Critics and audiences weren’t entirely enamored of The Lorax (out today on DVD and Blu-ray), but it was tough to complain about the casting of the title character: Danny DeVito is spot-on, investing the character with the curmudgeonly lovability that’s always been part of his screen persona, and is a perfect fit for the orange creature who speaks for the trees.
Voice-over acting, whether in live action or animated films, is in many ways a tougher task than conventional on-screen work; the performer must do all of their acting with only the voice, unable to rely on other tools (movement, eyes, facial expression, etc.) to convey meaning and emotion. After the jump, we’ve selected — with considerable difficulty — our ten favorite voice-only performances in feature films (let’s face it: if we were just talking shorts, it’d be a list of ten Mel Blanc roles). Check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.
Douglas Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Rain was a Canadian-born actor mostly known for his stage work there and in England when Stanley Kubrick cast him to provide the voice of supercomputer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. His calm, detached inflections, whether providing system data or threatening his human shipmates, are chilling to this day — even after years of parody and replication. Rain did little film work after 2001; he provided a similar computer voice for Woody Allen’s Sleeper and reprised the role of HAL for the 1984 sequel 2010. His obscurity is perhaps part of why his work in 2001 remains so fascinating; it’s not a recognizable voice, but one that seems to only exist within the housing of that terrifying computer. (Honorable mention to Kevin Spacey, for his terrific — and undoubtedly HAL-inspired — turn in the outstanding 2009 film Moon.)
Tom Hanks, the Toy Story series
Hanks had never done an animated film before 1995’s Toy Story — a film that, lest we forget, was the first for the upstart computer animation studio Pixar, so Hanks was being asked to throw his considerable clout behind an unknown quantity. To convince him, the Pixar folks did an animation test that matched the character of Woody the cowby with dialogue pulled from Turner & Hooch; the actor, delighted, asked “When do we start?” It was the beginning of a perfect match of actor and role, with Hanks bringing considerable heart and soul to what could easily have been a lifeless computer animation exercise.
Patton Oswalt, Ratatouille
Pixar was a well-established entity by the time they produced their eighth film, Ratatouille, in 2007. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) helmed this tale of a street rat with a finely-tuned palate who takes over — via an enthusiastic but inept chef — the kitchen of a fancy Parisian restaurant, and he made a rather unconventional choice for his leading man, er, rat: Patton Oswalt, a brilliant stand-up comic whose acting work was mostly confined to bit roles and a supporting character on The King of Queens. But Bird heard something in Oswalt’s onstage rants about KFC Famous Bowls and the “gauntlet of angry food” in ads for Black Angus Steakhouse — he heard the passion and intensity of a true foodie. Bird’s gamble pays off: Oswalt’s Remy is lovable, relatable, charming, and brilliant.
Robin Williams, Aladdin
Mr. Williams’ “zany” schtick has certainly worn out its welcome onscreen these days, and even in his early roles, it tended to serve more as a distraction than a benefit; we love us some Dead Poets Society, but who doesn’t cringe now when the movie stops so Williams trot out his Brando and John Wayne impressions? That’s why it was such a masterstroke for Disney to cast him in their 1992 animated musical of Aladdin: by having him play the Genie, directors Ron Clements and John Musker could take advantage of the manic energy and stream-of-consciousness typical of his stand-up work, but within a supernatural context that could allow the shape-shifting and flights of fancy that didn’t work in conventional narratives.
George Clooney, The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Animation enthusiasts may debate the merits of today’s celebrity-heavy voice-over culture (compared to the relative anonymity of, say, Disney performers in earlier years), but one advantage of casting a well-known voice in your film is that it allows the actor to bring a pre-defined persona into the mix, and play with (or against) it. The casting of George Clooney in Wes Anderson’s wonderful stop-motion film The Fantastic Mr. Fox allows the actor to further explore the contradictions of the roguish but likable dandy, a character not entirely removed from his turns in Leatherheads and several Coen Brothers pictures. It’s not a throwaway “voice role” — his is a real performance of humor and pathos, and one of the many treats to be found in this uncommonly enjoyable family film.
Frank Oz, the Star Wars series
Oz had done his fair share of voice work as a puppeteer when he took on the role of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back — primarily as one of the original team of Muppeteers, playing Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover (among many others). But his work as the Jedi Master who trains Luke Skywalker became iconic — for his wisdom, his gentleness, and his easily-imitated habit of talking in circles. Director George Lucas’ lamentable decision to go all-CGI Yoda for Episode II and Episode III (and his even more infuriating choice to remake the puppet character into CG for the Episode I Blu-ray release) was softened somewhat by the fact that we were still able to hear Oz’s distinctive vocal patterns, which made even the most tin-eared Lucas dialogue poignant and powerful.
James Earl Jones, the Star Wars series
And while we’re on the Star Wars movies, we’re sure we’d be hung up by our thumbs for not including not only one of the most memorable voice performances of all time, but one of the greatest villains of any kind: Darth Vader, brought to life via the 6’6″ frame of former bodybuilder David Prowse and the unmistakable chords of the great James Earl Jones. But Jones initially didn’t even take a credit for the role; it was only after the series exploded in popularity that he began to receive due recognition for bringing to life one of science-fiction’s most iconic characters.
Lucille LaVerne, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
It’s tough to nail down the best villainous voice performances in a Disney feature — there’s been so many, from Betty Lou Gerson’s Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians to Eleanor Audley as Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty to Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King. But for our money, you have to go back to the very first: Lucille LaVerne, the all-but-forgotten stage and film actress who voiced the Wicked Queen (and her alter ego, the Old Hag) in Disney’s 1937 film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An actress from age four, LaVerne spent her life trodding the boards of Broadway and regional theaters before going to Hollywood to appear in early film efforts by D.W. Griffith and others. She not only voice the Wicked Queen, but worked as a live action model for the Disney artists — and retired from the screen after her work was finished. Way to go out on top.
Andy Serkis, the Lord of the Rings series
It’s easy to get snitty about computer-generated characters taking over the silver screen, and to be fair, many of the CG entities that have appeared in films over the past few years appear to be exactly what they are: a collection of 1s and 0s. But that’s not the pattern with the work of Andy Serkis, the terrific actor who has made a specialty of voicing and modeling for motion-captured characters like King Kong (in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake), Captain Haddock (in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin), and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes — a role that garnered serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. But Serkis will, it seems, be forever tied to his breakthrough role: the slithery, complicated Gollum of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, a conflicted and fascinating character brought to vivid life by Serkis’ unforgettable throaty vocal inflections.
Brad Dourif, the Child’s Play series
Dourif might well have gone down in film history as a one-hit wonder, doing an unforgettable turn as Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest and then fading into obscurity, were it not for Tom Holland’s low-rent, lowbrow, but undeniably entertaining 1988 horror film Child’s Play. In it, Dourif plays a serial killer who, mortally wounded, uses a voodoo ritual to transfer his spirit into a child’s doll; that doll, “Chucky,” becomes a murderous, psychotic terror. He also became the star of four sequels, and so, consequently, did Dourif, who took the opportunity to seize upon the franchise’s campy premise and do some good, old-fashioned scenery chewing. And he’ll be back for more: a sixth film, Curse of Chucky, is currently in production, with Dourif back in the title role.
Those are a few of our favorite voice-only performances — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!