Part of the charm of animation is giving life to a whole range of characters through compelling voice work. Hearing an actor or actress create an instantly iconic new cinematic figure is truly a joy. Children engage with these creations on one level, while adults can often embrace them on a whole other, deeper one.
In honor of last week’s release of the wonderful new Pixar vehicle, “Toy Story 4,” we’re going to run down ten of the best voice performances in the history of animated film. Remember, it’s only animation, so that limits the field somewhat. Still, we have some tremendous runners up today, such as Tim Allen from “Toy Story,” Will Arnett from “The LEGO Movie,” Brad Bird from “The Incredibles,” Holly Hunter from “The Incredibles 2,” Idina Menzel from “Frozen,” and Amy Poehler from “Inside Out.” No shortage of tremendous work within the medium, as you’ll see below.
10Jodi Benson in “The Little Mermaid” (1989)
dir: Ron Clements, John Musker
Among the many Disney princesses, Ariel stands out as a truly rebellious and vibrant one. This is due to Jodi Benson‘s performance, which leans into her teenage status in a way that’s easy to relate with. Anyone yearning to break free of their parents and explore the world on their own terms can find a kindred spirit with Benson’s Ariel. She is just one of many reasons why “The Little Mermaid” has stood the test of time as a Disney classic.
9Bob Peterson in “Up” (2009)
dir: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Who hasn’t wanted to hear what a dog would say if it could talk? The “Up” brain trust of Pete Docter and Bob Peterson certainly were keen to find out, as they wrote it into the script for their Best Picture nominated Pixar film. Peterson provided the voice for Doug, a very good boy who helps out Carl and Russell on their adventure. Instantly quotable, Peterson found a voice not just for Doug, but for canine companions the world over.
8Ellen DeGeneres in “Finding Nemo” (2003)
dir: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Just keep swimming. Simple advice, but then again, “Finding Nemo” is full of simple pleasures. One such takeaway is the charming turn by Ellen DeGeneres as Dory, a very forgetful fish. She would go on to get her own starring vehicle years later with “Finding Dory,” though her introduction as a key supporting player in this early Pixar film is what stands out. Among voice performances from supporting players, hers is clearly one of the best.
7Ben Burtt in “WALL-E” (2008)
dir: Andrew Stanton
Consider how unlikely the success of “WALL-E” is. Its hero and title character isn’t a human, but a robot who communicates with sounds, not words. Kudos to Ben Burtt for not just giving a distinct tone to those sounds, but forming them into the basis of a character scores of audience members fell in love with. The least likely Pixar protagonist became one of their best due to Burtt’s deeply underrated voice work here.
6Phil Harris in “The Jungle Book” (1967)
dir: Wolfgang Reitherman
Baloo the Bear became a recurring Disney character for a reason. Phil Harris brought a casual friendliness to the role, imbuing the Bear with a vibe that made him an instant joy. “The Jungle Book” is over 50 years old but still charms children to this day. Harris’ easygoing furry friend to human Mowgli is a major reason why. The moment he begins singing “The Bear Necessities,” it’s clear this is an iconic interpretation of a literary gem.
5Mark Hamill in “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993)
dir: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm
Beyond being Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, Mark Hamill is well known for his voice work. In particular, his many portrayals of The Joker are some of the most revered voice performances in the industry. From the laugh to the pitch in his voice, Hamill has fun and makes the villain not just unsettling, but an unlikely joy to watch. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” brought Hamill’s take on the clown prince of crime to the big screen, putting his talents on full display. A showcase for his Joker-isms, Hamill embraced it, leading to one of the best animated villain turns ever.
4Tom Hanks in “Toy Story” (1995)
dir: John Lasseter
Now four films in, Tom Hanks has done continually stunning work in the “Toy Story” franchise. His latest turn in “Toy Story 4” is his second best as the cowboy Woody, but the original still reigns superior. Taking in all the best aspects of a loyal friend, Hanks makes Woody the toy we all wish we had as a kid. The character goes to wilder and more substantial places in the sequels, but the original outing became Pixar’s flagship franchise on the back of Hanks’ charm.
3Jeremy Irons in “The Lion King” (1994)
dir: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
A perfect marriage of actor and role, Jeremy Irons was born to play Scar. “The Lion King” is already operating on obvious Shakespearean levels, so adding a classically trained actor like Irons is a delicious boon to the production. He sinks his teeth into Scar, imbuing the part with equal parts passion and playfulness. Among voice performances, it’s easily one of the most memorable in the Disney canon.
2Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Anomalisa” (2015)
dir: Charlie Kaufman
Almost this entire list is family friendly. “Anomalisa,” however, is not. A strain of deep melancholy runs through the entirety of Charlie Kaufman‘s stop motion experiment, though Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s turn as the title character has the rare bits of optimism within it. Her voice performance is stunning, full of depression, but also life. The scene where Leigh sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is an emotional powerhouse, with some of Leigh’s best acting overall.
1Robin Williams in “Aladdin” (1992)
dir: Ron Clements, John Musker
The epitome of what transcendent voice performances should be, this work from the late Robin Williams is an all-timer. Not just the best animated voice work ever, it’s the best of any kind, and the rare one to be worthy of an Academy Award. There’s a sense that the animators are working overtime to keep up with Williams, leading to a mixture of actor and role that seemed destined since the beginning of cinema. Any one scene from “Aladdin” is a performance clinic from Williams. Simply put, it’s a masterwork.