It’s a big week for Pixar. Not only does tomorrow see the release of the studios’ sixteenth movie (and their second in five months) “The Good Dinosaur,” but Sunday marked twenty years since the release of their first, “Toy Story.” Since that first adventure of Woody, Buzz and co, the studio has, bar a couple of exceptions, become a byword for not just great family films, but great cinema altogether, earning two Best Picture nominations and winning seven Animated Feature Oscars. Oh, and Pixar has grossed nearly ten billion dollars worldwide, excluding video and merchandise sales.
The reasons for Pixar’s success are plentiful: the studio has an uncanny eye for what children, and their parents, actually want to see; it is unafraid to take risks and never panders; and it insists on a strong emphasis on story and state of the art CGI. But there’s one hallmark quality that shouldn’t be underestimated, and that’s Pixar’s terrific eye for casting. “Toy Story” was sold on big name voice actors —Tom Hanks and Tim Allen— but for the most, the studio has eschewed the A-list casting common to rivals DreamWorks and Illumination in favor of voices that are sometimes recognizable but are hardly marquee talent.
Voice acting isn’t written about enough, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of selling the reality of the story onscreen, and Pixar’s approach has paid off in spades countless times. So to pay tribute to twenty years of Pixar features, I’ve ranked the Playlist’s favorite thirty vocal performances in the studio’s movies. Take a look below and let us know your picks in the comments.
30. Kevin Spacey as Hopper in “A Bug’s Life” (1999)
Pixar’s second movie might number among its least-loved, mostly unfairly —while it’s not quite top tier, their insect-y spin on “The Three Amigos” by way of “The Magnificent Seven” has a lot to like about it, not least a delicious villainous performance by Spacey. His Hopper, a bullying grasshopper demanding endless supplies of grain from the heroic ants, might be Pixar’s most purely menacing villain —he’s part politician, part schoolyard thug, and Spacey has enormous fun with a growlier, gruffer take on the bad guy than he generally plays.
29. John Ratzenberger as Hamm in the “Toy Story” series (1995-2010)
Former “Cheers” regular Ratzenberger instantly became Pixar’s lucky charm after “Toy Story” —he’s voiced a character in every one of the studio’s movies, from a flea circus ringleader to a mole-person supervillain. But he’s never had a better showcase than Hamm, the piggy bank in the “Toy Story” franchise, and his turn the first movie is his best. He’s the sort of smart-ass of the group, but Ratzenberger gives the character something else beyond that: the kind of knee-jerk, jump-to-conclusions guy of the community, leading the pitchfork-and-torches mob against Woody before eventually showing his guilt for his role in it.
28. Billy Crystal as Mike Wazowski in “Monsters Inc” (2002)
Your love for eyeball-on-legs Mike Wazowski in “Monsters Inc” might vary depending on your tolerance for Billy Crystal —for some, he’s irritating, but for others, he’s one of Pixar’s most memorable comic creations. We’re firmly in the latter camp: Crystal plays his part of one of the company’s best duos like a blend of a Borscht Belt comedian and Burgess Meredith in “Rocky,” letting his stand-up talents loose while making sure that he’s still a distinct and cohesive character, and sprinkling a little Jack Lemmon-ish schlubby likability in there.
27. Michael Keaton as Ken in “Toy Story 3” (2010)
You can attribute the Keaton Komeback to “Spotlight,” or to “Birdman,” or to “The Other Guys” (probably not to “Need For Speed”), but in reality, it kicked off with his killer comedy turn in the third “Toy Story,” as Ken, the destined partner of Barbie (Jodi Benson, who also voiced Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”). Keaton makes him as vain as he is handsome and sprinkles in a little creepiness when he turns out to be in Lotso’s employ, but there’s a lovely note of loneliness that makes us forgive him when the time comes (well, that and his killer wardrobe).
26. Paul Newman as Doc Hudson in “Cars” (2006)
The “Cars” movies are generally, and correctly, held to be Pixar’s least satisfying features, but if they brought anything good into the world, it’s a lovely performance from Paul Newman, the final big-screen turn from one of the greatest actors we ever had. A weary old doctor and a 1951 Hudson Hornet who’s a sort of de facto leader of the Radiator Springs community, he’s tried to shut away his old racing days but comes to terms with his past thanks to the arrival of Owen Wilson’s brash racecar. Newman’s honeyed tones and wry humor give Hudson the perfect gravitas and authority, and the closing tribute to him serves not just as a love letter to a bygone age of racing, but to a screen legend.
25. Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone in “The Incredibles” (2004)
Few actors have more recognizable voices than Samuel L. Jackson, so it was almost inevitable that Pixar would make use of him at some point, the studio did so excellently. He doesn’t pop up as Frozone, Mr. Incredible’s best pal, as much as we might like (hopefully the upcoming sequel sees him back), but he’s a joy whenever he does appear, whether lamenting the dullness of middle-age family life, back in action in his sleek figure-skater look, or squabbling with his wife over his superheroics. It sometimes seems that Jackson, like Christopher Walken, plays himself more often than not these days, but “The Incredibles” is a reminder of both his star persona and his range.
24. Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible in “The Incredibles” (2004)
The cuddly star of “Coach” might not sound like obvious casting as a superhero, but “The Incredibles” was another reminder of how the studio’s policy of often eschewing big names can pay off. Nelson’s utterly convincing in his superheroic prime, like the Superman you never knew you wanted, but he’s just as good as a slump-shouldered family man —Nelson’s voice sounds diminished, bored and simmering with anger at the grey world around him (though, crucially, never with his beloved family, however frustrated he gets), only sparking into life when danger turns up again.
23. Jeff Pidgeon & Debi Derryberry as the LIttle Green Men in the “Toy Story” films (1995-2010)
Imagine if the Minions hadn’t gone and got their own movie, and instead remained sparsely-used comic highlights of the “Despicable Me” franchise. That’s essentially the role that the squeezy toy aliens have in “Toy Story,” and they’re far more welcome as a result. Essentially an overly-attached cult who worship Buzz Lightyear, and voiced by Pixar animator Jeff Pidgeon and voice actress Debi Derryberry, their hilarity comes in their utterly unified approach, a seemingly one-note performance that borders on the disturbing, and thanks to the actors’ deadpan delivery, have remained utterly welcome every time they’ve appeared on screen.
22. Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants in “Toy Story 3” (2010)
“Toy Story 3” brought all kinds of delightful new creations to the franchise, from Ken (see above) to Kristen Schaal’s Trixie, but none are as endlessly watchable, despite relatively brief appearances, as Mr. Pricklepants. A hedgehog inexplicably dressed in lederhosen, made into a pretentious, improv-happy actor by ex-Bond and “Hot Fuzz” villain Dalton, he has barely a dozen lines, but Dalton’s Shakespearean voice, irritability and obvious glee at getting to perform makes each funny. We’re ambivalent about a fourth “Toy Story” after the seemingly perfect wrap-up of the last one, but we can certainly get on board if we get more Pricklepants.
21. Ed Asner as Carl Fredericksen in “Up” (2009)
He might look a little more like an older Martin Scorsese than the actor who played him, but it’s impossible to imagine the elderly hero of “Up” being brought to life better than by Asner. The veteran “Mary Tyler Moore Show” star and seven-time Emmy winner only enters the scene after the film’s already made you cry like a baby in its famous opening montage, and his cynical, crabby approach breaks your heart all over again once you meet him. But as the film goes on, the harsh exterior to Asner’s voice starts to melt away, and he actively sounds younger by the time he’s swinging from airships and swordfighting with his cane.
20. Richard Kind as Bing Bong in “Inside Out” (2015)
Pixar pulled a clever trick with its “Inside Out” marketing, hiding away cotton candy/cat/elephant/dolphin imaginary best friend Bing Bong away, despite being one of the movie’s most memorable characters. Kind is in the elite club of multiple Pixar voice roles (he’s in “A Bug’s LIfe,” “Toy Story 3” and both “Cars” movies), but has never had a better one than here. Bing Bong’s a deeply silly, borderline deranged character, and the desperate yet warm quality in Kind’s voice sells both the value he has to Riley and the depth of his eventual sacrifice, the one that broke $900 million worth of hearts this summer.
19. Sarah Vowell as Violet in “The Incredibles” (2004)
The voice casting for these movies often went to unexpected talent, but none as unexpected as director Brad Bird’s choice to cast Vowell, a writer and regular “This American Life” contributor with little acting experience, as the teen daughter of the superheroic family. With more in common with Thora Birch in “Ghost World” than most screen teens, Vowell’s quirky tones perfectly captures the kind of girl who wishes she could (and in this case actually can) fade into the background, and the way she eventually finds her own voice is one of the most moving aspects of the film.
