever and continuity is so important, I think. Animation styles change and recording processes change, but the more the characters stay the same, the greater the continuity and the stronger the storylines become, and it adds to the richness and the heritage.
As far as the actual process of recreating the voices — at first I think of it in terms of sound. Christopher Lloyd would be a good example. If you can just make some onomatopoeia that comes out and you go…[makes breathy, throaty sounding noises like the pop icon Reverend Jim Ignatowski character Lloyd played on the late 70's sitcom Taxi], you don’t even necessarily have to use dialogue. With John Wayne it would be, “Well, uh… yuh-yuh-yuh…” and it’s just getting the sound first, then getting the individual mannerisms, the syntax, the meter, the pauses. The closer to the original, the more evocative it is. It’s more fun to listen to and it feels like something you’re familiar with. It’s like your favorite chair — it’s so comfortable when you go back to it.
That’s what I shoot for: to serve the tradition.
TZN: You’ve been doing the voice Tigger now for 20 years?
CUMMINGS: Oh, it’s been [longer] than that. It was in ’87 that the original auditions went out and then I did it on and off for the first few years while Paul was still with us and he would go in and out of semi-retirement. Obviously, since he passed away I am honored to be [sings as Tigger] “the only one.”
TZN: Tigger’s voice is a really complex one to imitate for anyone who has ever studied Winchell’s original performances. What was your specific process for analyzing and performing Tigger’s voice?
CUMMINGS: I’ve kind of always said that instincts are the ‘best-stincts’. I tend to just dive in and see what I come up with, and then chip away at it. Again, I think of it as sound first and then incorporate the layers. With Tigger he’s got that crazy lisp, and you can’t forget that. Then you just layer it in until you’re closer and closer to the original.
It’s a mindset too. Winnie the Pooh is sort of the calm center of the storm and he sees everything through honey-colored glasses. Tigger is the storm. There’s different personality traits and he’s boisterous, and he’s got great highs and great lows. You put it all together and you try to stay true to the original, but you don’t want to stagnate either. You want to keep him fresh and there’s a bit of a challenge there, [but] the writers are there for you. And it’s just an honor for me.
TZN: Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Sterling Holloway in person?
CUMMINGS: I didn’t. Many, many years ago, way before I was even in the business I was down in Laguna Beach, which was where Sterling retired to. He had his home there. I was in a hotel restaurant. Actually, it was kind of dead, and I looked around and there was nobody else in the room and I thought I was alone, and I was just sitting there eating. I see the waitress walk across the room and she went up to a corner booth, which I couldn’t see the person sitting there. She said, “Well, have you decided on what you’ll be having today yet?”
And you know this little voice [imitating Sterling's distinctive vocal style], “Um…I believe I shall have the chow-duh-huh…” And I remember thinking “Is that Winnie the Pooh?” Because it is so distinct. He, unlike everybody else, wasn’t really doing a voice. He was just…
TZN: …being himself?
CUMMINGS: Yeah, he was just speaking. [Pooh's] voice was very similar to his own speaking voice.
I kind of casually got up and pretended to get salt off another table and I looked, and there he was. He looked like a little albino crow sitting over there, sweet as he could be. He was just sitting there, and I thought to myself, “What do I do? Go up and say hello and I recognized your voice?” And I didn’t, but of course I wish I did. I guess all I got out of it was a fun little story.
Again, this is before I was ever in the business, and I never, never in a million years would’ve imagined I would end up filling his shoes.
CUMMINGS: I wish we did. Y’know, Pooh and Tigger do it together but only because I’m the same guy. So they have no choice. (laughs) When I first started, we would do them like that and they were like the old radio dramas, and I really liked that because you can ad-lib and play off of the other person, and you can banter back and forth.
So I really do like that, but I guess it was either scheduling or different things contribute to this situation as it is now. A lot of television animation used to be done that way — with the groups, but even that is a kind of a rarity. The Star Wars: The Clone Wars guys — they do it that way, but even then you’re guaranteed to be missing several people. It’s just the luck of the draw, I suppose — scheduling or what have you.
