Since audiences saw him on their television back in 2007 with the premiere of Chuck on NBC, Zachary Levi has been delighting fans of all ages thanks to his everyman charm and a mixture of nerdy appeal with general leading man gravitas. More so than any other actor, Levi has excelled in family-friendly material aimed at all ages. From voicing Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, playing Toby Seville in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, to playing the embodiment of a child in an adult’s body in Shazam! and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, something about Levi appeals to younger audiences. As he told us:
I think I find myself gravitating towards, or rather magnetizing them to me, maybe because I just love people so much, and I just really do feel compelled to if nothing else in my life, bring as much love and joy into the world as I can.
He is now walking in some familiar and not-so-familiar territory in the upcoming film, Teddy’s Christmas, a Norwegian release, with Levi dubbing the voice of the titular bear. While he acknowledges it is a bit of stunt casting, he is happy for the chance. “They needed an English language voice dub, but stunt cast it a little bit, put somebody in there that maybe, hopefully, people go. ‘Oh, I like that guy! I know that guy! I’ll go see that movie.’ I hope I bring that value to the movie.”
Levi sat down with MovieWeb to discuss Teddy’s Christmas, the difference between dubbing and regular animated voice work, what the future of dubbing might look like, and his own personal favorite Christmas movie.
Teddy’s Christmas feels like a classic setup for a Christmas movie. It’s shocking that it hasn’t been made before. A young girl sees a Teddy Bear at a carnival she wants, yet when a wealthier family wins Teddy, he must go on a journey of self-discovery and then a literal journey to find his way to this young girl for Christmas. “He’s got a little bit of an ego and wants to go see the world, and doesn’t realize this little girl in front of him is the perfect person to be his person,” said Levi when describing his character.
“This is the first time I’ve redubbed a foreign film in English, which is part of the reason I wanted to do it. I thought it was an interesting challenge,” said Levi. “When you dub, you’re working with a script that is a translation of what’s being said in the movie.”
Levi is no stranger to animated projects. One of his most iconic roles is Flynn Rider in Tangled, and later this month, he will be voicing Rusty in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Voice work is a very complicated process and despite his experience doing it, Teddy’s Christmas needed an entirely new system. “You can’t adlib a lot unless you are matching the lips. That was part of the fun challenge, was trying to find a translation sometimes,” explained Levi, “but sometimes it wouldn’t line up. And so then we’re collaborating, trying to figure out how I say what Teddy needs to say in a specific length of time. If Teddy’s mouth is only moving for five seconds, I’ve only got five seconds to perfectly match it and say everything he needs to say.”
Levi also delved into what it is like to voice an animated character from the inception process, as opposed to dubbing. “With an original piece, where I’m the original voice, there are far fewer parameters that are put on me. I have a script, and I have a director, writer, and producer that have certain requirements or directions that they want me to go in,” said Levi. “Outside of that, I get to kind of do what I feel like I need to do or want to do in order to bring the character to life. You’re staying true to the script, but you can play around in there a little bit, and they animate to your voice.”
Sub(stitutes) not Dubs
Dubbing has been a practice in movies for decades, ever since there were talkies. While it has sometimes led to some unintentionally humorous results, there is a real art form to it. The practice of watching a dubbed work over subtitles is a hot topic of debate, particularly among anime fans. Yet sometimes dubbed work has created some incredibly beautiful voice works that stand shoulder to shoulder with the original voice (look at many of the English dubbed Studio Ghibli films).
Levi shouted out the incredible team he worked with that was involved in dubbing the film. “It’s actually really incredible. The writer-director who did my sessions — to do the dubbing — does this for a living. I mean, they’ll go and take foreign language films, particularly in like Norwegian and German, and kind of Scandinavian, and he’ll rewrite them in English, but do it in a way where it still matches the mouth.”
Regarding dubbing, Levi wonders what the future holds. “I think we’re kind of on the precipice of maybe this not even being a thing that you do anymore,” Levin said. “There’s new AI programming, where you can record a video of yourself talking in any language, and then you can translate that into any other language. Not only does it translate it in your tone of voice, but it sounds like your voice — but speaking Mandarin, or German, or Norwegian — but it also visually reprograms your lips so that it looks like you’re speaking that actual language.” He elaborated:
I could do Shazam and that movie can be sent anywhere in the world, and they can dub all of our voices, everyone in the cast, just using AI. And then also match our lips so it looks like we speak perfect Mandarin. I mean, it’s crazy. We might be coming to the end of the era of dubbing.