18. Wallace Shawn as Rex in the “Toy Story” films (1995-2010)
Possibly our favorite of the supporting cast of the “Toy Story” franchise is Rex, the giant tyrannosaur who, despite towering over the others, is an utterly neurotic creature. And who better to play a character like that than Wallace Shawn, who makes Rex literally a tiny, excitable man trapped inside the body of an enormous dinosaur. Rex has rarely been given more than one-note to play (he’s perpetually scared of everything), but Shawn brings a sort of musicality to his constant panic, and what’s perhaps most impressive is that the performance is such a world away from the other roles he’s better known for, whether “My Dinner With Andre” or “The Princess Bride.”
17. John Goodman as Sully in “Monsters Inc.” (2002)
He can play brash and he can play villainous, but there’s an intrinsic warmth to Goodman’s voice that’s served him well since the days of “Roseanne,” and it’s put to gorgeous use in “Monsters Inc.,” as the bear-like Sully, the top-scarer in the titular company. He’s clearly soft-hearted from the beginning, but whatever fierce exterior he might have is stripped away utterly by the little human Boo (“Kitty!”) bringing out something sweet and parental in the actor’s voice. Goodman’s also better than his co-stars at de-aging the character over a decade on in the mostly disappointing prequel “Monsters University.”
16. Willem Dafoe as Gill in “Finding Nemo” (2003)
It must have been tough finding an actor to play a character who’s equal parts Randall P. McMurphy, Cool Hand Luke and Yoda, but Gill, the scarred, half-finned leader of the fish tank inmates, has the perfect voice in the shape of Willem Dafoe. Channeling the sort of mentorship he displayed in “Platoon” and with the fierce charisma he’s brought to, well, everything he’s ever done, the moorish idol (who bears a striking resemblance to the actor) is a standout even among the film’s atypically colorful cast of characters. Fingers crossed he comes back for next year’s sequel.
15. Bob Peterson as Dug in “Up” (2009)
A veteran animator, co-director of “Up” and original director on “The Good Dinosaur” before he was replaced (he’s still at the studio, never fear), Peterson’s been lending voices to Pixar movies since the early days —he was Geri in “Geri’s Game,” the gruff Roz in “Monsters Inc.,” and teacher Mr. Ray in “Finding Nemo.” but his finest moment as an actor is certainly Dug, the talking dog in “Up.” The animal’s collar lets him vocalize his every thought, and the endlessly enthusiastic, drooly, dim-witted voice that Peterson gives him couldn’t be a more perfect personification of the internal monologue of a pup (“I have just met you and I love you”…)
14. Brad Bird as Edna Mode in “The Incredibles” (2004)
But as good as Peterson’s been, he (and Andrew Stanton’s surfer turtle from “Finding Nemo”) are pipped in terms of Pixar directorial cameos by Bird’s Edna Mode in “The Incredibles.” A fashion designer for superheroes inspired by Edith Head (among many others), with an accent somewhere between German, Japanese and something else entirely, legend has it Bird was trying to get Lily Tomlin to play the role, gave her an example of how she should sound and she told him he should do it himself. She’s bossy and badass, but though Bird goes broad in his delivery, he never allows Edna to become a pure caricature, especially because she’s maybe the smartest character in the movie —her wisdom of “no capes!” proves to be the undoing of the film’s villain.
13. Kelly MacDonald as Merida in “Brave” (2012)
Rather undervalued among the Pixar canon —it was well received and won an Oscar, but is less beloved than most of the company’s original movies —“Brave” is a terrific film, one of the company’s most moving, and this is largely because of the dynamic between its two female leads, and in particular Kelly MacDonald’s Merida. Replacing Reese Witherspoon quite late in the game (in what we suspect was a crucial swap-out), MacDonald is wonderful as the flame-haired, free-spirited Scottish princess, effortlessly playing significantly younger than her real age, and selling both the individuality of the character and the thawing in her frosty relationship with her mother.
