The 20 Best Voice Performances in Animated Movie History
We’re halfway through a summer of cinematic animation domination: Finding Dory is Pixar’s highest-grossing film, The Secret Life of Pets now holds the record for biggest opening weekend for an original film ever, and a fifth Ice Age film opens later this week. So now is the perfect time to unveil a list of the 20 best vocal performances in feature animation ever. (One caveat: Though some of the films mentioned here may boast more than one great performance, we restricted ourselves to just one performer from any given film.) With that in mind, let the countdown begin with...
20. Tony Jay
From The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Disney’s 1996 adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel is a fascinating mixture of wacky humor and darkly sexual undertones. The latter is best exemplified in Tony Jay’s performance as antagonist Judge Claude Frollo, whose desire for the lovely gypsy Esmeralda roils within him as he tries to maintain a pious air and exert his control over Paris. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is imperfect, but in the “Hellfire” number, where Frollo rants to an unseen God about his lustful attraction to the alluring and sultry Esmeralda through Jay’s gravelly, complex performance, its ambition is fully realized.
19. Sterling Holloway
From Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Sterling Holloway was one of many actors in the stable of Disney voice performers for years. You might know him as the original Winnie the Pooh, or Kaa from The Jungle Book, but his sly Cheshire Cat in the 1951 Alice in Wonderland is a high point. (His few minutes onscreen are arguably the film’s best.) Holloway set the standard of the maddeningly enigmatic feline who confounds Alice more than any of the other creatures she encounters through the rabbit hole. Even Stephen Fry couldn’t compare as the Cheshire Cat in the live-action films; Holloway’s slinky, dry line readings are untoppable.
18. Teri Hatcher
From Coraline (2009)
Laika’s first film, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella, is as spiky and rebellious as its lead character. Dakota Fanning’s take on Coraline is an accurate depiction of preteen frustration, but it’s Teri Hatcher’s dual performance, as Coraline’s real and Other Mother, that’s the true MVP. Hatcher communicates in a few short sentences the exhaustion of being the mother of a pushy kid grappling with a stressful life change, plus the sugary menace behind the Other Mother’s nefarious plans. Henry Selick’s visualization of the Other Mother is plenty creepy, but Hatcher’s line readings emphasize the character’s evil.
17. Jodi Benson
From The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Disney Renaissance truly arrived 20 minutes into The Little Mermaid, as our heroine Ariel sings that she wants “to be where the people are.” “Part of Your World” is wonderful, but without Jodi Benson to give voice to the words, plaintively but firmly, the song would be far less memorable. Ariel soon gives up her voice, but when we hear Benson’s rebellious take on the daughter of the king of the ocean, we know exactly who Ariel is. Benson’s work is remarkable, and a huge part of why Disney animation was so successful in the years to come.
16. Vin Diesel
From The Iron Giant (1999)
Before he said the same word 20 times as a sentient tree in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vin Diesel voiced another taciturn character in The Iron Giant. Brad Bird’s debut is by now a cult favorite after being ignored at the box office. Diesel gave the massive bucket of bolts life as the Iron Giant makes friends with young Hogarth in the 1950s. Though it was earlier in his career, even before The Fast and the Furious, Diesel proved he could turn a lunkheaded robot into a figure of pathos.
15. Jennifer Jason Leigh
From Anomalisa (2015)
It’s easy to highlight the voice work in Anomalisa: Tom Noonan plays almost every character in the unnerving stop-motion film from co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. As impressive as Noonan is — never exactly changing the modulation of his voice, but making each character sound unique — Jennifer Jason Leigh, the only person in the protagonist’s mind who doesn’t sound like Noonan, rises above. The challenge of making a character sound distinct is clear, but Leigh’s tender performance as Lisa, who comes out of her shell when charmed by the weary Michael, suggests emotional depth you don’t often hear in animation.
