The first time Rick Dempsey heard Idina Menzel sing “Let it Go,” the ice queen empowerment anthem in the Walt Disney Animation movie “Frozen,” he knew he had a serious problem on his hands.
“How are we going to do that in 41 languages?” said Dempsey, senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices International.
It’s Dempsey’s job to internationalize Disney films -- matching voice actors in foreign territories to performances in the English-language version of a movie.
As the film business has become an increasingly global one, Dempsey’s job has become ever more complex, with languages in emerging territories added every year. The newest additions include Bengali, Malay and Vietnamese. While “Frozen” is available in 41 languages, Dempsey recalls casting for about 15 languages on “The Lion King” in 1994.
In the case of “Frozen,” the movie’s music is at the core of its critical and box-office success. With two Oscar nominations -- for best animated feature and best song -- “Frozen” has yielded a chart-topping soundtrack and thousands of fan-made singing videos on YouTube, a phenomenon that has inspired Disney to release a singalong version of the film in U.S. theaters Jan. 31.
For Dempsey, “Frozen’s” music posed a special challenge: He had to mimic the vocal tone and texture of Menzel, a Tony Award-winning soprano famous for her penetrating pipes.
“Idina has one of the best voices, period, in terms of her smooth tone, the warmth when she hits the lower end,” Dempsey said. “In certain territories -- Taiwan, Cantonese -- the voice might want to be thin because that’s part of the culture. It was always a challenge to find her match.”
From his base in Burbank, Dempsey enlisted some women who are divas in their own countries, including Spanish pop singer Gisela, who voices the Castilian and Catalan versions, Naples-born singer and actress Serena Autieri (Italian), Netherlands musical theater star Willemijn Verkaik (German, Dutch), actress and pop singer Takako Matsu (Japanese), Mexican actress and singer Carmen Sarahi (Latin American Spanish), Malaysian reality TV star Marsha Milan Londoh (Malay) and Moscow jazz vocalist Anna Buturlina (Russian).
“We’re trying to match the words and the lips -- the m’s, b’s and p’s,” Dempsey said. “Some languages carry a little more of a staccato nature, others are more fluid and legato.”
Not every Disney film requires massive international recruitment -- on the 1999 movie “Tarzan,” Dempsey recorded Phil Collins himself singing the soundtrack in French, Italian, German and Spanish.
Although Dempsey’s business is bringing Disney movies to far-flung audiences, he said he doesn’t speak any other languages -- he focuses not on the words someone’s saying, but on the texture of their voice.
“I don’t even speak English that well,” Dempsey said.
[For the record, 12:35 p.m. Jan. 31: A previous version of this post misspelled Anna Buturlina’s last name as Burturlina and Marsha Milan Londoh’s last name as Landoh.]