The voice artist walks a hard path. They’re not in control of their characters' facial expressions or body language – heck, their character may have neither – and they depend purely on speech to communicate a whole mess of information, emotion and impact. Here, we have assembled 50 of the very best voice turns in English for your consideration. We have excluded those whose performance was entirely or largely performance captured – Mr Serkis, we’ll need another feature to consider your work – to focus on those for whom the voice itself was the thing. Read on, and tell us who you’d like to add…
Film: Her (2013) The role of Samantha, the artificial intelligence that Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly falls for in Spike Jonze's A.I. I (Heart) U, was originally recorded by English actress Samantha Morton. But the director had a change of heart, and asked (with Morton's permission) to have Johannson to take over. The result is a perfect mix of joyful exuberance and raspy sexiness from the Avengers veteran, creating an absolutely irresistible character who helps us believe that a man could love a disembodied voice. Speaking about it on the Empire Podcast, Jonze said, "Samantha and I have known each other for a long time. It was painful, but as a filmmaker herself she knew I had to do what I had to do for the movie. And though her voice wasn't in the movie, she is in the movie, because she was there every day on set, with Joaquin and I. She is in Joaquin's performance." This isn't to detract from Johannson's work; in fact, it adds to it, making her seamless late-minute vocal tour de force even more impressive.
JAMES EARL JONES
Character: Darth Vader
Film: Star Wars series (1977-2005) Poor David Prowse. He was big enough to fill the iconic suit, and gave a heck of a physical performance, but somewhere along the way George Lucas decided that more gravitas was needed for the voice. He found exactly that in James Earl Jones, a theatre and film star with a voice as imposing as Everest and more gravitas than most planets (hell, he survived the Holiday Special with his dignity intact!). Jones was initially uncredited on the first two Star Wars films, considering himself "a special effect" rather than a performance, but eventually accepted a credit after the secret was long out. The recording for the first film took him a single day but proved key in one of cinema's greatest villains.
Film: Ted (2012) Ian McKellen's BFF has delivered more voice-only performances than Jean-Luc Picard has had cups of "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." You can hear him on everything from an audio-only version of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf (which earned him a Grammy) to numerous computer game titles from the seemingly infinite Star Trek tie-ins to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, where he played the late, great Emperor Uriel Septim. On TV, he's (Geordi La) forged a strong working relationship with Family Guy guy Seth MacFarlane, clocking up nine guest appearances with Peter Griffin and company as well as playing American Dad regular CIA Deputy Director Avery Bullock. This lead to his finest movie voice work, that of the narrator in MacFarlane's swear-bear punch-up Ted, where he was paid actual money to say things like "Now if there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that nothing is more powerful than a young boy's wish. Except an Apache helicopter. An Apache helicopter has machine guns AND missiles. It is an unbelievably impressive complement of weaponry, an absolute death machine." Bravo, Sir Pat.
Character: Jiminy Cricket
Film: Pinocchio (1940) As wise old insects who are also guardian angels go, it doesn't get much better than Jiminy Cricket who always points Pinocchio in the right direction. Of course, the wooden boy generally ignored him, but you can't fault his attempts. And Cliff Edwards was the original celebrity voice artist, a vaudeville star who made it big in Hollywood (within 12 months of Pinocchio he also appeared in His Girl Friday and Gone With The Wind, which is a hell of a record by any lights), but despite his induction into the Ukelele Hall Of Fame in 2000, it's as Jiminy that he's best remembered these days. When Edwards died in poverty in 1971, Disney paid for the funeral – aware even 30 years later of the value of his contribution.
Film: Transformers: The Movie (1986) Orson Welles' voice was one that could move mountains, push over giants and, as Transformers: The Movie proved, represent an absurdly large robot that can transform into a planet. He also employed it to sell Carlberg – remember the beer tasting and lie detector test adverts? – and to undertake reams of narration work elsewhere, both on his own films and others. But, bizarrely, it's as a reality-gobbling massive metal man and/or god of chaos (as the expanded universe goes on to explain) that his endless air hanger of a voice really comes into its own. Who would have guessed?