14. Ben Burtt
From WALL-E (2008)
Ben Burtt is one of cinema’s great sound designers, known for his work in Star Wars with robotic characters like R2-D2. So it makes sense that Pixar asked him to do the same for the lead character in its ambitious science-fiction film WALL-E. Burtt does more than add a series of noises to WALL-E; he makes the robot’s romantic heart seem real, and turns a literal trash compactor into a hero who all but unites the remains of the human race to return to the dusty, garbage-laden Earth. WALL-E is one of Pixar’s biggest gambles; Ben Burtt’s contribution is invaluable.
13. Philip Seymour Hoffman
From Mary and Max (2009)
The stop-motion animated film Mary and Max probably won’t lift your spirits — it’s genuinely heartbreaking — but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the depressed Max is one of his very best. Max becomes pen pals with an Australian girl named Mary; through their shared letters over decades, the duo grows in unexpected ways. Hoffman’s sleepy-sounding voice suits Max, diagnosed with Asperger’s, as well. Mary and Max may be the least-seen film on this list, but it deserves your attention, in large part because of Hoffman’s standout work.
12. Liam Neeson
From The LEGO Movie (2014)
Possibly the best part of Liam Neeson’s revival as a grizzled action star is the way he parodied himself to hilarious effect in this 2014 film. As the literally double-sided Good Cop/Bad Cop, Neeson goes way over the top as a grim officer who ignores the rules to get results, and his twin brother whose kindness is communicated through a high-pitched Irish lilt. (Neeson plays Good Cop/Bad Cop’s father as well, in the best scene, a face-off with Good Cop/Bad Cop’s boss, President Business.) Neeson doesn’t exude the eerie calm displayed in Taken, but his Good Cop/Bad Cop is similarly tough as nails.
11. Tsutomu Tatsumi
From Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
What’s the most heartbreaking animated film you’ve ever seen? It should be Grave of the Fireflies, the darkest, most painful production in the history of Studio Ghibli. The movie, set during WWII, makes it clear it will tell a tragic story right from its opening moments. In general, this is a superlative Ghibli effort, anchored by Tsutomu Tatsumi’s layered performance as a kid desperately trying to remain resolute for his sister’s sake in the face of death and starvation. Ghibli’s Japanese-language performances are consistently great, but Tatsumi is this film’s best.
10. Bruno Campos
From The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s most underrated film of the 2000s, and its most underrated character is the frog prince, Naveen. He’s portrayed by the energetic Bruno Campos, first as an incorrigible rogue coasting on his parents’ royalty, then as the suave frog who’s mildly bothered after realizing the princess he kissed to reverse his spell was a chef in costume. There’s a handful of phenomenal performances here, from Anika Noni Rose as Tiana to Keith David as the malevolent Dr. Facilier. But Campos’ rascally Naveen stands out because it’s rare that princes in Disney movies get any personality or past history.
9. Holly Hunter
From The Incredibles (2004)
Like most Pixar films, The Incredibles has plenty of memorable performances, from Craig T. Nelson to writer/director Brad Bird. But Holly Hunter is the MVP as Helen Parr/Elastigirl. The divide in this superhero-turned-housewife is evident when she scoffs in the opening at settling down. Fast-forwad to the present, where Helen has done just that, prioritizing family over derring-do. Eventually, she dons a super-suit to save her family, after Mr. Incredible is trapped on a tropical island. Hunter’s live-action work is generally excellent; she achieves a pitch-perfect balance here between devoted mother and a middle-aged superhero, often shifting gears between the two in the same scene. It’s nuanced, rich acting.
8. Phil Harris
From The Jungle Book (1967)
Earlier this year, Disney released a live-action The Jungle Book, with a panoply of CG animals surrounding a live actor as Mowgli. Bill Murray, the obvious choice to play the fun-loving Baloo, couldn’t improve on Phil Harris’ laid-back work in the 1967 film. Harris was so good as Baloo, turning “The Bare Necessities” into a classic, that he played a similar type in The Aristocats and Robin Hood. Neither character lives up to Baloo’s goofy heroics against the nefarious Shere Khan, or his goofy dancing opposite King Louie. Harris’ jazzy Baloo is the coolest Disney ever got in the 1960s.
