Official stories of European film history evaluate multiple-language versions (MLVs) as a failed experiment within the emergent period of early sound cinema. As a counterpoint to intertitles that otherwise afforded readily flexible language transfer across nations, multilingual film production was a more multifaceted process. MLV production involved the shooting of feature films in several languages concurrently, typically reusing sets and costumes, sharing technical equipment between production units, and in some instances casting the same stars across transnational productions. Mark Betz notes that shooting of features occurred “in shifts according to a twenty-four hour schedule,” in order to produce MLVs “much closer to the national language communities for which they were intended.”[1] Germany’s Die Drei von der Tankstelle (Wilhelm Thiele, 1930), for example, became Les Chemin du Paradis in France (also directed by Thiele). Both starred British-born actress Lilian Harvey, and capitalised on her linguistic capabilities as a polyglot performer (though the lead male actor was switched from Willy Fritsch to Henry Garat between the German and French versions).

In the U.S., Warner Brothers was the first studio to subscribe to MLV production, while Paramount invested heavily in the Joinville studio in Paris, opening 24 hours per day to consolidate itself as an MLV facility. Despite precipitating an enormous increase in production costs, MLVs held two distinct advantages over alternate dubbing and subtitling practices that otherwise secured diverse national and international audience markets for language-specific films. As Chris Wahl suggests, MLVs “guaranteed unity of body and voice, important to secure the credibility of the new technology with contemporary audiences” and “the stories could be adapted to the different tastes of the respective target audience.”[2] However, soon after the arrival of MLVs in the late twenties, Hollywood quickly ceased multilingual production in 1932, followed by France and then Germany, whose flagship studio the Universum Film Aktiengescellschaft (UFA) based in Berlin at least continued to produce MLVs up until 1936. Discussing the demise of multilingual production, Ginette Vincendeau has noted their lack of economic viability and perpetuation of standardised plotlines (at the expense of diversity), whilst also questioning the dominant historical narrative that locates the MLV as U.S.-centric production trend.[3]

Die Drei von der Tankstelle

La Chemin du Paradis


Despite evidence across recent film history (and especially within discourses of ‘World’ Cinema) that films made in multiple languages never really disappeared—from Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994) to Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001)—the MLV has aggressively re-appeared under an alternate guise. Animation is, of course, fundamentally a dubbed cinema. Dubbing practices are therefore inextricably embroiled with the production of an animated feature. The grafting of speech onto character is not an iconoclastic assault on the true speech of an animated character, but forms a central (and, crucially, accepted) component of how Bugs or Buzz communicate, lacking as they are in the biological markers that permit nuances of speech. As Chiara Francesca Ferrari explains of animated film, a dubbed voice and lip-synching “is as much of an issue in the original as it is in the translated version.”[4] Computer-animated feature films are recent exemplars that bear out the importance of dubbing as an industrial consideration: multilingual narratives fully embracing linguistic difference. Multiple ‘versions’ of the same films are made simultaneously, with their characters speaking in tongues as new sound/image relations are crafted through the demands of local dubbing practices.

Animated characters are certainly all potential polyglots whose speech is open to (multi)national identities. Antonio Banderas voiced five versions of the eponymous feline in Puss in Boots (Chris Miller, 2011), speaking in the English, Italian, Latin American Spanish, Castilian Spanish and Catalan versions of the DreamWorks film. German World Cup-winning goalkeeper Manuel Neuer voiced monster “Frightening” Frank McCay for the German release of Monsters University (Dan Scanlon, 2013), a role taken by US actor John Krasinski in the American version.[5] For Pixar’s earlier Cars (John Lasseter, 2006) and its sequel Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011), individual automobile anthropomorphs were re-dubbed for different international releases according to the nationality of the racing car driver who provided their voices (Lewis Hamilton in the UK; Fernando Alonso in Spain; Sebastian Vettel in Germany; Vitaly Petrov in Russia). The character of Harv, Lightning McQueen’s agent, was likewise switched from actor Jeremy Piven to television personality Jeremy Clarkson for the UK version of the first Cars film. UK television stars Fiona Phillips (Shark Tale [Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron and Rob Letterman 2004]) and Jamie Oliver (Ratatouille [Brad Bird, 2007]) were similarly replacement casting for UK re-dubs of American features, while in the UK version of Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, 2004) the voices of the Ugly Stepsister and ‘Joan Rivers’ are performed by Jonathan Ross and Kate Thornton (and not Larry King and Joan Rivers as in the US release).