As far as feature films go, they have always been solo. I had occasion to befriend the great Phil Harris. He was, of course, Baloo from the classic Jungle Book and any number of other characters, and I was — and am — Disney’s sort of designated King Louie, done by Louis Prima. I told him, “Gosh, Jungle Book… I mean, the music! ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ is probably one of the all-time songs in any movie anywhere, much less animated!” And I said to him, “The way you guys did that. It was like a jazz free-for-all. It was so cool!”
And he said [imitating Phil], “Well, y’know…we were never even in the room together.”
And I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” But I said it was so incredible because they’re doing harmonies, and they’re doing “Babba-doo-wee” [mimics the jazz scat from the Baloo-Louie duet]. And he said, “Nope. Never in the room together.” So I guess it’s just that way. It’s been that way in features since forever, but I guess as long as it doesn’t show…as long as it looks really perfect, I guess — no complaints.
TZN: Well, the question I was getting at was did you have any interesting anecdotes about recording with other people, but that was actually more interesting than what I was going to ask.
CUMMINGS: I can tell you one. This is …(laughs) very interesting. We were doing Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, and this was back in the 80′s…
TZN: I don’t mean to interrupt you. But is this “The Carol Channing Story”?
CUMMINGS: Yeah. (laughs)
TZN: Corey Burton has told this story before, but I’d like to hear your version.
CUMMINGS: Well, I was sitting right next to her. And y’know, bless her heart — she comes in and she’s very animated, and I mean that, in every way. And she’s wearing a very starched shirt. Very crisp. And she’s got on her bangles around her wrists, and she had to take those off because it sounded like a tambourine. And she got rid of that and then the engineer says, “I’m sorry, Ms. Channing, I’m really hearing your blouse.” So he says, “All right, let me come in.” And he came in and kind of re-mic’ed her and dropped it a little lower, brought it in from the ceiling.
She said [imitates Channing], “Okay, sweetie. Let me just try it now and we’ll see.”
So she does it again, and it still sounds like somebody rolling up a ball of newspaper every time she does a line. So she said, “You know what, pumpkin? Don’t worry about a thing.” And she stands up, and takes off her blouse. And she’s wearing her…her undergarments — her bra, with big giant cotton puffs under the straps. I guess it was the fashion at that time, to have the padded shoulders. And she starts wiggling around looking like she’s doing the chicken dance and says, “Oh, this is much better! I don’t think you’ll hear anything now.”
I’m thinking, “Yeah, okay!” And it was funny because the engineer had brought his own home video camera because he wanted to videotape the session for posterity. And he saw her take off her blouse and then sit back down as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And he just kind of looked at his video camera and went, “(sighs) Oh, well…”
Oddly enough, a couple years after that, I was doing Lurch for The Addams Family over at Hanna-Barbera and she was cast as Grandmama. And she would have two lines at the beginning, two lines at the end. And she didn’t want to leave the studio. She said, “You know what? I’ll just stay right here, sweetie.” And she laid down on the floor.
So there’s Edie McClurg, and John Astin, [and everyone else] all around the room, and we’re doing our lines and Carol’s just resting, lying on the floor. And a few minutes go by and she’s asleep, and Edie McClurg’s doing one of her lines and we hear: [makes long, drawn-out snoring sounds].
And Gordon Hunt (Helen Hunt’s dad, by the way — I sound like a big name-dropper here), he leans over the glass and he’s looking down, and we all just… well, we could’ve peed it was so funny.
And he says [imitating Gordon], “Carol, babe. ‘Scuze me, babe. Honey! Honey, I’m so sorry, darling. You’re gonna hafta wake up.”
[As Carol] “Oh, is it my line already?”
[As Gordon] “Not really. It’s someone else’s and you’re kinda doing a little overlap.”
[Carol] “What am I lapping, honey?”
[Gordon] “Well, you’re snoring.”
[Carol] “Oh, I’m so sorry. It’s because I was asleep.”
[Gordon] “We know that. We know you were asleep.”
[Carol] “Don’t be offended.”
[Gordon] “We’re not offended. We can just hear you.”
[As Carol] “Oh, all right.”
What can I tell you — she’s Carol Channing and you gotta love her. It was good stuff!