7. Ben Kingsley
From The Boxtrolls (2014)
Laika’s a new studio — their fourth film, Kubo and the Two Strings, opens next month —but so far their record is nothing but consistent. Their best film is The Boxtrolls, in large part thanks to its oily villain, Archibald Snatcher, voiced by a delightfully over-the-top Ben Kingsley. Every sentence is a meal: he elongates words past their natural end, making everyone from his lackeys to the town’s white-hatted leaders uncomfortable. Snatcher’s desire to join the white hats and eat cheese (never mind his deathly lactose intolerance) drives him to do truly awful things, but Kingsley makes Snatcher poignant up to his ... explosive swan song.
6. Tom Hanks
From The Toy Story Trilogy (1995)
The Toy Story series is full of hilarious performances, from Tim Allen’s puffed-up Buzz Lightyear to Joan Cusack as the feisty Jessie to Wallace Shawn as the anxious Rex. But the best is the trilogy’s true lead: Tom Hanks’ Sheriff Woody, the leader of Andy’s bedroom, whose life gets upended by the arrival of a flashy space toy. Hanks is ably cast as a loyal cowboy whose good heart leads to stubbornness bordering on nastiness. Hanks plays a straight man throughout, but the range he gets to display, from voluminous frustration to humility, is incredible to hear.
5. Eleanor Audley
From Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Few moments in Disney history are more terrifying than when Maleficent transforms herself into a monstrous dragon to attack a dashing prince. However, the moment right before —when Maleficent shouts, “Now you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of Hell!” — is equally frightening. As the spurned fairy, Eleanor Audley exudes fury mixed with wryly proper manners, as when she acts shocked to have not been invited to Princess Aurora’s introduction to the kingdom. Audley played Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, but her Maleficent is even scarier than what the maiden with the glass slipper had to handle.
4. Jeremy Irons
From The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King is oddly structured — it takes roughly half the film for Mufasa’s death, the inciting incident for Simba’s growth — but Scar, its villain, is one of Disney’s finest. Jeremy Irons, an Oscar winner for Reversal of Fortune (referenced briefly here), is unbeatable, embodying the louche bitterness of the king’s brother, never able to claim the throne. Irons’ performance is delightfully evil without becoming hammy; it’s a shame that Jim Cummings had to step in for Irons at the end of “Be Prepared.” Irons is so key to the film that even a minute without him is a loss.
3. Amy Poehler
From Inside Out (2015)
It’s no surprise that Amy Poehler’s work in the Pixar marvel Inside Out was exemplary; she balanced manic peaks and emotional lows on Parks and Recreation for years before playing the consistently chipper Joy, the emotion trying to lead her girl Riley through a difficult cross-country move. Poehler’s Joy is one of many remarkable Inside Out voice turns, including Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, and Lewis Black as Anger. But Joy’s path to acceptance — realizing that Riley can’t, and shouldn’t, be joyful all the time — is translated incredibly through Poehler’s complex voice work.
2. Cliff Edwards
From Pinocchio (1940)
Pinocchio is Disney’s best animated film, and Jiminy Cricket, the hero’s mercurial, hustling sidekick, is one of their best characters. Though he’s now as much of a symbol as Mickey Mouse, Jiminy was first brought to life by the Disney animators and actor Cliff Edwards, whose tremulous voice helped turn “When You Wish Upon a Star” into iconography. Jiminy’s not always likable — he often huffs when Pinocchio ignores his advice — but his journey to getting a gold star of good conscience is just as rewarding as his friend’s.
1. Robin Williams
From Aladdin (1992)
He was a brilliant, often unstoppable live performer, but there’s no film that better captures Robin Williams’ spirit and energy than Aladdin, which proves that the hand-drawn medium was more than able to keep up with his rapid-fire improvisatory style. The Genie is the peak of modern Disney creation; not only is the animation still wonderful decades after its release, but everything about Williams’ performance remains irresistible. It’s now become passé for studios to hire A-listers for its animated films, but Robin Williams’ work here stands apart because the effort expended, and the resultant payoff, are truly remarkable.