Photo: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images, Disney Pixar, Walt Disney Productions, Universal Pictures
In 1992, Disney’s Aladdin came out and changed animation history forever. Not because it was so good – though it was actually quite good – but because it featured the stylings of then-superstar Robin Williams in a supporting part as Genie. Williams’s now-legendary turn transformed the movie and made it his own: His scenes were like Robin Williams stand-up acts, with the animation dizzyingly trying to catch up with his rapid-fire delivery. The performance also transformed animation history itself. Up until then, most of the voice work in animation films had been assigned to professional voice actors — many of them dazzlingly talented in their own right. But with Aladdin’s success, these gigs started going increasingly to more recognizable names who could not only bring star power to these movies but also help promote them. (Ironic since Williams himself did virtually no promotion for the film, having worked for scale.) So, this week seems like a good time to look back on the past several decades of animation voice work: It sees the release of the late Williams’s final (and decidedly not animated) film, Boulevard, as well as Minions, a Despicable Me spinoff that actually features some impressive voice work in its own right. In making this list, we confined ourselves specifically to English-language films. But here they are: the 25 Greatest Voice Performances in Animation Since Aladdin.
25. John Ratzenberger, Toy Story
Ratzenberger, who rose to fame as Cliff on Cheers, has been in every single Pixar film so far: He’s kind of become their mascot. But his turn as Hamm the piggy bank is special. In part, it builds on the know-it-all charm of his Cheers character. But it’s also layered with anger and jealousy and regret and fear — all those incredibly human emotions on which the Toy Story films are built. He might be a secondary character, but it’s hard to imagine that series without him.
24. Jeremy Irons, The Lion King
As Scar, the regicidal, fratricidal heavy of The Lion King, Irons fits in a long Disney tradition of snide, snobbish, somewhat aristocratic villains. Indeed, the original classic Disney films are filled with these haughty monsters whose languid delivery (and yes, they’re usually British) suggests that they couldn’t care less about what happens to us. But Irons’s rich, cooing voice gives this fairly standard character dimension, depth, and power.
23. Meryl Streep, Fantastic Mr. Fox
As the voice of Mrs. Fox, Streep is stability and domesticity personified for much of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion masterpiece. But so much of the film hinges on the promises that Mr. Fox made to her years ago, and we can sense the quiet tension in her voice throughout the film, as the quiet life she’s built collapses around her. When she does blow her gasket (“In the end, we all DIE … unless you change!”), it’s glorious — not just because we’ve been waiting for it but also because she still manages to do it in a controlled, firm manner.
22. Pierre Coffin, Despicable Me 1–2, Minions
While co-director Coffin does not always do all of the Minions’ voices in these films, he does do the vast majority of them, so I’m giving him the credit here. It’s hard to overstate how important voice work is in these movies. So much of the Minions’ appeal — and they have slowly become a juggernaut in spinoffs and marketing — comes from those adorable, absurd, buzzing little voices. It’s an achievement of both kid-friendly cuteness and genuine surrealism.
21. Holly Hunter, The Incredibles
As Elastigirl, Hunter strikes a familiar balance. She’s a superhero who’s retired to become a wife and mother and has to return to her superhero ways when her family is threatened. That’s not a part she’s ever done before, but the way she has to reconcile her character’s domesticity with her crime-fighting persona hearkens back to the actress’s part in the classic Raising Arizona, in which she played a cop and aspiring mother, often swooping in to clean up the mess her husband started. And Hunter’s voice is perfect for this part: There’s something inherently warm about it, even when she’s kicking ass.
20 and 19. Billy Crystal and John Goodman, Monsters, Inc.
We have to include these two together — and as one unique entry — because they’re effectively one ecosystem. As Mike Wazowski, Billy Crystal’s shtick could easily become tiresome, but it comes to life when he plays off the gentle, laid-back stylings of Goodman’s Sully. Similarly, Sully’s friendly blankness would barely register were it not for the anticipatory back-and-forth he establishes with his trusted nervous pal.
18. Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda
Jack Black basically gets to be Jack Black in Kung-Fu Panda. He’s his typically delusional self, which in live action can sometimes get boring. But when freed from the forces of gravity thanks to animation, the persona transforms into something else. The delusion ceases to be a joke and becomes something altogether more empowering and graceful.
17. Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
The mopey stylings of Sadness in Pixar’s latest hit are funny, to be sure, but they also help expand the film’s moral universe in fascinating ways. Sadness, being Sadness, is insecure, self-loathing, dour, uninspired — but she always retains her integrity. That’s because she eventually turns out to be a key part of the mind world. And Smith manages to get the laughs without ever losing sight of Sadness’s humanity.
16. Tim Allen, Toy Story 1–3
Allen’s turn as the heroic astronaut action-figure Buzz Lightyear might actually be the best thing he’s ever done, investing a one-dimensional idea with levels of meaning that continue to develop over the course of the three films. Buzz is fun for the kids, but he’s a walking existential crisis for the adults. Allen manages to juggle both those elements — not an easy task.
15. Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo
All Pixar films feature wonderful voice work, but some Pixar films feature more wonderful voice work than others. Finding Nemo is one of those films, from Albert Brooks’s anxiety-ridden single-dad clownfish Marlin to director Andrew Stanton’s surfer-dude turtle Crush. But the real standout in the film has got to be Ellen DeGeneres, as Marlin’s trusty, forgetful companion Dory. Dory is both an irreplaceable ally and a source of concern herself, and DeGeneres finds an ideal mix between goofiness and vulnerability.
14. Jason Schwartzman, Fantastic Mr. Fox
To be fair, much of the charm of the character of Ash, the pissy teenage son of Mr. and Mrs. Fox, has to do with the animation itself: The film’s deadpan style enhances the surly teenager’s standoffishness. But Schwartzman is fantastic here, too, playing an extreme, ridiculous variation on his patented jaded hipster shtick. And there’s heart in it, too, as he learns, reluctantly, to start caring for others besides himself.
13. Steve Carell, Despicable Me 1–2
Carell’s performance as the adorable villain turned hero Gru turns on a genuinely odd mix of tones: He’s sort of amused at his own villainy while also being slightly jaded by it (in true villain fashion). But then there’s that weird pseudo-Eastern-European accent, which makes every utterance seem strange and new, like you never quite know where it’s going. It’s actually exciting listening to him.
12. Anika Noni Rose, The Princess and the Frog
Rose’s performance might be the most underrated one on this list. The character of Tiana in this 2009 film is one of the few vividly imagined Disney princesses — this one actually holds down two jobs and has actual life goals instead of vague romantic dreams — and the young actress gives the part just the right amount of wistfulness and real-world gumption. Plus, she’s an incredible singer.
11. Will Arnett, The LEGO Movie
Try just listening to The LEGO Movie sometime, without looking at it. (This isn’t so hard for those of us with kids who incessantly watch it in the next room.) Arnett’s voice, as LEGO Batman, immediately jumps out at you. With that low, smug murmur, he captures the self-importance of the Dark Knight and brilliantly undercuts it. His lines are hilarious, but I have this sneaking suspicion that you could make LEGO Batman say anything and it’d be funny.
10. Idina Menzel, Frozen
Yes, she’s a fantastic singer — belting out the film’s signature tune “Let It Go” with such power that we don’t mind that it’s more Broadway showstopper than animated setpiece — but more important, she’s a great actress, and gives the complicated character of Elsa an irresistible blend of shame, anger, and longing. And the whole “Adele Dazeem” thing at the Oscars just served to prove the magnitude of her fame. How many actors can you name who became household names largely as a result of their voice work in an animated film?
9 and 8. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
This feels like cheating, especially since Parker and Stone and the characters they voice obviously got started on TV. But still, the insane achievement of Bigger cannot be understated, and so much of it has to do with the voices — chief among them Parker’s Cartman (he also does Stan and Satan and Mr. Garrison and …), but also Stone’s Kyle, and his Saddam, and his Kenny, and … well, I could go on.
