Kevin Hart. Eric Stonestreet. Jenny Slate. Ellie Kemper. Hannibal Burress. Albert Brooks. Lake Bell. Steve Coogan. Dana Carvey. Bobby Moynihan. Louis C.K. Yes, one of the year’s most impressive comic ensembles opens today – in The Secret Life of Pets, a PG-rated animated adventure from the people behind Despicable Me. (PSA: It is preceded by a particularly excruciating “Minions” short.) Few animated movies have gathered as many terrific comedians in one place – but (particularly after studios figured out they could use movie stars and stand-ups to draw older audiences) there have been plenty of wildly funny performances by animated voice actors. Here are a few favorites.
15. Jenny Slate, The Secret Life of Pets
The rest of the gang have their moments, but Slate is the comic MVP of Secret Life. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she’s able to turn a household pet into a fully-formed comic character; after all, this is Marcel the Shell with Shoes On we’re talking about. As Gidget, the white Pomeranian next door who realizes she has a crush on protagonist Max after he disappears, Slate is a delight, using her slightly scratchy, charmingly fluttering voice to put across her lovesick fear, describing Max to her search party as “Lost! Scared! So, so handsome!” and designating him “My friend! Some might say my boyfriend!” It sounds like a one-gag character, but far from it; Slate gives this tiny white pooch the longing and semi-desperation of her best performances, and raises the movie’s small stakes in the process.
14. Faizon Love, Bebe’s Kids
When Robin Harris passed unexpectedly in 1990, just after his star was beginning to ascend, had been working with the Hudlin Brothers (his House Party directors) on a cartoon adaptation of his signature stand-up bit, about a visit to Disney World with the “bad-ass kids” of a friend of a woman he was hoping to impress. With Harris’ untimely death, it seemed safe to bet the film would go with him. But the Hudlins instead cast fellow stand-up Love as “Robin Harris,” and handed him a helluva job: replicating the very distinctive patter and patois of Mr. Harris, without doing a mere imitation. (And all while maintaining a PG-13 rating, something Harris never had to do.) And Love was up to the task, capturing Harris’ unique comic voice while expanding it into both a goofy comedy and a heartfelt tribute.
13. Bob Peterson, Up
Peterson doesn’t have the name recognition of the other performers on this list, which is not a knock – he mostly stays behind the scenes, working as an animator, writer, and general genius for Pixar. But he also pops up in voice roles for the studio now and again (Roz the Monsters movies, Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory), though his most memorable contribution came in 2009’s Up, which he also co-wrote and co-directed. And he wrote the role of Dug, the adoring Golden Retreiver who can communicate vocally with human, for himself; the utter innocence and adoration he invests in lines like “I have just met you, and I love you” is both lovable and uproarious.
12. Susie Essman, Bolt
Stand-up supreme and Curb Your Enthusiasm scene stealer Essman doesn’t get the above-the-title billing shared by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus in Disney’s underrated 2008 girl-and-her-dog story – but she’s its comic secret weapon, as the street-smart alley cat who guides the title canine back to his owner. Essman’s razor-sharp line readings give the dog-versus-cat dynamic its full punch, but let’s not kid ourselves; there’s undeniable entertainment value in the fact that Essman sounds perpetually on the edge of calling Bolt a fat fuck.
11. Martha Wentworth, The Sword in the Stone
Disney movies are often a little too black-and-white, morally speaking, to give us villains who are also funny – they’re more often purring evil-doers of the Scar/Jafar/Captain Hook mold. But a few of them take such pleasure in their evil that they end up darkly funny; think Cruella De Ville, or Ursula, or best of all, Mad Madam Mim from the studio’s 1963 take on the King Arthur legend, voiced by Wentworth as a hilarious combination of sorceress and crazy cat lady.
10. Will Arnett, The LEGO Movie
“DARKNESS/ NO PARENTS / CONTINUED DARKNESS / THE OPPOSITE OF LIGHT.” Leave it to comic visionaries Phil Lord and Chris Miller to release a piercing satire of Batman v Superman two years before Batman v Superman.
9. Eddie Murphy, Shrek
Look, there’s no denying Dreamworks spent a good decade beating the Shrek horse, with three sequels of rapidly decreasing comic value. But credit where due: that first Shrek was (for 2001, when an animated comedy satirizing other animated comedies and dropping in unexpected pop culture references still seemed fresh) pretty funny, and Murphy’s Donkey is a grinning, giddy treat, whether singing the praises of parfaits or pledging his allegiance to the title character, who wants nothing less than a clingy talking donkey pal.
8. Woody Allen, Antz
In retrospect, now that you mention it, it is sort of strange that Dreamworks not only cast Woody Allen in a family movie in 1998 (considering the implications of that phrase), but built it around his pre-existing comic personality; it’s not just a movie where Allen does the voice of an ant, but a movie where the ant is Woody Allen, from his opening scene on the therapist’s couch forward. Yet fascinatingly, screenwriters Paul and Chris Weitz (of the American Pie films) and Todd Alcott wrote a funnier Woody Allen character than Allen himself had written in years, distilling his fussy neurotic into, surprisingly enough, a fighter and a hero.
