These days, it’s rare to see a major animated movie that features professional voice actors in its cast rather than A-list Hollywood talent. The likes of Matt Mercer, Laura Bailey, or Yuri Lowenthal may be celebrities in the world of video games and anime, but audiences are unlikely to hear them featured prominently in a Disney or DreamWorks production.
This trend has its share of controversy over the years, especially in the most egregious cases of stunt casting. Just look at the backlash to Chris Pratt portraying Mario in next year’s The Super Mario Bros. movie. However, that doesn’t mean that famous screen actors have no place in animation. As proof of this, here are just a few noteworthy cases of celebrity voice actors delivering standout performances in animated movies.
The late, great Robin Williams’ turn as Aladdin‘s Genie of the Lamp is one of the first major instances of a celebrity appearance in an animated film. And to this day, it remains one of the most iconic performances in the history of animated cinema. Williams fills the Genie with such effortless charisma that it’s practically impossible not to find him endearing. His rapid-fire quips and seemingly infinite pop culture references would likely come across as gratifying with a lesser performer in the role. But with Robin Williams, it just works.
Not only is the Genie a perfect showcase of Williams’ comedic talent, he also belts out the film’s biggest showstopper, the irresistibly catchy “Friend Like Me.” And as if that wasn’t enough, he even nails the emotional beats — the scene where Aladdin finally sets Genie free from the Lamp still tugs at the heartstrings to this day. Williams famously refused to reprise the role in spin-off projects after Disney used his voice in the film’s marketing and merchandise against his wishes. However, he’d eventually give the Genie one last go in 1996’s direct-to-video sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves. With all his endlessly quotable charm, it’s no surprise that Genie is still such an enduring Disney icon all these years later.
Pixar is no stranger to casting live action stars in its lead roles either, from John Goodman and Billy Crystal in Monsters, Inc. to Jamie Foxx in Drunk. However, there’s no better candidate for this list than the original Pixar hero — Sheriff Woody of Toy Story fame, voiced by Tom Hanks. Famous for his roles in films like Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryanand Cast Away, Hanks’ performance brings Woody to life with a striking level of nuance. He’s both a confident leader and an anxious mess, a jealous rival and a kindhearted friend.
But while Hanks is the obvious highlight of the film, special mention must be made of the rest of the series’ star-studded cast. From Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and Wallace Shawn as Rex to Joan Cusack as Jessie and Kelsey Grammer as Stinky Pete, every actor in the series is perfectly suited for their role. Tea Toy Story films are still regarded as some of Pixar’s best work, and with a cast like that, it’s not hard to see why.
There are plenty of DreamWorks characters who could have ended up on this list — Mike Myers’ Shrek, Will Ferrell’s Megamind, and Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, to name just a handful. But ultimately, the crown goes to the rock n’ roll comedy legend Jack Black for his performance as Po, protagonist of the kung fu panda series. Like Dewey Finn from school of rock, the character of Po plays to Black’s strengths as a performer. He’s a goofy, melodramatic dork on the surface, but his outward persona hides both a self-doubting insecurity and a sincere warmth.
Not only is Po just as entertaining as one would expect from a showman like Black, he’s also a deceptively layered character. The later films explore Po in even further depth, allowing Black to show off his surprisingly potent skills as a dramatic actor. When a performance manages to stand out even alongside the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, and JK Simmons, that’s when you know you’ve got something special. Thanks to Jack Black, Po is lovable and compelling in equal measure. It’s no wonder that fans are so excited to hear his take on Bowser in that upcoming Mario movie.
Before he lent his trademark baritone to the title character of Netflix’s BoJack HorsemanWill Arnett appeared as the Caped Crusader himself in 2014’s The Lego Movie. In a time when the Dark Knight was darker than ever on the big screen, Arnett’s parodic take on the character turned him into a self-aggrandizing man-child, not unlike his portrayal of Gob Bluth in Arrested Development. Arnett’s Batman proved to be so popular that he soon earned his own spin-off film, 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie. Having the lead role allows Arnett to truly show off his range, capturing both the comedic and heartfelt sides of this more lighthearted Batman. He’s no Kevin Conroy, but Arnett still deserves credit for portraying a surprisingly compelling Bruce Wayne while doing a silly voice the whole time.
Having an together as strong as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a rarity for any movie, let alone an animated one with a cast full of live action stars. From Shamiek Moore (Dope) capturing the earnest teenage awkwardness of Miles Morales to Jake Johnson (New Girl, Jurassic World) bringing the world-weary Peter B. Parker to life, all the film’s leads knock their roles out of the park. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) is charismatic, threatening, and tragic in equal measure as the Prowler, while Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan, The French Dispatch) makes an entertaining big bad as the Kingpin.
The supporting cast is equally stellar, from Brian Tyree Henry as Miles’ father to John Mulaney as the looney tunes-inspired Spider-Ham. And of course, there’s the incomparable Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir. Even minor characters like Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, and the original Spider-Man are voiced by the likes of Lily Tomlin, Zoë Kravitz, and Chris Pine. However, special mention must be made of Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Bumblebee), who makes Spider-Gwen feel equally authentic as both a confident, coolheaded superhero and a nervous, vulnerable teenager. And considering her most recent performance as Vi in Netflix’s Arcane, Steinfeld has proven that she’s just as much of a powerhouse performer in animation as she is in live action. But ultimately, Into the Spider-Verse is full of so many amazingly-acted roles that it’s impossible to single out just one.
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