7. Eartha Kitt, The Emperor’s New Groove
“Why do we even HAVE that lever?” Yzma, the bumblingly devious sorceress who gets carried away with her elaborately dastardly plans but never quite succeeds in pulling them off, is the secret protagonist of this very underrated Disney classic. The ostensible hero, Prince Kuzco, is a deliberate nonstarter, a guy who just ambles through life, and most of the film’s suspense comes from watching Yzma try (and fail) to destroy him. In that sense, the late, legendary Kitt had her work cut out for her: She had to make Yzma both dastardly and charming, charismatic yet incompetent. Plus, she had to deliver some of the stranger and funnier lines in all of Disney history. She’s one big reason why this film is one of the studio’s best.
6. Tom Hanks, Toy Story 1–3
The Toy Story films, it could be said, live in the emotional space between Buzz Lightyear’s delusional machismo and Sheriff Woody’s anxious pragmatism. As the latter, Hanks has to be his usual good-guy self, but he also has to bring an edge: So often the films turn on his despair, or jealousy — on his very humanness. Hanks manages to do all this without ever losing the films’ freewheeling sense of fun. Because, well, he’s Tom Hanks, and that’s what he does.
5. Josh Gad, Frozen
It takes a lot of talent to make a jokey sidekick feel new in today’s animated landscape; this type of character has become sickeningly commonplace in kid flicks over the past couple of decades. And many of us were understandably worried when we heard there was a dancing, singing snowman for comic relief in Frozen. But few of us were prepared for how much enthusiasm, how much boisterous, innocent goodness Gad would bring to this part. The result: An entire generation of young kids fell in love with Olaf, not just because he’s very funny but also because the levity he brings actually means something in the otherwise rather serious world of Frozen.
4. Brad Bird, The Incredibles
“No. Capes!” Though Bird apparently had to be convinced to take on the role of Edna Mode, the bossy, take-no-prisoners costume designer for the superheroes of The Incredibles (he originally wanted Lily Tomlin), he actually fits in with a long line of animators and directors who voiced their own characters. (Think back to Tex Avery, William Hanna, and, of course, Walt Disney himself.) It’s a scene- and movie-stealing performance: Part fashionista, part James Bond’s Q, Edna Mode is a brusque whirlwind of gags.
3. Peter O’Toole, Ratatouille
O’Toole had one of the most beautiful faces in all of cinema, but he also had one of the greatest of voices. As the powerful food critic Anton Ego in this Pixar hit about a rat who also happens to be a talented chef, he starts off as a potential nemesis — haughty and unfeeling. (Given the way he’s initially portrayed, one can’t help but suspect that the Pixar guys are getting out some very primal feelings vis-à-vis critics.) But watch — or, rather, listen — as he goes from grim prickliness to fond tenderness. O’Toole makes you feel both the critic’s loneliness as well as his excitement at discovering something new and wondrous. It’s a performance of rather unexpected depth, achieved almost entirely through the actor’s delivery.
2. Amy Poehler, Inside Out
Poehler’s monumental performance in Inside Out is that rare occasion when a voice actor is basically entrusted with much of the narrative and emotional heavy lifting of the movie. That her character Joy, one of the five emotions inside an 11-year-old girl’s head, is somehow both the film’s heroine and its chief nemesis — the innocent on a quest and the powerful queen in her castle — makes the performance itself that much more impressive.
1. Patrick Warburton, The Emperor’s New Groove
Warburton’s dim, monotone henchman Kronk steals the show right out from under everyone else in this, perhaps Disney’s most underrated film. Part of it has to do with how his performance so perfectly embodies the movie’s anarchic spirit — which at the time was like nothing the studio had ever done. Particularly in its post–Little Mermaid renaissance, Disney’s reputation was built on immaculately animated, sensitive coming-of-age stories. Groove reportedly went from being one of those standard-issue songs-and-feelings movies to a zany, go-for-broke comedy. And Warburton’s bizarre fourth-wall-breaking performance is the engine that powers it.