Despite the technology being in its early infancy when he was first approached about Teddy’s Christmas, Levi was thinking about it. He said, “In fact, when we were doing this movie. I was aware of it, and I even asked them. I was like, not to talk myself out of a job, but I was like, ‘Have they not thought about this?’ And they were like, ‘No, no, no, we wanna do it this way.'” Thankfully, they went with Levi, and more productions will continue to favor voice actors over AI dubbing, as it has the potential to deny audiences of hearing a voice actor give a new spin on a character for a different market.
Zachary Levi’s Favorite Christmas Movie
Teddy’s Christmas is clearly a Christmas movie. The title clearly informs one of that. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, everybody will be pulling out their favorite Christmas movies to watch. Be it old holiday classics or a new release like Teddy’s Christmas, these films have a special place in the hearts of their viewers. Everyone has that one special movie that just reminds them of Christmas, to the extent that the holiday season does not feel right without watching it. So then, what is Zachary Levi’s favorite Christmas movie?
“Well, It’s a Wonderful Life is definitely my favorite. I think it’s one of the most important movies, honestly, ever made. I mean, there’s a lot of great quality movies, don’t get me wrong, and I like to watch a lot of them. But ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is just so magical for so many reasons,” explained Levi, who continued:
“First of all, it’s one of the first real movies that was about mental health. I mean, it’s about basically trying to tell people the world is better with you in it. And if you’re ever thinking about taking your own life, which George Bailey is contemplating doing, and almost does, until some other guy — or Angel — jumps into the river and keeps him from doing it, and then shows him what his life, what this town, Bedford Falls, what all their lives would be like without him. And it’s this wake-up call.”
Levi even draws a parallel between It’s a Wonderful Life and another holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. “The three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are showing this guy, ‘Hey, here’s where your mind is wrong. You don’t see how good of a person you used to be, and where everything went wrong, and where you are in your present, and this is what your future looks like.’ And that changes him into being a better version of himself. So in some ways, it’s kind of like a weird therapy. It’s ghost therapy.”
“I just think it’s an incredibly powerful movie,” continued Levi, getting back on the It’s a Wonderful Life train of thought. “And it’s a movie that, had it not bombed in the box office, it wouldn’t actually be on TV for the last 60 years.”
They thought, ‘Eh, nobody cared about it, so we won’t even file a copyright.’ And it became public domain, and then ended up on all of the TV stations, and then we all got blessed by it. We all had it. If it was a success in the theaters, then it probably wouldn’t be on ABC, NBC, and CBS every year all holiday season long. And we wouldn’t have been so blessed to know this tale. So that’s my favorite Christmas movie.
There is something touching about that sentiment. So much of the news regarding movies is based around box office results, reporting opening weekend numbers like election results or sports statistics. A movie is written off as a flop or a hit within its opening weekend. Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which Levi starred in, was a notable box office bomb earlier this year and one that was written off quickly by many. Yet that film’s story is not fully written, as no movie’s ever truly is. Just like with It’s a Wonderful Life finding an audience years later, there is always the chance that Shazam! Fury of the Gods will be rediscovered by kids years from now.
As mentioned earlier, Levi is no stranger to family films. While most actors might want to reject a family-friendly image in order to be taken more seriously, Levi fully embraces it and has many reasons to do so. “I’ve got three nephews, and they are growing like weeds, and I’ve got so many other friends and family that have children. I’ve been an honorary uncle for many, many years, and I love that.” Levi said. “Throughout my entire career, for decades now, I’ve kept making movies that children can grow up with, and I think that’s really cool. I think it’s really special.”
“I mean, obviously, I always really want to play more grungy, gritty adult characters, too, and occasionally, I get to do that,” Levi said. Levi’s career choices have been inspired by many of his favorite actors and how they impacted him when he was growing up as a young movie fan. “I know that all the actors that I grew up with I still love to this day. I still want to go see their movies. I still root for them.”
Levi acknowledges the importance of making entertainment for children, and it is clear he wants to be a positive role model for young viewers and someone who can bring families and loved ones together. “Those are formative years, and I think that if we can make a positive impact in kids’ lives through entertainment, then it’s just a good service to the world. And hopefully enriching their soul a little bit more, even if it’s about a talking Teddy Bear.”
From Blue Fox Entertainment, Teddy’s Christmas opens in theaters on December 1, 2023. You can watch the trailer below.