12. Phyllis Smith as Sadness in ”Inside Out” (2015)
The task, and it was no easy one, of the actors playing the emotions in “Inside Out,” was making their characters not feel one-note. And “The Office” actress Smith finds countless to play in the key of Sadness as her blue, turtle-necked character. Early on, she’s weighed down with the existential weight of the universe, and later she starts acting out without quite knowing why, trying to express an inner turmoil. She can be depressed, self-hating, dark, overwhelmed and wallowing, and yet Smith finds a way to make her both likable and funny, and her eventual embrace of her role in the mind feels triumphant.
11. Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear in the “Toy Story” films (1995-2010)
He’s hardly the star now that Tom Hanks is, but Tim Allen proved to be perfect casting as Woody’s nemesis and eventual BFF Buzz Lightyear in the first “Toy Story” and beyond. In a departure from his everydad persona, Allen embodies a certain kind of B-movie space hero (surely leading to his casting in his other career highlight “Galaxy Quest”). but he’s careful to play a certain note of self-delusion even in the beginning, and his genuine sadness at finding his real place in the world and the way he comes to terms with it is utterly organic as a result. The third film somewhat underuses Buzz, returning to similar notes (but in Spanish), but there’s a reason he’s still an icon.
10. Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor in “Brave” (2012)
Though she’s transformed into a silent bear for much of the film’s second half, much of the heart of “Brave” comes thanks to Thompson as Queen Elinor, Merida’s mother. Both antagonist and MacGuffin, Elinor can seem strict and humorless, but Thompson (managing an extremely good Scottish accent) conveys via tone a history to the character that suggests she was once just as rebellious and feisty as her daughter, and in some cases still is. It’s a complex look at parenting that belies the film’s reasonably simple narrative and an incredibly textured performance that, like the film, deserves more attention.
9. Albert Brooks as Marlin in “Finding Nemo” (2003)
Speaking of parenting, Pixar’s best movie on the subject to date is certainly “Finding Nemo,” in large part thanks to Albert Brooks’ lead role. Marlin, the over-protective clownfish whose worst nightmare comes true when his son is taken, is a deeply flawed, deeply sympathetic figure, and Brooks gives a performance as good as any in his career, his trademark neuroticism and neediness tinged with pain at the loss of his family and his desperate need to save his son. The character takes advantage of his comic gifts while mostly having the confidence to make him the straight man. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine the film working without Brooks.
8. Patton Oswalt as Remy in “Ratatouille” (2007)
Some executives might have been hoping for a bigger name, but given that he’s both one of the best comedians working and a sort of prince of Internet fanboys, Oswalt proved to be perfect in “Ratatouille.” As the French rat who longs not just for the finest food but to be a great cook, Remy feels like the perfect underdog: he may be young and often beaten down, but he also refuses to give up on his dream, a mix of stubbornness and passion pushing him ever forward. His unbridled enthusiasm, cultured nature and inherent sweetness means that Oswalt pulls off one of Pixar’s toughest magic tricks, making you root for a rat in the kitchen.
7. Joan Cusack as Jessie in “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3” (1999 and 2010)
When you think ‘rootin-tootin cowgirl,’ you don’t necessarily think of Joan Cusack, and yet the actress makes a character that could have been a cliche sing in “Toy Story 2.” The actress plays Jessie, part of Woody’s long-lost set, and she’s a gleeful, capable heroine in an old-school, winningly unfashionable way. But she’s also badly wounded by her abandonment, struggling to trust (which continues to have ramifications in the third film), and Cusack is wonderful at portraying both Jesse’s upbeat nature and the deep hurt that it hides.
6. Ben Burtt as Wall-E in “Wall-E.” (2008)
Is it cheating to put a character who doesn’t technically have a voice on a list of the best voice performances? Perhaps. But the use of sound to capture the personality of the robot hero of Andrew Stanton’s sci-fi masterpiece is so sublime that we had to include it. Veteran sound designer Burtt, a four-time Oscar winner who also helped to create the iconic sounds of “Star Wars,” created over 2500 sounds over three years to portray the little recycler. It’s not just a hugely impressive feat of sonic design, but also a real performance, with his little purrs and chirps making, along with the expressive animation, Wall-E one of Pixar’s most utterly adorable creations.