These tactics are part of studios’ desire to attract more localised audiences, and to emphasise national specificity within the appealing construction of character in which the industry of dubbing plays a primary role. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter noted that “A typical animated tentpole is dubbed for 39 to 40 territories,” compared with “a more typical live-action movie usually is dubbed into 12 to 15 languages.”[6] But it is not just the volume of dubbed versions of animated film in local languages, and the increased investment in dubbing practices that can cost upwards of $100,000 to $150,000 per territory. Nor is it the ease with which animated characters permit this kind of speech swapping and augment the practicality—if not the acceptability—of multiple languages. Rather it is the demands placed on the animators who can formally support linguistic shifts with new animated sequences that must tally with the reworked soundscape. In Up (Pete Docter, 2009), for example, the childhood scrapbook shared between Carl and Ellie Fredericksen (and their “Spirit of Adventure”) was adorned with the French translation (“Mon Livre D’Aventure”). Instead of simply subtitling the original language, new animation was produced that complemented the aural shift to French language. For Pixar’s more recent computer-animated feature Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015), the split between American and International releases of the film likewise visualised through a discrepancy in its cartoon content.

Inside Out’s highly subjective narrative—predicated on animating the “little voices in your head” as anthropomorphic characters (essentially presenting feelings with feelings)—included multiple designs of protagonist Riley’s memories that corresponded to specific national pastimes, from ice hockey in the US version of the film to football for the international release. This creates a separation between traditional dubbing practices within cinema and the precise workings of the animated MLV. Both Up and Inside Out intensify the notion of simultaneous creation, with foreign versions of the film produced alongside each other, with an investment in detail that adds depth to each animated world, whether this involves the journey to the utopian Paradise Falls or unfolds inside the mind of a young girl. The rich sound design of computer-animated films therefore offer the possibility to be squared with the troublesome history MLVs, previously relegated to film history but, in the era of digital animation, reconjured and reanimated rather than simply lost in translation.

Up (French version)


[1] Mark Betz, Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 62.

[2] Chris Wahl, “Babel’s Business – On Ufa’s Multiple Language Film Versions, 1929-1933,” in The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy, ed. Christian Rogowski (New York: Camden House, 2010), 235.

[3] Ginette Vincendeau, “Hollywood Babel: The Coming of Sound and the Multiple Language Version,” Screen 29, no 2 (Spring 1988): 24-39.

[4] Chiara Francesca Ferrari, Since When Is Fran Drescher Jewish?: Dubbing Stereotypes in The Nanny, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 45.

[5] It is rumoured that the character is named after pioneering American animator and cartoonist Winsor McCay, just as the restaurant Harryhausen’s from the first Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001) pays homage to stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

[6] Tatiana Siegel , Scott Roxborough , Rhonda Richford and Clarence Tsui, “Inside the Weird World of International Dubbing,” The Hollywood Reporter (March 14, 2013), from


Christopher Holliday currently teaches undergraduate Film Studies at King’s College London specializing in international film history. He previously worked as a sessional lecturer at the University of Surrey and on the BA (Film Practice) course at London South Bank University, and has taught animation at the University of Kent. He has published articles on child voice acting in computer-animated films, and the performance of British actors in quality US television drama for the Journal of British Cinema and Television. Upcoming book chapters include work on representations of the animated house (in Spaces of the Cinematic Home: Behind the Screen Door [London: Routledge, 2015]), the era of “Digital Disney” animation, and contemporary femininity in the James Bond film franchise