An awful thing happened during my childhood. Following the success of The Lion King and Toy Story, animation studios erroneously began to think that casting nothing but celebrity voices was an okay thing to do.
Unfortunately, without a good casting director, incredibly poor choices are made. Worse yet, without a good voice director, we get awful performances that either fall flat or miss the mark by millions of miles. The result was a stream of hit-or-miss films bogged down by screen actors who had no experience in voice acting, and who were not being guided through the proper techniques.
Screen actors have the benefit of facial expressions, body movements, and general on-camera presence. Without all of these tools at their disposal, many A-list, well-recognized actors will inevitably flounder, especially without a rigorous director to show them the ropes.
John K., creator of Ren and Stimpy put it best by saying that good cartoon character voice acting involves having a good ear for sounds. Different inflections and creative ways of reading lines are necessary to “fill” the character within the animation.
Neglecting this element of craft makes a David Schwimmer character sound just like David Schwimmer, and allows someone as talented as Scarlett Johansson to sound devoid of emotion, especially when compared to her animation. You can tell this is not her fault when she gets some legitimate motivation to work with.
The bottom line is that becoming a character without makeup, costumes, or blocking can be difficult for many screen actors to handle. I get the feeling that most directors feel like making their celebrity actors go through too many takes will be a waste of their time, fat paychecks be damned.
In fact, some actors are just getting paid to be themselves or, worst of all, just have their names appear on the poster. Chris Rock’s smug as f*** Oscar presentation a couple of years back embodies how many screen actors are barely scratching the surface of what it takes to be a voice actor. He clearly has no clue that he’s being let off easy because Dreamworks thinks we want to hear the same character every single time.
So, to cut this rant short, there are a few shining examples that run contrary to this trend. Here are my favorites:
Notable Role: Meg Griffin (Family Guy)
The fact that it took me years to make the connection between hot-as-all-get-out Jackie from That ’70s Show and schlubbiest-cartoon-girl-ever Meg Griffin is a testament to her ability to communicate character. Meg is the butt of one-note jokes, but Kunis’ delivery still feels fresh and unique with very line.
Notable Role: Timon (The Lion King)
Nathan Lane has unfortunately not had enough chances to prove just how talented behind the mic he is. While it’s true that he hardly adjusts his manic, high-pitched speaking voice, he clearly knows how to amp up the energy in absence of being on-camera.
Timon’s personality was carried more on the back of his voice than anything. Considering the high quality of his animation, that says a lot. In a film full of exceptions to my gripes about celebrity casts, Lane stands out the most.
Notable Roles: Carl Fredricksen (Up), Sgt. Cosgrove (Freakazoid!)
A real underdog, Ed Asner can be easily underestimated because his gravely voice could be used in uncreative, repetitive ways. Instead, he is able to differentiate between motivation and achieve great comic timing at the same time.
Sgt. Cosgrove’s deadpan delivery never failed to make me laugh. Carl in Up is also a great example of how a completely unlikable character can still win an audience over through sheer sincerity and wit.
Side Note: Pixar is by far the best company to harness the raw talent of people who are used to being on-camera and use it in animation. I am constantly surprised to read their cast lists, even if the actors barely changed their voices at all. People like Patton Oswalt, Craig T. Nelson, and even Tim Allen can breathe life into characters in a way that feels irreplaceable thanks to the careful direction of Pixar crews.
Notable Role: Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Vincent Price was cast in most live-action films for his bubbling, villainous voice alone. When left by himself in the sound studio, though, Price truly shined.
Ratigan oozes slimy charm and barely-contained evilness with every coo and diabolical chuckle. He steals absolutely every scene he’s in, and has a knockout singing voice to boot.
Notable Roles: Itchy (All Dogs Go to Heaven), Tiger (An American Tale)
Okay, Dom DeLuise always sounded the same no matter what Don Bluth movie he was in. I’m not sure if it was good writing, good character design, good voice acting or all of the above, but it was easy to slip out of that awareness almost immediately.