Film: Aladdin (1992) A human firework going off in all directions almost all of the time, Robin Williams was the perfect choice to play the man – sorry, Djinn – who could and would achieve the impossible (should you wish it). This was a character who could make anything appear, from neon signs that prompted “applause” to a pink dragon, a cooked chicken or a boxing coach. Williams’ voice and improvised lines changed the film from top to bottom, with animators working around his contributions, rather than the other way around. Impressively, Williams’ total recorded voice work clocked in at 16 hours, and with most of it ad-libbed, it forced The Academy to decline Disney’s attempt to submit the film’s script for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar category. As if this weren’t all gob-smacking enough, it was Robin Williams’ success here with Genie that paved the way for future animated films to sell themselves on the big name talent they had on board – and for more details on that front, you’re best off reading this list all over again…
Character: Hal 9000
Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) How Douglas Rain came to voice the most intimidating artificial intelligence in cinema history is a complicated tale. For starters, the HAL 9000 computer was once conceived as a mobile robot, but with a view to avoiding becoming dated in the future, the omnipresent red eye was chosen instead. Then, HAL 9000 was to be named Athena, after the Greek goddess of wisdom and with the female voice you’d expect, but that too was changed. Finally, actors Nigel Davenport and Martin Balsam both tried and failed to satisfy Kubrick’s demands, before Rain was hired to re-record everything: something he did with his feet resting on a pillow to keep the relaxed tone required. Weird, granted, but it worked.
Film: The Toy Story trilogy (1995-2010) 100 years from now, assuming civilisation makes it that far, Tom Hanks won’t be remembered for his Oscar-winning roles or for his typewriter app (Hanx Writer, quite fun). He will be remembered as cowboy Woody, the embodiment of a decent, hard-working leader who occasionally goes off the deep end when faced with, say, the threat posed by a spaceman toy. Or really any significant obstacle to his devotion to owner Andy, a relationship he eventually learns to share with Buzz and which leads to one of the most devastatingly sad happy endings in history.
Character: Buzz Lightyear
Film: The Toy Story films (1995-2010) He’s brash, he’s bullish and he suffers from at least mild delusions. But Buzz Lightyear proves to be more than just a shiny new toy with a certain amount of flair. He’s also a stalwart friend, a resourceful companion and someone who, once he learns the reality of his situation, embraces it with all the goodness in his little toy heart. Oh, and full marks to Spanish Buzz Javier Fernández-Peña too.
Film: Where The Wild Things Are (2009) Yes, the man who played a vicious mobster called Tony Soprano also voiced a furry monster called Carol. Admittedly, Carol lives up to the “Wild Thing” appellation, with his big-eyed brute starting off impulsive and prone to temper tantrums, and ending up an arm-ripping angry creature by the (almost) end of it. But the role still showed a different side of Gandolfini for anyone who only knew him as “T” or “Him Off True Romance”. Tender and young, an adolescent with an intense desire to belong, his Carol is the true bringer of the heartbreaks in a movie that’s already pretty generous with teary moments.
Film: Sleeping Beauty (1959) The original and still the best Maleficent (frankly, we think even Angelina would agree with us), Audley is supremely menacing and seductive as all get-out. If she hadn’t been unwise in her hiring policies, recruiting the dumbest goblins in all the land, Aurora would never have stood a chance. At the time of recording, Audley was battling tuberculosis, but her voice – trained in radio and TV for decades – withstood the strain, and any slight cracking underneath only increased her menace.
Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) The Tenenbaum family, from the three child prodigies of Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson) to Royal Tenenbaum himself (Gene Hackman), are completely unbelievable characters. Or they would have been, if introduced by the wrong narrator. Without a firm and confident hand at the tiller, saying the likes of “She was a playwright and won a Braverman Grant of fifty-thousand dollars in the ninth grade” and “Four years later, she disappeared alone for almost two weeks and came back with half a finger missing” might not have worked, but with Baldwin at the helm, it all sounds perfectly reasonable. More than just a simple set-up narration gig, the voice of the story also has some of the film’s best lines, notably “The BB was still lodged between two knuckles in Chas's left hand.” and “He had not been invited to any of their parties since.” If there’s a real rival to Ron Howard’s work on Arrested Development, it’s Baldwin here, and with – arguably – a weirder family to play with (though we’re yet to see Bill Murray’s chicken dance, so it’s hard to judge).