TZN: You’re voicing Ray the firefly in The Princess and The Frog, which fans of traditional animation are really looking forward to. Can you tell us more about the character and will you be performing any musical numbers in the film?
CUMMINGS: I love Ray. He’s not a voice match because I kinda created him myself, I guess… obviously from [Disney's] direction. I was born in Ohio, but I moved to New Orleans when I was about 18, in 1972. I got a job on a riverboat… many of them, for that matter, and on any number of these boats I was the only one for whom English was their first language, but yet they were all born in Louisiana. So I was really immersed in the Cajun culture. You’re out on those riverboats for a month at a time sometimes, and (imitating unintelligible Cajun-speak) everybody out deh dey talk like dat… (continues unintelligible dialog), so you spend a lot of time just deciphering.
But [being the voice of Ray] is just fantastic. And I’m just so honored. My little girl, Gracie, is four and she is just all over every Disney princess. I think very little girl is. I’m so happy and so pleased because this time it’s the first African-American princess, and I told my wife, “If I don’t get in this movie, I’m gonna just shoot myself in the foot here, ’cause I’m gonna end up hearing the part that I really, really wanted over and over again when Gracie gets the movie on DVD.”
[Gracie] is adopted. Our two littlest ones — four and two — [are adopted]. I always say I think they adopted us. And they’re of mixed race: black and white. So, [Gracie] is pretty sure that she is Princess Tiana. Every time she sees the trailer she says, “Look, daddy. I’m her.”
This is a beautiful, absolutely gorgeously-rendered, all hand-drawn movie, and meticulously-crafted. Ron Clements and Jon Musker are absolute maestros. They’re at the pinnacle of their game — never been better. So I’m just ecstatic to be a part of this production. Plus, I have such an affinity for New Orleans, and I just fell in love with the city, so to be able to incorporate my own personal history into it and become part of the Disney tradition, and then getting to sing… I’ve got two songs in the movie that Ray sings. (He’s a singing firefly.) I brought my washboard down there, and it was just great. He does a Zydeco number… sort of a love song, almost sweet enough to be a lullaby.
TZN: There has been some controversy in the media, from bloggers and critics, about the characters and the setting for this film. Would you mind offering your opinion on that?
CUMMINGS: You know, I think a lot of people are in the business of just taking themselves very, very seriously. I guess if you’re dead set on becoming a victim, you’re gonna do it. If you’re looking to be insulted, you will find an insult. But everything [in the film] is done with a good spirit, and with a true heart. I mean, my goodness, some people would be upset if they won the lottery because they’d have to pay too much tax.
You take all that criticism with a lot more than just a grain of salt. I know what you’re talking about. I’ve read a few of them. One of the really absurd ones was that they were — and oddly enough it’s people insulted on other people’s behalf — they were saying, “How could they possibly set a movie in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, especially after Hurricane Katrina?” I don’t even get that one. Where would you have portrayed the birthplace of jazz? I kind of think it’s New Orleans. I would volunteer the town I was born in, Youngstown, Ohio, but I just don’t think it would fit.
CUMMINGS: Well, I’m really honored because [I was nominated] for a Daytime Emmy for an animated performer as Tigger in My Friends Tigger and Pooh and I’m tickled pink about that. That clichÃ© that “it’s an honor just to be nominated.” Well, that’s true. I am feeling very honored and very proud of that.
Some good news I can tell you is — I don’t have a title for you, but there is going to be a theatrical release from the “Hundred Acre Wood” (as in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too) in 2011. The good news is that some of the top animators on this particular planet are going to be doing it as well.
TZN: Will it be a traditionally-animated feature?
CUMMINGS: Absolutely. No CGI. It’s going to be all hand-drawn.
[I]Craig’s note: Unfortunately, my audio recording software glitched during this portion of the interview and I lost some of Jim’s response. To summarize, Jim added that he had recently spoken with animator Andreas Deja (character designer and animation supervisor for a number of Disney animated features) and said that he is involved in this currently untitled feature. He also mentioned by first name someone named “Mark” as also being involved, but unfortunately I did not think to ask Jim to clarify the last name at the time. I assume he was referring to Mark Dindal who was writer/director for Chicken Little, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Cats Don’t Dance.
