Screen Voices: From Animated Shorts to Ubiquitous A-Listers
This month sees the release of Hotel Transylvania 4: Transformania, the first in the popular animated family franchise without Adam Sandler as the excitable, proud, overbearing Count Dracula first seen in 2012's Hotel Transylvania.
Animated movies with A-list actors have become ten-a-penny since Aladdin first uncorked Robin Williams’ Genie, yet the perfect match of vocal talent and on screen character can still make an indelible impression. Let’s take a look at some of the best movie voice-overs of all time…
Walt Disney as Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928)
Disney movies have become synonymous with quality voice acting over the decades, from Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio to Jeremy Irons as the villainous Scar in The Lion King. It’s a tradition that started all the way back in 1928 when Uncle Walt himself voiced his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse.
Steamboat Willie wasn’t the first Mickey short film produced, nor was it the first fully synchronised sound cartoon. That honour goes to My Old Kentucky Home a few years earlier, now largely ignored due to its racist language.
Steamboat Willie premiered ahead of the now forgotten main feature Gang War, shooting both Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse to international fame. The animation is primitive and Walt’s voice over is little more than a series of whistles and exclamations, but it was nevertheless ground-breaking. Disney went on providing Mickey’s voice for almost twenty years.
Mel Blanc as various characters in Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies
Inspired by the success of Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons, Warner Bros started producing their own animated shorts to plug their musical back catalogue, resulting in the classic Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series. Their pool of artists included prodigious talents like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, whose distinctive style and fast-paced humour were key to Warner’s golden era of animation. They continually pushed the limits of what the format could achieve, with experiments like Jones’s surrealist Duck Amuck. Their mini masterpieces won recognition for the brilliant short films they are, receiving several Oscars. Some were later inducted into the National Film Registry, including the “Citizen Kane of the animated short,” One Froggy Evening.
One huge aspect of their popularity was the incredible vocal work of Mel Blanc, who provided the distinct voices of many of the studio’s favourites, often adversaries; Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Tweety Pie and Sylvester.
George Sanders as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (1967)
Before Robin Williams and his game-changing vocal performance in Aladdin, it was rare for Oscar contenders to lend their talents to animated films. One notable exception was George Sanders, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in All About Eve. His career spanned over 30 years, and he played one of his last memorable roles in The Jungle Book as the ferocious Bengal tiger, Shere Khan.
Sanders’ onscreen persona was usually urbane and sophisticated, which, combined with his upper-crust English accent, often saw him playing suavely sinister characters. These factors combined well for Shere Khan, the last great villain of Disney’s Silver Era.
Douglas Rain as HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Canadian stage actor Douglas Rain provided the calming, authoritative narration for the short documentary Universe in 1960, one of two films that had a profound influence on Stanley Kubrick as he made preparations for his sci-fi masterpiece. On the strength of Rain’s input on the documentary, Kubrick hired him to play a far more malevolent presence as the murderous HAL 9000 computer.
Represented onscreen by an impassive glowing red light beaming out of a lens-like computer module, Rain’s hypnotic vocal performance is unsettlingly creepy. Curiously, he is also the only character in the movie who shows any emotion, which makes his slow death as one of his would-be victims shuts him down surprisingly moving.
Mercedes McCambridge as Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973)
McCambridge was a well-respected actress in her day, acclaimed for her radio work, winning an Oscar for her role in All the King’s Men, and feuding with Joan Crawford on the set of Johnny Guitar. Modern viewers are more likely to know her from one of the most famous insults in horror history: “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!”
Director William Friedkin originally planned to digitally alter Linda Blair’s voice to represent Pazuzu, the demon possessing her character, Regan. Then he decided that an experienced actor would work better to punch up the epic confrontation scenes between the demon and the two priests trying to save the girl.
McCambridge went all-in on the performance, gargling raw eggs and chain smoking to give her plenty of “junk” in her throat to work with, creating the horrific sounds coming out of the innocent teen. As a reformed alcoholic, McCambridge also jumped off the wagon for the role, claiming the booze would help her go suitably nuts, although she wanted her priest on hand to counsel her through the experience.
To top things off, she also allowed Friedkin and his crew to tie her to a chair with ripped up bed sheets, so she would experience similar restraints to Blair’s character on screen. It all paid off with an unforgettable vocal performance, although she had to battle with Warner Bros to get her name in the credits.
John Hurt and Richard Briers as Hazel and Fiver in Watership Down (1978)
Many British people of a certain age were terrified as a child by their parents unwittingly renting a nice bunny movie with a U certificate called Watership Down. Rabbits fighting, caught in snares, ripped to shreds by dogs, trippy dream sequences with fields running red with blood… Martin Rosen’s notorious animated classic was the stuff of nightmares. It also had a surfeit of great vocal talent, including Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliot, Nigel Hawthorne, Joss Ackland, and Michael Hordern.