KATHLEEN TURNER AND AMY IRVING
Character: Jessica Rabbit
Film: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) How do you turn a cartoon character into the ultimate femme fatale? Why, you animate her to the very edge of decency, put her in a dress that defies gravity, add some boiiiing sound effects whenever her bosom encounters, well, anything, and have Kathleen Turner husk her way through the dialogue, making everyone watching – man, woman or ‘toon – a little hot under the collar. This clip features Turner at her most iconically seductive, but it’s worth noting that Amy Irving provided her singing voice for the also-excellent nightclub scene.
Character: Shere Khan
Film: The Jungle Book (1967) It’s testament to the popularity of Disney’s original Jungle Book and the power in George Sanders’ beautifully treacly and magnificently villainous voice that despite two big roles in cast-iron live-action classics – Jack Favell in Rebecca (1940) and Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) – he’ll always be best remembered for his role as the mancub-hunting Bengal tiger. Here was a gentleman whose deep and rich received pronunciation English accent allowed him to luxuriate in such lines as “Now, I'm going to close my eyes and count to ten. It makes the chase more interesting... for me.” The two upcoming cinematic incarnations of the Rudyard Kipling’s story,Andy Serkis (Jungle Book: Origins, out 2016) and Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book, out 2015), will have a hard time matching Sanders’ work. Fortunately, both directors have picked impressively booming actors to help them, in the form of Benedict “Smaug The Magnificent” Cumberbatch and Idris “Luther The Shouter” Elba.
Film: The Shrek series (2001-2010) Eddie Murphy’s Donkey has provided many handy phrases for fans in a tight spot in the real world. How often has your mind supplied the words “I’m a donkey on the edge!” when you’re stressed, or “I’m a flying, talking donkey!” when you’ve been sprinkled with fairy dust and have suddenly discovered the power of levitation (and, er, have also been turned into a donkey). Infectiously fun and the perfect foil to Mike Myers’ angry ogre, he’s a pathological scene stealer of the highest, loudest, most assinine order. And with four films under his belt – and a possible fifth in the works – there are just so many Donkey moments to remember, including his impressive covers of impressively cheesy songs. Pick your favourite: ‘I’m A Believer’, ‘Livin' La Vida Loca’ or ‘Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)’ – bearing in mind that if you pick anything but ‘I’m A Believer’ that you’re 100% wrong.
Character: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) There are echoes, in Mr Fox’s blithe self-confidence, of the foolish Everett McGill that Clooney played so brilliant in O Brother Where Art Thou? But the fox is more than just a re-run of one of his greatest hits. He’s a sharp, endlessly optimistic and unfailingly dapper figure who frets about getting older but is positively powered-up when the world throws real peril at him. Clooney gives him that ebullience, and cheerfully sends up his own superman image as he does so. It’s that edge of self-mockery that makes all the clicking and winking adorable rather than unbearable.
Film: Finding Nemo (2003) A fun fact about Dory: outside of the Pixarverse, a dory is actually “a small, shallow-draft boat, about 5 to 7 metres or 16 to 23 feet long” (per Wikipedia). Within the Pixarverse, Dory is a Royal Blue Tang fish with short-term memory loss and a sunnier-than-the-sun-itself disposition who’s always there to remind you that “It's all right. It'll be okay." Delivering the dictionary definition of ditziness, Ellen DeGeneres – then, as now, best known for her ‘90s sitcom Ellen and her ‘00s chat show The Ellen DeGeneres Show – stole the movie from under Albert Brooks’ gills, earning a sequel 13 years later with her character’s name in the title. And as if to prove her dedication to the animation powerhouse that is Disney, she recently performed a rendition of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ with Kristen Wiig that will break your heart (though perhaps not in a good way).
Character: The Iron Giant
Film: The Iron Giant (1999) Sometimes less is more. The hero of Brad Bird’s little-seen but deeply brilliant animation barely says a hundred words in the whole thing, but Diesel’s contribution to the superb animation brings him fully to life. The giant’s combination of innocence and deadly power make him a complicated figure – and you were wondering why Diesel was such a good fit for Groot – but as he learns about life on Earth he finds his own soul and his own path. Although it’s considerably changed from Ted Hughes’ original novel, such is the power of the story and character here that the single word “Superman” will have you in buckets by the end.