TZN: Any other upcoming TV shows or other special projects you’ve recorded voices for?
CUMMINGS: [pauses] Oh, gosh. Well, you know, a few things here and there…
TZN: …that you can remember? (laughs)
CUMMINGS: Yeah, absolutely. See, that’s the problem. [I record] these, and then it’s like a year later [before they're released]… and I’m going, “Oh my gosh. Let me think. Let me think…” (laughs) You know what I mean?
I did a Robot Chicken [episode]. I did Bionicle: The Legend Reborn that’s coming out on September 15th.
TZN: You had a live-action role in Comic Book: The Movie that your fans were so pleased to see. And I read an interview recently that mentioned your first TV appearance was when you were a kid in a Catholic school production. Do you have any aspirations to do any more live-action roles?
CUMMINGS: Not really. I mean, [the movie] was fun. Mark [Hamill] is a good buddy of mine, and so are Roger Rose, Billy West, and the guys who produced and directed Comic Book: The Movie. We were down at Comic-Con, and it was a ball. It was all just ad-libbed; there was no script. It was kind of chaotic, but it was really fun chaos.
[Mark] just told me to be a pompous windbag who ends up getting too drunk to stand, and we did about a hour’s worth of stuff and it ended up like 7-8 minutes [in the final cut]. It was just a fun time.
I’ll put it this way. I don’t have big aspirations to be recognized when I’m walking down the street. If folks recognize my voice, that’s fine. That’s good enough for me. That way I can still go to 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee without being mugged. I’ll let Pooh, Tigger, Ray and the rest of those guys be famous and I’ll just be in the background. That’ll do just fine.
TZN: And what if Mark decides to make a sequel?
CUMMINGS: Well, if he does and if he invites me out to play, I’ll be there. That’s for sure.
CUMMINGS: Ah, no…not like that. We were “The Taz-Maniacs.” It was a lot of fun. We’d go around and play for hospitals, children’s hospitals, and for things like that and it was just a lot of fun because all the people in it were in animation – Rob Paulsen, Debi and myself – we were the singers and we would do voices for the kids, and it was just a great time.
I work with Famous Fone Friends and The Make-A-Wish Foundation and they’ll often call me as a request that a little one wants to talk to Tigger or Darkwing Duck or Taz or Pooh. It’s one of the best perks I’ll ever have had to be able to call up someone who’s sick and [in Pooh's voice] Pooh bear just tells them, “Take your vitamins and you’ll be better.” It’s a real bonus.
But the band has broken up.
TZN: What instruments do you play?
CUMMINGS: I sing and I play drums. I’ve been playing the drums for like a million years.
TZN: Does Ray play the drums in The Princess and the Frog?
CUMMINGS: No, but he does play one heck of a squeeze-box. It’s kinda fun because he picks up a little potato bug/caterpillar and uses this little critter as a Cajun accordion. And my little baby girl’s name is Lulu, and so is the [name of the] squeeze-box. It’s kinda cute: my four-year-old looks like Princess Tianna and there is a picture of her [in the film] with her little “Minnie Mouses” we call them — where her hairdo is done up like a Minnie Mouse profile. So therefore I’ve got Gracie in the movie, and I’ve got Lulu in the movie too as my Cajun accordion. So life is good!
TZN: Well, I appreciate so much you giving us this opportunity to interview you. This has been a real honor. In closing, do you have anything you would like to say to your fans?
CUMMINGS: Stay ‘tooned. (With two O’s.) And as Eeyore always says, “Thanks for noticing me.” I really appreciate it. It’s so sweet. I think like fans of our work, and I’m like an old comic book guy and animation guy, and we’re all cut from the same cloth so I’m just really happy to be here. Thank you so much.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Jim Cummings for taking the time to speak with us, and to Dustin Sandoval of Click Communications and the folks at Disney PR that made this interview possible. “The Tigger Movie” is available on DVD now.
Fans can visit Jim’s official website at JimJCummings.com.
Jim’s full audio from the interview will be available at a later date via Voice Actors in the News, which currently offers outtakes from this interview as well as some additional photos.