DeLuise simply has so much charm, character, and emotion within his vocal chords that he deserved every role he got. As an example of his range, while many of his characters are fun-loving, they still feel different. Tiger is full of tough vigor, and Itchy is an unmitigated jumpy coward. Dom’s ability to play off his long-time film partner, the great Burt Reynolds, also helps to solidify his place on this list.
Notable Roles: Mr. Crabs (Spongebob Squarepants), Lex Luthor (Almost every animated Superman)
The fact that the Kurgan is Mr. Crabs blows my mind to this day. Brown’s ability to completely transform his voice into something unrecognizable inspired me to create this list in the first place.
Clancy Brown obviously gives up every bit of the dark, brooding nature that usually gets him cast and shoves it aside for energetic fun. Yes, Mr. Krabs may be a miser, but he seems to get so much joy out his miserliness that it actually seems healthy… at times.
Notable Roles: Bill Dauterive (King of the Hill), Bubbles (Finding Nemo)
Stephen Root may be unrecognizable outside of his Milton from Office Space makeup, but he nevertheless receives most of his paychecks from on-screen roles.
Root possesses the uncanny ability to melt away behind the mike and take on the personality of his characters. On King of the Hill, Bill’s more than slightly touched-in-the-head traits contrast so deeply with Buck Strickland’s callousness that I am amazed to remember that they are played by the same actor. Root can suck me so deep into his characters’ lives that they take on an existence of their own.
Notable Role: Dory (Finding Nemo)
Pixar’s ability to let you forget the celebrity in favor of a new character strikes again. This time, I’m just so happy to see someone giving Ellen a chance outside of daytime television – as good as her talk show may be.
Dory accomplished a tough thing to do in Finding Nemo, she made me cry from her voice performance alone. The scene where Marlin is close to abandoning her gives me chills every time I think about it. Yet again, in a movie full of exceptional voice performances from the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Willem Dafoe, Dory stands heads and fins above everyone else.
Notable Roles: Sideshow Bob (The Simpsons), Stinky Pete (Toy Story 2)
I love Frasier, but I can completely understand why some people do not; Kelsey Grammar’s stuffy performance can come across as unlikeable, especially when the gags are all at his expense.
By contrast, Sideshow Bob seems almost overqualified for his position of recurring Simpsons villain. He inevitably gets thwarted by overlooking some minor detail, but compared to the rest of Springfield’s citizens – except maybe Lisa – he is in a whole different intellectual league .
Grammar makes every appearance in The Simpsons count, and his sleeper villain performance in Toy Story 2 continued this trend wonderfully.
Notable Roles: The Joker (Batman: The Animated Series and Arkham City), Skips (The Regular Show)
Before you call me a dirty cheater, remember that Mark Hamill was for a time only known as being Luke Skywalker and then being uncastable, in that order.
Luckily, he found his calling with voice acting and has been on a hot streak ever since. Hamill is able to tap into the depths of a character like only the great voice actors such as Christine Cavanaugh and Charles Adler are able to. His Joker is, without a slightest iota of a doubt, my favorite incarnation of the character.
Hamill also displays quite a range by playing diverse characters on The Regular Show and Robot Chicken. He clearly loses every shred of himself once he gets into character, and he uses every vocal tool at his disposal to achieve variety and personality. Look no further than the fact that he refers to the Joker’s laugh as a musical instrument to understand how much he invests in his characters.
Honorable Mentions: Hank Azaria and Robin Williams
I feel like Hank Azaria shouldn’t count since he has way more frequent voice roles than appearances on camera, but both are always treats.
I wanted really badly to include Robin Williams as a form of tribute, but honestly every ti me I hear his charactersI feel constantly reminded that its him. Yes, he is usually the highlight of whatever film he is in, but his characters are more injected with his on-stage personality than any special dedication to conveying emotion through voice alone. Maybe that is unfair considering how much he dedicates to his other performances, but regardless I find it hard to lose myself in his characters. His Genie and Batty (from Ferngully) were unequivocally great, though.
Who do you think deserved to be on this list? Let us know in the comments!
Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English alumnus and a freelance content writer. He collects old video games and tries his damndest to figure out a character’s voice before giving up and going to imdb.