Film: Mulan (1998) There would be no Donkey without Mushu. Then at something of a career nadir, Eddie Murphy was mainly famous for having a huge entourage – there’s even a joke about it in the movie. People had forgotten how immensely charming and entertaining he can be, and Mushu was the first step on his road back into our affections, cracking wise one minute and offering heartfelt advice to his charge, Mulan, the next. Combined with those drooping whiskers and endlessly malleable form, he transcended early reviews that dismissed him as a Genie-wannabe and became a firm favourite.
Film: Moon (2009) When you’re mining on the moon, you need company. Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell gets his in the form of a robot companion called GERTY, who is voiced by Kevin Spacey, but “faced” by a series of emoticons that appear on his small display screen. Spacey’s calm, unflappable tones are deliberately reminiscent of 2001’s HAL-9000 which, combined with Spacey’s screen history, creates a degree of suspicion towards GERTY for the viewer. But he's also protective of Sam, and loving too, making GERTY a really subtle mix of follow-the-rules automaton and caring father. Spacey delivered his lines in just four hours, as Moon’s director, Duncan Jones, revealed during an Empire Webchat: “Kevin Spacey never came on set. I was very involved with him for the four hours we needed him for to record GERTY’s lines. He's a very impressive chap when it comes to performing. We played around with a few different approaches to what GERTY might sound like, chose one, recorded a few different takes, and then had enough time for him to do Christopher Walken impressions of GERTY. Unfortunately, I'm never going to be able to get those cleared for anyone else to hear.” Our reaction?
Character: Audrey II
Film: Little Shop Of Horrors (1986) The good news is, he’s very lyrical, and he’s such an unusual plant that he brings people in droves into the humble Skid Row florist where he lives. The bad news is that the plant called Audrey II is a bloodsucking, flesh-eating alien intent on taking over the planet. As portrayed by Stubbs, however, he’s so charismatic and charming that you’d almost let him. The perfect foil to Rick Moranis’ nerdy Seymour, Stubbs’ unrestrained vocals make Audrey II an enemy to be reckoned with.
Film: The Neverending Story (1984) There are some pretty traumatic sections in this rare example of a decent ‘80s fantasy movie, but one thing got us through the worst moments. One big, white, furry, flying thing that made the scary bits bearable. That’s Falkor, and it was Alan Oppenheimer’s kindly, comforting voice that made him such a warm presence. In fact, Oppenheimer had a storied career as a voice artist; he voiced Rockbiter, G’mork and the Narrator in this very movie, and also worked on He-Man, She-Ra and 9. At 84, he’s still working, which makes his own a never-ending story as well.
DAVID HYDE PIERCE
Character: Abe Sapien
Film: Hellboy (2004) Many will associate DHP, as no-one calls him, with Niles Crane, the neurotic shrink who’s brother to the other neurotic shrink you know and love and love to hate on Frasier. But to Hellboy fanboys, he’s the classiest act ever to voice a merman. Pierce refused to take any official credit for his pitch-perfect performance as the fastidious and loyal “fishman” and his name does not appear anywhere on anything to do with the first film, such was his admiration for Doug Jones, the man in the no-doubt very uncomfortable suit. For the sequel, Hyde Pierce bowed out, allowing Jones to do the vocal as well as physical acting.
Film: The Iron Man trilogy (2008-2013) and Avengers (2012) Paul Bettany has claimed, perhaps jokingly, that he didn’t know what film he was working on when he spent a day with his old Wimbledon colleague Jon Favreau recording this voice for the first Iron Man. Whether that’s the case or not, he became an inherent part of Tony Stark’s world, wryly pointing out the folly of his master’s ways, like a modern-day Jeeves faced with a particularly unfortunate pair of checked trousers, or calmly enabling Stark’s latest crazy scheme. We can’t wait to see how he interacts with Stark when he becomes an entirely sentient and independent being (presumably) as The Vision…
Film: The Lion King (1994) If in doubt, get an impeccably trained Brit to voice your villain. It’s a rule as old as Hollywood itself, and one that will probably always deliver great results. But among the most sinister, slinkiest and skulkiest examples ever is Jeremy Irons’ arch Scar, the jealous Claudius to James Earl Jones’ Hamlet Senior. Given how languid and louche he appears, and the fact that he must spend a lot of time maintaining that marvellous mane, it’s a wonder that he gets any plotting done – and yet he somehow squeezes it in to a busy schedule of murder and tyranny in between extensive sessions of tooth-picking and sneering.