7. Peter Sallis, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Sallis is a British actor of considerable reputation; his credits date all the way back to the 1940s, and he worked with Orson Welles in the ‘50s, Judy Dench in the ‘60s, and Hammer Studios in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But to many of us, he will always be Wallace, the cheerful inventor, entrepreneur, and dog companion at the center of four shorts and one feature (with three Oscars between them) from Aardman Studios. Though canine Gromit can drive, cook, clean, and work, he can’t talk – he is a dog, after all – but the Aardman crew nonetheless made the pair into the heirs apparent of Laurel and Hardy, a pair of big-eyed dreamers whose wild escapades were both inventive and endlessly funny.
6. Brad Bird, The Incredibles
For all the inspired, funny performers in Brad Bird’s wonderful 2004 Pixar adventure – and make no mistake, Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, and Jason Lee all get their chance to shine – the cleverest comic performance in the movie was contributed by the director himself (shades of Up). Legend has it that Bird was auditioning Lily Tomlin to play Edna Mode, the superhero costume designer modeled on Hollywood legend Edith Head, and in doing so, he demonstrated the kind of voice he heard for her; Tomlin told him he did it so well, he should just do it himself. And she was right – it’s a crackerjack comic characterization, with crackling wit bursting from Edna’s diminutive frame.
5. Lewis Black, Inside Out
Pixar basically raided NBC’s comedy stable to voice the Emotions for this 2015 charmer, with plum roles for Parks and Rec’s Amy Poehler, The Office’s Phyllis Smith and Mindy Kaling, and SNL’s Bill Hader. But the most inspired bit of casting was bringing in comedy’s howling Id Lewis Black to play Anger; it’s one of the more ingenious mash-ups of stand-up persona and animated character in recent memory, with Black not only partaking of his customary temper tantrums and slow-boil explosions, but even that great comic tic where he twists the last word of a jab like a knife (see above: “Congratulations, San Francisco – you’ve ruined pizza! First it was the Hawaiians, and now you.”)
4. Phil Harris, The Jungle Book
Harris’s casting as the voice of fun-loving sloth bear Baloo in Walt Disney’s 1967 Kipling adaptation is a rare case of a pre-90s semi-celebrity animated voice casting – though to be fair, most people who knew Harris knew him by his voice. For more than 15 years, he was bandleader and supporting player for The Jack Benny Program, portrayed (under his real name) as a drunken hepcat, and thus perhaps a surprising pick for a role in a super-safe Disney production. Nonetheless, his freewheeling spirit and punchy persona gave a lift to The Jungle Book (particularly his signature number “The Bare Necessities,” easily the film’s most remembered song), and he created a Baloo so memorable, it took no less an icon than Bill Murray to fill his bearskin in the recent live-action remake.
3. Tom Hanks, Toy Story / Toy Story 2 / Toy Story 3
If you really break it down, Hanks doesn’t even have a lot of laugh lines in the Toy Story trilogy; he’s often playing the frustrated straight man to Tim Allen’s blowhard Buzz Lightyear or the rogue’s gallery of Andy’s toys (voiced by such comic heavyweights as Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, Estelle Harris, Joan Cusack, and Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger). But there’s an art to spinning those bemused reactions into laughs of their own – Jason Bateman did it all the time on Arrested Development – and Hanks’s distinctive vocal rhythms give the lovable Woody an extra, invaluable spin.
2. Ellen Degeneres, Finding Nemo / Finding Dory
Ellen’s always been great on television and on-stage, but never quite found the right vehicle for her distinctive comic persona on film (as anyone who saw the unfortunate Mr. Wrong can tell you). But in 2003, Pixar provided her with her richest role to date – as Dory, the sweet and helpful blue charmer who’s the tang fish version of Guy Pearce in Memento. It could’ve been a one-joke character – but thanks to Degeneres’ impeccable timing and boundless enthusiasm for the gag, it only grows funnier and more endearing throughout Nemo (and this summer’s lovely sequel).
1. Robin Williams, Aladdin
It’s easy to forget, considering his eventual filmography, but (like Degeneres) for a good long while moviemakers couldn’t figure out how the hell to package Robin Williams’s considerable gifts. His manic comic energy and improvised riffs derailed many a comedy (see Club Paradise, The Survivors, The Best of Times), so he only seemed like a real human when he bottled them entirely and played it straight (as in Moscow on the Hudson or Seize The Day). But then two films picked the lock of his talents: Good Morning Vietnam, in which director Barry Levinson let him fly in his on-air disc jockey scenes and built the drama around them, and the 1992 classic Aladdin. Disney’s animators were able to make Williams into the cartoon he’d always been – a fast-talking, shape-shifting, rip-roaring thunderbolt of comic energy. Plus, it became a whole new entry point for fans, who (like those of us who grew up on Mork & Mindy reruns) soon discovered the funny guy in the family entertainment was straight-up filthy on HBO.