Even though they’ve been stumbling recently, Pixar has made a name for themselves as one of animation’s forces to be reckoned with. They’ve found it through smart storytelling, ambitious projects, and original ideas. And, I think, by their willingness to elicit actual performances from their voice actors.
Often, animated movies simply round up a bunch of celebrities and ask them to play to a type, but Pixar goes above and beyond. They seem to look for the best actors to take on their characters, and ask them to craft genuine, 3-dimensional performances through the use of their voices.
Since the Academy hasn’t seen fit to create a “voice acting” Oscar, this article will have to do to start.
Billy Crystal — Mike Wazowski, Monsters, Inc.
There’s something to be said for comic timing. Often, animation finds its biggest laughs in sight gags. Makes sense — anything goes in a cartoon universe. It takes a lot of personality, then, to deliver a vocal performance that’s so funny it trumps any visual gag the animators could come up with. I’d contend Billy Crystal manages this in Monster’s, Inc.
A lot of Pixar’s movies are buddy movies, or even ensembles, but Mike Wazowski is the kind of “sidekick” who winds up simply taking the whole thing by theft. Some of that can be attributed to writing, some of it to great character design, but the lion’s share oughta go to Crystal’s fun, fast, and intelligent readings of the dialogue handed to him by the Pixar guys.
Billy Crystal — like, say, Bill Murray or Steve Carrell — is a legitimate comic actor, as opposed to simply being a comedian. If, for some reason, you ever doubt his acting chops, just watch him take on Shakespeare in Branagh’s Hamlet.
Or watch his perfect comic timing in any scene from Monsters, Inc.
Tom Hanks — Woody, Toy Story 1, 2, 3
I never expect Tom Hanks to have as wide a vocal range he does, but he actually breaks out of his “everyman” voice pretty often. From Forrest Gump to the recent Cloud Atlas, Hanks likes to indulge in a bit of vocal wackiness from time to time. But he might have found his most fun performance to date in the voice of the enthusiastic cowboy, Woody.
All of the Toy Story characters are memorable in their own right, but the character of Woody has to bear the brunt of the series’ emotional core. Hanks manages this with ease, able to flawlessly shift gears from enthusiasm to comedy to terror to melancholy and back again throughout each of the three movies.
And he also has to be kind of a jerk at times while still staying likeable. No easy task.
Take this scene:
Jordan Nagai – Russell, Up
A lot of times, kids in movies just sound like miniature adults. They’re either too articulate, too controlled, or simply too insightful for their own good. Russell from Up, to my ears, is one of cinema’s most authentic little kids so far. He’s awkward and hilarious in a way that sounds almost totally improvised.
To give credit where credit is due, it was largely Pete Doctor’s coaching of Jordan Nagai that created this memorable performance. I could sit here and describe how they achieved Russell’s unique cadence, or you could just watch it:
No matter who should take the most credit for it, there’s no denying the authenticity and effectiveness of Nagai’s vocal track in the movie.