Film: Babe (1995) Christine Cavanaugh has made something of a career of voicing child characters – she also voiced Chuckie in Rugrats – but her undoubted masterpiece is Babe, where she portrayed an infant swine who found a career as a sheepdog – sorry, sheeppig. She gets the tones and inflection of a very young child perfectly, but gave her pig an edge of determination too that would carry him through danger and defeat. After all, you don’t become the world’s first sheep-pig simply thanks to a charming smile. You need a bit of personality too.
Film: Up (2009) Not all animation voice work goes to big-name stars. Sometimes, a scratch voice used for early assemblages in the studio fits so well that no one can imagine changing it out, and such was the case with Up’s co-director Bob Peterson and his performance as Dug. Peterson contributed the line “I have just met you and I love you” but it perfectly sums up Dug’s sunny nature and indeed the default setting of most dogs. Peterson also voiced the raspy Roz in Monsters Inc and the teacher, Mr Ray, in Finding Nemo, for which he gets Empire bonus points (not redeemable in shops).
Film: The Child's Play series (1988-2013) You know what should not inherently be scary? Talking dolls with mops of red hair. But Chucky is somehow terrifying, and that’s largely thanks to the complete disconnect between his outward appearance and Dourif’s snarling, furious voice. Of course, that’s because Dourif is really voicing a voodoo-practicing serial-killer trapped in a doll’s body, giving his performance some sort of layering. A tip of the hat, too, to Jennifer Tilly’s Tiffany, the eventual Bride Of Chuckie, who proves the perfect match for her diminutive, demented mate.
Character: Marvin the Paranoid Android
Film: Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (2005) The TV incarnation of everyone’s favourite Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Genuine People Personality was a boxier, bleepier, more toaster-like affair. The 2005 edition, as imagined by director Garth Jennings and his team, was somehow both sleeker and more bulbous, which initially put off towel-carrying superfans, but the voice work by Alan “Brain The Size Of A Planet” Rickman soon changed their minds. Here was a robotic drawl that could truly challenge Stephen Moore, the radio and TV voice artist, when it came to unadulterated, unremitting depression. This was a moaning dirge that really delivered boredom and bitterness with both barrels, matched by that drooping head and heavy tread. Incidentally, the newer version’s suit was sported on set by Warwick Davis, who promised all involved that he’d never put his head in a pig.
Character: Edna Mode
Film: The Incredibles (2004) We are not sure that Edna would approve of us reflecting on her work: she never looks back, daaaahling, after all. Still, it bears mention that she managed to steal the film from under the noses of multiple superheroes despite her tiny stature, and without a single hair of her iconic bob slipping out of place. Bird approached Lily Tomlin to voice Mode, so the legend goes, but when he demonstrated what he was after she suggested that he just take the job himself – and a legend was born. No capes!
Character: Iorek Byrnison
Film: The Golden Compass (2007) When it comes to Ian McKellen and voice-only roles, it’s a tough battle. The final contenders are between his narration duties in Stardust – “And they still live happily ever after…” – and talking armoured bear Iorek Byrnison – “Yes, that is all.” – a panserbjørn and the king of Svalbard. If you don’t know what a panserbjørn, hie thee to a bookshop and buy Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as soon as possible, because it’s a wonderful story. But know this before you do: when you’re the king of them, you can knock another armoured bear’s lower jaw clean off with one swipe of a paw. Admittedly, The Golden Compass itself didn’t exactly live up to expectations, but McKellen’s Byrnison was a flawless creature, rightly taking pride of place bang in the middle of the movie poster.
