Movies’ voice performances used to be something of an afterthought, at least for audiences. Most people have seen “The Little Mermaid,” but few could tell you the name of the actress who breathed life into Ariel. (Her name is Jodie Benson.)
That’s changed. Dreamworks and the growing legion of Disney imitators realized there was real commercial value in casting celebrities for animated movies. (See: Martin Scorsese as a fish with huge eyebrows in “Shark Tale.”) And, as technology developed a life of its own, the sound of a recognizable human voice has grown especially comforting.
These days, we don’t need to call anyone to have a conversation with our phones. And yet, even in an age when computers can generate photorealistic people, the fully human voice is still inimitable. It’s safe to say that Siri has never made anybody cry (unless it was frustration), but Scarlett Johansson was heartbreaking as a disembodied A.I. in “Her.” Vin Diesel only needs a single word to open the floodgates at the end of “The Iron Giant,” and the same goes for Ben Burtt in “WALL-E.”
As humanity has become harder to find on screen, great voice performances have allowed it to blossom in the most unexpected places. Technology has started talking to us, and — thanks to these turns — we’ve been more than happy to listen. Read on for Indiewire’s list of the best voice performances of the past 20 years.
Joan Cusack as Jessie in “Toy Story 2”
Casting Joan Cusack as a high-energy cowgirl in the “Toy Story” sequels may have seemed misplaced at first, but her performance as Jessie, Woody’s female counterpart, goes well beyond the usual cowgirl cliche. New characters in sequels can often go south, but Cusack grounds Jessie as a capable heroine, eventually revealing that she is also plagued by the same doubt and abandonment issues faced by her fellow toys. She skillfully portrays Jessie’s optimistic personality and the deep hurt hiding beneath, introducing another beloved character into the Pixar universe. Cusack’s voice also adds another unexpected dimension to Jessie — it’s strangely entertaining that this rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl should speak with a Chicago accent. — Kate Halliwell
Vin Diesel as Giant in “The Iron Giant”
Diesel was able to paint a tapestry with a three-word catchphrase in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but he had already proved his bona fides as a limited-vocabulary scene stealer 15 years prior. The title character in Brad Bird’s masterpiece is surprisingly expressive, but it’s the delivery of the Giant’s early fumbling with language that sells the humanity behind it. Despite some carefully crafted sound design, Diesel’s able to make his monosyllabic line readings (“Hrrrrrrock! Tchhreeeee!”) sound like the vocal equivalent of oiling the Tin Man’s rusty joints. The Giant learns about humanity as he parrots Hogarth’s lesson that “souls don’t die” and you can hear that soul ripped in two as he wordlessly tries to explain that the harm he eventually brings to his closest friends is something entirely out of his control. Euphoria, loss, wonder, and rage, all from a performance that wouldn’t need subtitles even if this mysterious visitor spoke in complete sentences. — Steve Greene
Eartha Kitt as Yzma in “The Emperor’s New Groove”
One of the most overlooked Disney animated movies also assembled one of the most overlooked voice casts: David Spade as a bratty prince, Patrick Warburton as a big, sweet sidekick, and John Goodman as an earnest family man. But the ensemble’s standout is Eartha Kitt’s Yzma, an elderly advisor to Spade’s Kuzco. Described as “scary beyond all reason,”the iconic singer’s voice gives Yzma vivacious life. The animators captured every stretch and smile from Kitt herself to bring the character to life. In previous versions of “Emperor’s New Groove,” Yzma plotted to steal sunlight from the villagers (her villain song “Snuff Out the Light” is an over-the-top delight), but it’s the inflection of Kitt’s earthy voice that establishes a whole history of wickedness. The late singer would go on to voice the character in various sequels and TV shows based on the film. “I adore her,” said Kitt in an early interview. “She goes after what she wants.” — Russell Goldman
Billy Crystal as Mike Wazowski in “Monsters, Inc.”
Billy Crystal is almost always the right voice. Here, as a slightly neurotic hard-working door-man named Mike Wazowski, he makes up one half of the top scaring duo at Monsters, Incorporated alongside his best buddy, James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). Crystal’s nearly patented panic makes the one-eyed green guy come to life, with a fast-talking, pitch-shifting screed that swings wildly from a deep, angry baritone to a shrill, screaming peak. Not only do these moments showcase Crystal’s impressive range, but they also help make Mike a dynamic, three-dimensional character who we can identify with in all extremes. People may remember the name because of his cute sidekick, but the film was defined by Crystal’s soft touch. — Ben Travers
Alec Baldwin as The Narrator in “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Before he was Jack Donaghy, he was Narrator (voice). And even though Tina Fey wouldn’t create his character as a landmark TV executive for another five years, this introduced the world to his inimitable blend of disdain and encouragement. And as he describes the unseen backstory of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” his words blend with the proceedings so seamlessly it’s as though Wes Anderson’s film has an actual voice, one that defines the spirit of the family. On first viewing, a listener might mistake Baldwin’s tone as neutral. But it ebbs and flows with the film, sometimes inflecting a degree of derision while moments later a note of amusement. He’s not quite Royal, and he’s not quite Jack. He is a character reading a story — intimately familiar with everyone involved — and he tells it beautifully. — BT
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