5. Ellen DeGeneres as Dory in “Finding Nemo” (2003)
She never quite found her place in the movies, hence the stand-up comedian and sitcom star’s transition to talk show hosting, but DeGeneres did get one truly great big-screen role thanks to Pixar. A character so beloved that she’s the focus of the upcoming sequel, Dory is a unique comic creation: a chipper regal blue tang with a “Memento”-style memory and an ability, she claims, to talk to whales. She functions as a contrast to the uptight, nervous Marlin, and DeGeneres’ faultless comic timing sells virtually every joke she’s given, but she also lets in the sadness and vulnerability of a life without long-term memory in a way that Leonard Shelby would sympathize with.
4. Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” (2007)
Jesse Eisenberg and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, take note: this is how you do a fictional critic. To begin with, “Ratatouille” food critic Anton Ego seems like the cliche of the parasitic critic: an intimidating, almost vampiric figure who delights in destroying things. But in the hallowed tones of Peter O’Toole, Ego is at least utterly and completely watchable (and listenable). But then he has his Proustian moment of delight, as Remy’s ratatouille causes him to flash back to childhood, and Ego, and O’Toole, softens, delivering an instantly famous soliloquy on the power of art and criticism, one that the legendary actor plays like he’s doing Lear. A great performer’s last great role.
3. Holly Hunter as Elastigirl in “The Incredibles” (2004)
In a just world, Hunter would be talked about in the same breath as the Streeps and Blanchetts of the world, but despite never giving a bad performance and even winning an Oscar for “The Piano,” she seems to be undervalued today. Her astonishing vocal turn in “The Incredibles” is just one example of the actresses’ dizzying range and prowess: her Helen Parr, or Elastigirl, goes from sexy superhero to harassed, end-of-her-tether mom, to wife crushed by seeming infidelity, to back-in-the-game ass-kicker on a dime. It’s an impossibly rich turn that is superheroic in every sense of the word.
2. Amy Poehler as Joy in “Inside Out” (2015)
If Joy doesn’t work, then “Inside Out” doesn’t work. She’s our hero, our villain, our narrator, our MacGuffin, our introduction to the film’s world and our hope, and like the other actors in the film, she needs to continually portray the emotion she’s named for without letting the performance become samey. Fortunately, the filmmakers cast Poehler, who plays the role like an aria for nearly two hours. She’s almost relentlessly upbeat, but from the beginning, the “Parks and Recreation” star shows that that’s to a fault —she’s ever busy, ever focused on the good, to prevent the bad from ever getting a foothold. Once she does comes to terms with sadness, crying devastatingly in the memory dump, it’s both utterly heartbreaking and strangely pleasing.
1. Tom Hanks as Woody in the “Toy Story” series (1995-2010)
Buzz might have been the toy phenomenon, but Woody is the heart of the “Toy Story” films. Correction: Tom Hanks is the heart of the “Toy Story” films. Coming off back-to-back Oscar wins (the first person to do so since Spencer Tracy), Hanks was the new Jimmy Stewart, a natural choice to play a simple wooden cowboy doll, an embodiment of classic American childhood. But Hanks, like the filmmakers, wasn’t tempted to go down the aw-shucks route, making Woody into a sort of middle-management figure, a kind of proto Michael Scott, and one capable not just of goodness but of deep envy and selfishness as well. Hanks finds every comic and dramatic beat (“You! Are! A! Toy!” reads as both a gag and a howl of existential despair in his hands), but also stops Woody from tipping too far into being unsympathetic. The sequels only make him more complex, and it’s a fitting tribute to Pixar that one of the most memorable characters of any kind in cinema the last twenty years is a toy.
Frankly, Pixar’s casts are always so impressive that we could have gone on much longer than this. But to name but a few, we also considered Jim Varney, Don Rickles and Estelle Warren from “Toy Story,” Dave Foley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus from “A Bug’s Life,” Kelsey Grammer and Joe Ranft in “Toy Story 2,” Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi and James Coburn in “Monsters Inc.,” Allison Janney and Stephen Root in “Finding Nemo,” Jason Lee in “The Incredibles” and Owen Wilson in “Cars.”
And then there was also Lou Romano, Ian Holm and Janeane Garofalo in “Ratatouille,” Jeff Garlin in “Wall-E,” Christopher Plummer and Jordan Nagai in “Up,” Ned Beatty and Kristen Schaal in “Toy Story 3,” Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer in “Cars 2,” Billy Connolly in “Brave,” Helen Mirren in “Monsters University,” and Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling in “Inside Out.” Anyone else you’d have picked? Let us know in the comments.
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