Character: Mother Gothel
Film: Tangled (2010) Some fun Mother Gothel facts: 1) She’s only the second Disney villain with grey eyes (after The Little Mermaid’s Ursula) 2) She’s the second oldest Disney villain (after Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, who is truly immortal) 3) After the opening narration, she’s never referred to by her name in the film (which may be why you don’t recognise her). To remind you of her excellence, she’s the truly nuanced and gloriously manipulative keeper / surrogate mother to Rapunzel, blessed with the best song in the film, ‘Mother Knows Best’. Murphy – who you may known better as Rosalie Octavius, the wife of Dr. Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, or as Captain Picard’s love interest from Star Trek: Insurrection – opens up this complicated character beautifully, managing to keep her both truly devilish and truly human at the same time. Gothel’s motiviations are not the traditional Disney mix of revenge and pure evil, but the understandable desire to avoid death (and look good doing it).
Characters: Yubaba and Zeniba
Film: Spirited Away (2001) Spirited Away’s evil witch Yubaba and her kind twin sister Zeniba were the last roles Suzanne Pleshette ever played, with the much-lauded Birds actress passing away just a few years later in 2004. Imbuing the truly frightening antagonist of the Studio Ghibli with a voice that fully communicated just how overbearing and intimidating this colossally-bunned bathhouse matriarch was, her words creaking and crackling with selfishness. But when it came down to it, Yubaba was bad, but not all that bad; frugal, but capable of praise. With her voice behind that face, Pleshette created a kind of monster that no-one – child or adult – would ever forget.
Film: Antz (1998) Who doesn’t want to see a film where Woody Allen plays best buds with Sylvester Stallone and gets to live happily ever after with Sharon Stone? The inspired idea of channelling Allen’s neurotic persona into a downtrodden worker ant paid off big-time – this is, arguably, the only head-to-head DreamWorks Animation / Pixar face-off that the former won – because it gave the adults as much reason to watch as their offspring; arguably more, in fact. And the grace note revelation at the end that the entire story has taken place in Central Park would never have mattered with anyone else. After all, he adored New York City; he idolised it out of all proportion...
Film: Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) Here’s the problem, as neatly summed up by his BFF Rocket. Groot’s “vocabulistics is limited to "I" and "am" and "Groot," exclusively in that order.” That would prevent something of a problem for many actors, fond as they are of having an actual vocabulary, but the limited wordage was just a red rag to the bull that is Vin Diesel. Recording in multiple languages and hundreds of takes to cover every conceivable emotion and intonation, the fast and furious star absolutely nailed it in multiple territories, and helped to make Groot our new favourite Marvel character. Wait, why is Hulk now glaring at us? Joint favourite! We meant joint favourite!
Character: Puss In Boots
Films: The Shrek series (2004-2010) and Puss In Boots (2011) His name is “Puss – In Boots!” and he is infinitely cooler than you. Part of this is down to his kick-ass footwear, nimble sword-swinging skills and eye-catching hat, but it’s mainly the voice of Zorro himself that pulls you in and makes you purr. Introduced in Shrek 2 (2004), Banderas’ charismatic burr and ability to deliver quips like bullets from a gun gave the franchise two break-out stars, a reality demonstrated when Donkey and Puss belted out ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ like two talking animals who know they’re better loved than some dirty old ogre. And as a character that works well on his own, he also earned himself a spin-off movie in the form of, um, Puss In Boots, with a sequel on its way – currently titled Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves – come 2018.
DANNY ELFMAN, CHRIS SARANDON
Character: Jack Skellington
Film: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Like Jessica Rabbit, this is a shared role that feels coherent. Chris Sarandon provides the speaking voice (you can hear him here) but Elfman takes the songs. Both infuse the character with a mix of innocence and wonder that can turn to menace and madness in a moment, making him the scariest dreamer on the list. Bonus points to Elfman though: he not only pulled double duty by composing and singing for Jack but also voiced Barrel and The Clown With The Tear Away Face.