Front and centre were two actors whose careers were just on the up. John Hurt was making a name for himself in films like 10 Rillington Place and the TV series I, Claudius, while Richard Briers was becoming a household name for his role as self-sufficient Tom Good in The Good Life. Playing Hazel and his psychic brother Fiver respectively, their warm vocal performances gave the viewer a way into this brilliantly realised rabbit world, remaining a source of comfort during numerous traumatic moments until the cathartic, emotional conclusion.
James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
6 ft 6 in former weightlifting champion David Prowse brought a menacing physicality when dressed in Darth Vader’s iconic robe and helmet, but his polite West Country accent didn’t quite match.
George Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles to provide the voice, but felt his distinctive timbre would be too recognisable. Instead he turned to James Earl Jones, a classically trained actor who made his film debut in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Arguably one of the most distinctive and imitated vocal performances of all time, Jones’s deep, rich voice - electronically altered to represent Vader’s breathing apparatus - is captivating, with an underlying touch of humanity that hints at the eventual redemption of the evil Emperor’s badass henchman.
Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Kathleen Turner made her striking debut in Body Heat, a steamy erotic thriller that drew heavily from ‘40s noir like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. With her distinctive sultry voice, she’s a femme fatale to rival Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner, and she was wary of becoming typecast after the film shot her to fame. That didn’t stop her sending up her performance by playing another man-eater in The Man With Two Brains, and lending her husky tones to shapely toon Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Toying with the femme fatale trope - “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” - Turner’s scenes with Bob Hoskins really sparkle amongst all the technical wizardry that puts animated characters in the same scene as their live-action counterparts. Amy Irving provided the singing voice for Jessica’s eye-popping entrance number.
Robin Williams as The Genie in Aladdin (1992)
Arguably modern voice over wouldn’t be so star-studded without the vocal gymnastics of Robin Williams as the big friendly blue genie in Aladdin. The film is a blast even before he erupts into his dazzling opening number, “Friend Like Me,” an animated masterclass as Disney’s artists match Williams’ free-association riffing on screen.
In order to convince Williams to take the part, the directors asked senior animator Eric Goldberg to listen to one of the actor’s comedy albums and animate a skit to demonstrate the shape-shifting abilities of the Genie. Williams was sold and brought all his exuberant creativity to the recording studio, ad-libbing around 16 hours of material.
Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Her (2013)
Samantha Morton had already recorded the dialogue for Her, spending weeks sitting inside a black box so that she would interact purely verbally on set. It was only in post-production that director Spike Jonze realised that her performance wasn’t quite working in the way he wanted it to, and sought a replacement.
Scarlett Johansson stepped in to re-dub Morton’s lines, and Joaquin Phoenix also had to re-record some of his performance too because many of his reactions were attuned to the rhythms of Morton’s voice. Whereas Morton sounded “maternal, loving, vaguely British, and almost ghostly,” Johansson was “younger, more impassioned, and with more yearning.”
The switch worked well. Johansson’s peppery voice has a nice ASMR quality to it, and her carefully nuanced performance makes us question whether Samantha is really sentient or just a really smart piece of coding. She won a few Best Supporting Actress trophies on the awards circuit, although she was snubbed by the Oscars. This prompted further discussion calling for a new category for Best Vocal Performance.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui in Moana (2016)
During his days in WWE, it was clear that The Rock had star quality above and beyond the rogue’s gallery of colourful, high-flying buffoons, just as charismatic trash-talking on the mic as he was delivering the People’s Elbow. He always seemed destined for the screen, and when he finally made the transition he was billed as the natural successor to Schwarzenegger.
The supposed passing of the torch came in The Rundown, when Arnie appears in a brief cameo inviting Johnson to “have fun!”
Johnson has had plenty of fun, becoming one of the biggest and most bankable stars in Hollywood, but hasn’t quite found his defining Terminator moment. He’s always very watchable even when his movies are substandard, with a good delivery, solid action credentials, and plenty of self-effacing charm. Yet where are his iconic roles, his classic movies?
His best role to date took an unlikely form as Maui, the heavy-set Demigod in Moana, a capricious, mischievous character who ranks as one of Disney’s best comedy sidekicks since the Genie. Johnson voices Maui with gusto, demonstrating a surprising range, while also belting out his showstopper, “You’re Welcome.” The immensely popular song was originally meant for Moana herself, before it became the ideal way to highlight Maui’s boastful nature.
Those are some of my favourite vocal performances, although I’ve barely scratched the surface! What are your top picks? Let us know…
Thanks Lee! "Great movie knowledge, you have!" (Frank Oz as Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back - 1980)
Adam and the Art of the Movies team