Film: Ratatouille (2007) Sometimes you need to cast someone close to the real thing. Now we’re not saying that Patton Oswalt is rat-like or verminous, but after seeing a stand-up routine in which he talked about food, director Brad Bird became convinced that Oswalt was the foodie to play his wannabe-chef rodent. And he fits perfectly: Oswalt shares Remy’s passion for great food and something of his underdog (underrat?) air. While Peter O’Toole gets the big speech at the end, and Remy is reduced to wordlessness when any humans are around, Oswalt’s contribution is still key.
Film: The Star Trek series (1966-2009) The First Lady of Star Trek played a role in every Star Trek show and most of the films, and is remembered fondly in many of those performances: as Number One in the pilot, as Nurse Chapel in the original series and as the brash Lwaxana Troi in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But it’s her work as the computer voice that we must pay tribute to here, providing an endlessly calm and authoritative counterpoint to whatever alien threat the Enterprise was facing that week. You can’t tell us she didn’t inspire Siri – or at least you can try, but we won’t believe you.
Film: Frozen (2013) Girls may be dressing up as Elsa, and little kids are in love with Olaf, but it’s Kristen Bell who really runs the gamut in Frozen. She’s a rare Disney lead who gets to be funny in her own right – Love Is An Open Door is very funny, as is her incoherence around Hans at first – but also actually changes through the film, forced to confront her own cluelessness and learn what really matters. Bell contributed a lot to the character, improvising some of the funnier lines and belting out the songs very nearly as well as the unstoppable Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel.
Character: Mike Wazowski
Film: Monsters Inc. (2001) Sulley’s better half is a complex little figure. He can be a harsh task-master, driving his partner to new heights of scaring; a lover; an office player and, most importantly, a loyal friend. A victory for the team is a victory for Wazowski – and even if his visage gets blocked on a magazine cover, at least he knows he made it to the front. As if that weren’t enough, he’s a dab hand at cabaret crooning, childcare and playwriting. Like Crystal himself, Wazowski is a consummate all-rounder.
Character: Good Cop / Bad Cop
Film: The Lego Movie (2014) Look how much fun Liam Neeson is having recording this split-personality part! Sure, Chris Pratt is near flawless as Emmet, but he doesn’t get to growl away threateningly in a Ballymena accent or suddenly swivel to become a happy-go-lucky fella who couldn’t be more pleased to see you. After years of Takens and Non-Stop, Neeson clearly fancies taking the mickey out of himself, and this attempt is leagues ahead of either his Extras appearance or A Million Ways To Die In The West. And he’s nice to his mammy and daddy – what a guy!
Film: Chicken Run (2000) Mel Gibson’s Rocky is, if we’re honest, a little bit of a Buzz Lightyear wannabe. It’s Ginger who is the true original in this Aardman joint. She is practical, determined and undeterred by the timidity of her fellow prisoners, closer to Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape than any female lead we can think of. Her endless quest to escape the confines of the Tweedy farm and find a better life make her, frankly, one of the biggest heroes around, and Sawalha hits just the right mix of charm, toughness and despair in her attempts.
Film: Bambi (1942) Adorableness – if that’s a word – thy name is Thumper. Bambi might have the big doe-eyes, but Thumper has the fluffier tail and cuter voice. Just four years-old when he delivered his lines, Peter Behn didn’t do much in Hollywood after he casually achieved immortality before he’d even started primary school, eventually growing up to become a real estate broker in Vermont. If you’d like to learn more about his experiences working on the Disney classic, check out documentary The Making Of Bambi, which came out in 1994. In it, you’ll find out that Behn got the role by almost cocking up the audition. After Behn delivered the line “Did the young prince fall down?" a casting director said "Get that kid out of here! He can't act!", but Disney animators heard the audition tape and loved the sound of Behn's voice. Behn came back, and the much-needed comic-relief character of Thumper (originally called “Bobo”) was built around his vocal performance.
Film: The Exorcist (1973) Here’s dedication to the craft. To perfect the harsh, terrifying voice of the demonic entity possessing poor little Regan, McCambridge chain-smoked cigarettes and swallowed raw eggs, an unappetising combination by any standards. But she really went above and beyond when, as a recovering alcoholic, she started drinking whiskey to get the perfect rasp. She was tied up so that Pazuzu’s struggles would sound real, and asked to have a priest on set to counsel her through the whole alcohol thing. No wonder director William Friedkin got a little spooked by the whole thing.
Film: Emperor’s New Groove (2000) An underappreciated post-Disney Renaissance animated feature, The Emperor’s New Groove is a real treasure. This is in no small part thanks to the excellent voice acting from everyone involved, notably Patrick Warburton’s Kronk (he earned himself a DVD sequel in the form of Kronk’s New Groove), Eartha Kitt as Yzma (she earned herself two Emmys for her work in the TV spin-off, The Emperor's New School) and the star of the show, David Spade, who plays the surprisingly complicated character of Kusco. He’s a spoiled, ruthless, sardonic narcissist with an undeniable sense of flair who eventually learns to love, be loved and walk up a narrow ravine back to back with John Goodman’s peasant farmer Pacha. As well as being both a llama (at times) and a highly entertaining unreliable narrator, he also breaks the fourth wall, making Spade’s job an exceptionally tough one. Fortunately, he nails it, delivering lines like “My beautiful, beautiful face! I'm an ugly, stinky llama! Wah-hah-hah! Llama face!” in a way you’ll never, ever forget. Altogether now: “Llama face! Llama face!”
Character: Optimus Prime
Film: The Transformers series (1986, 2007-onwards) Before Michael Bay’s Transformers thumped into cinemas in 2007, there was trepidation among fans of the original cartoon TV series that Shia LaBeouf and co. wouldn’t be able to do the franchise justice – until, that is, it was announced that the man who voiced Optimus Prime in the cartoons would also be voicing Optimus Prime in the live-action version. Rightly worshipped by TransFans as a living, breathing, surprisingly human god, Peter Cullen has lent his voice to many other varied projects, from Eeyore in Winnie-The-Pooh to The Predator in Predator. Measured and mighty, the Autobot leader’s voice was based on Cullen’s older brother Larry, a Vietnam vet. "When he came home, I could see a change. He was quieter and he was a man and a hero to me," he explains. "I watched him and listened to him. I'd never had an opportunity to do a superhero, and when that came, the voice just came right out of me and I sounded like Optimus."
Film: Beauty And The Beast (1991) Most Disney leads end up being upstaged by their support, but Broadway star O’Hara is a great example of one who holds her own. It helps that Belle is less drippy than your average Disney heroine – she was one of the first of the studio’s strong female leads – and has an interest in something other than cleaning and princes. Specifically, she’s a bookworm, which automatically puts her head and shoulders over bloomin’ Aurora and silly Snow White. O’Hara hits just the right notes of defiance, challenge and charm to make her the only person who can shake the Beast out of his own misery and break his curse.
Film: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005) Peter Sallis, the man behind Britain’s foremost cheese-obsessed eccentric inventor, is 93 years-old. When his lines for The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was recorded, he was already 85. But – and this is key – you’d never, ever know just from the voice. Full of sprightliness and loveable energy, his incarnation as Nick Park’s best-loved creation will live forever: not just in his one feature film, but also in the perennially rewatched TV outings A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave and A Matter of Loaf and Death. Making his performances all the more impressive is that despite Wallace’s distinct West Yorkshire tones, Sallis is actually from London, and that Holme Valley brogue is entirely an act. Perhaps 295 episodes playing Norman “Cleggy” Clegg on Last Of The Summer Wine was good practice. Now retired, you won’t be able to hear Sallis’ Wallace any time soon, so when you see Gromit and his pet human on screen, listen out for young Aardman whippersnapper Ben Whitehead doing a cracking impersonation of the grand master’s immortal work.
Character: The Pirate Captain
Film: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! (2012) Though by no means a failure, Aardman’s superbly silly stop-motion sea shanty hasn’t been accepted into Britain’s warm bosom quite as warmly as Wallace & Gromit or Shaun The Sheep. That is a shame for a number of reasons, because the world needs to know more about The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets And Kittens, as well as the truly despicable nature of Queen Victoria when it comes to exotic animals. But it also means that a cracking bit of Hugh Grant voice work in here has not received its due. Buried under the ever-so-bushy beard and ham jokes, Notting Hill’s most famous resident delivers piratical pomposity like Blackbeard after a particularly indulgent cocaine party.