Among the most memorable moments in film history, many have come from actors you never see on screen. They are voice-over performers with some as huge movie stars and others are folks whose names you don’t know well — but they have in common a dedication of getting their character right and the skill to pull it off.
Although there have been occasional rumblings in the awards world about the possibility of a particularly celebrated voice-over performance becoming an Oscar nominee — there was some talk of Robin Williams for “Aladdin” in 1992 and Scarlett Johansson for “Her” in 2013 — no voice artist has ever received an Academy Award nomination for their performance. One possible reason is that most voice performances appear in animated films, where acting rarely receives its due. But several of the most memorable voice-overs have been in dramas or adventure films, several of which made our list.
In compiling this ranked list, we had some rules. A performance had to be in a feature-length film (so, sadly no legendary Mel Blanc represented). So that we could include as many movies as possible, we limited each film to one representative — otherwise, a film like “Toy Story” alone could gobble up four or five slots. No narrations; it need to be on-screen characters. No visually-captured performances (sorry, Andy Serkis), since they are full-fledged and not just voices. Almost all are in animated films, but there are some very obvious choices from live action movies. With that, let’s look back at the best voice performances over the past 80 years in our photo gallery.
30. DANNY ELFMAN in “THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS” (1993)
The lead singer and songwriter for the band Oingo Boingo began composing for films in 1980 and has earned four Oscar nominations for his movie work. One of his most memorable film achievements, however, is his smooth vocalizing of “The Pumpkin King” for Tim Burton‘s stop-motion classic film.
29. LEVI STUBBS in “LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS” (1986)
One of the most distinctive-sounding voices ever to come out of Motown was that of Stubbs, the lead singer of the legendary quartet, The Four Tops. Though Stubbs was not an actor per se, his gravelly baritone for the man-eating plant named Audrey II was a perfect choice for the character, and when the Stubbs exclaimed “Feed me, I’m hungry,” you knew he meant it.
28. LUCILLE LA VERNE in “SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS” (1937)
Born in 1872, La Verne was an actress, writer and director on the Broadway stage, registering over 3,000 performances onstage. But she will forever be remembered in the dual roles as the evil Queen Grimhilde who was not pleased at the news that she wasn’t the fairest of them all and The Witch, whose poisoned apple put me off fruit for years.
27. GINNIFER GOODWIN in “ZOOTOPIA” (2016)
Were it not for Goodwin’s rosy take on police officer Judy Hopps, Disney’s Oscar-winning film would likely not be the delight that it is. With the premise of an all-animal city and with it, an underlying sense of species prejudice, Goodwin’s ever-optimistic rabbit has finally achieved her dream of becoming a police officer and her sunniness spreads to the entire film.
26. ED ASNER in “UP” (2009)
As Carl Fredricksen in Disney’s Best Picture nominee “Up,” Emmy winner Asner received some of the best reviews of his career voicing a crusty widower who resists urban development in his neighborhood by turning his home into a helium balloon-driven flying ship. The early montage of Carl’s courtship and marriage to his wife Ellie and her subsequent death is arguably among the most moving in recent cinema.
25. ELEANOR AUDLEY in “SLEEPING BEAUTY” (1959)
For most of today’s moviegoers, Maleficent is Angelina Jolie, but with all due respects to her, for me no one can top Audley’s performance in Disney’s 1959 animated adaptation. With her every line reading simply dripping with evil, Audley not only voiced the wicked fairy but was the only member of the voice cast to have her movements be used as the performance model as well.
24. EARTHA KITT in “THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE” (2000)
With one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century, Kitt brought her legendary purr to this 2000 Disney animated film in which she voices Yzma, a scheming adviser to a selfish young Incan emperor. Yzma provides Kitt with a wide range of opportunities to be slyly deferential to the emperor’s face and cunning and conniving behind his back. An absolute delight.
23. PHIL HARRIS in “THE JUNGLE BOOK” (1967)
Phil Harris, who was a comic, jazz musician and bandleader, might have seen like an unlikely choice to voice a Disney animated film in 1967, but he was so wrong that he was right. Harris voices Baloo, a sloth bear in the film, based on the Rudyard Kipling novel, as a fun-loving, let-the-good-times-roll kind of creature who would just as soon slip onto a bar stool at the end of each day’s shooting.
22. WILL ARNETT in the “LEGO” movies (2014, 2017)
Arnett’s Batman is one of the few voice performances on this list that are, at its core, satirical in nature. What Arnett did in “The LEGO Movie” and “The LEGO Batman Movie” was to take the super-seriousness of the live-action performances of such “Batman” stars as George Clooney, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, and out-serious them to enormous comic effect.
21. CHRISTINE CAVANAUGH in “BABE” (1995)
Voicing the title character in the Golden Globe-winning film “Babe,” voice actor Cavanaugh, a longtime veteran of voice acting on television series, reached a career peak as the voice of the pig in George Miller‘s Best Picture nominee. There’s an innocent sweetness that Cavanaugh brought to the character that has become one of my most lasting memories of “Babe.”
20. DWAYNE JOHNSON in “MOANA” (2016)
One of the great things that’s most endearing about Johnson is his ability to laugh at his own self-image. Once a preening pro wrestling superstar, Johnson uses that character in his performance as Maui, a shape-shifting demigod whose oversized ego is regularly cut down to size by our heroine. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a hoot of a song (“You’re Welcome”) that is the topper to his hilarious performance.
19. ALAN TUDYK in “WRECK-IT-RALPH” (2012)
Though not a household name, within the industry Tudyk is a hugely respected voice actor (emphasis on the word actor), who brings an idea to each of his roles. With arguably his best performance as King Candy, Tudyk channeled the late comic actor Ed Wynn. It’s an outrageous performance even if you don’t recall Ed Wynn, but if you do, it makes Tudyk’s work even richer.
18. SETH MacFARLANE in the “TED” movies (2012, 2015)
Bringing much of his “Family Guy” sensibility to the screen, MacFarlane voices Ted, a foul-mouthed, beer-swigging teddy bear who lives a fraternity-like life with his owner (Mark Wahlberg). What’s distinctive about MacFarlane’s Ted is the macho pose that he brings to the role — it is the contrast between the cuddliness of the stuffed animal, and the swagger that MacFarlane brings to his voice work that provides the films’ very big laughs.
17. JOSH GAD in “FROZEN” (2013)
In the blockbuster animated film inspired by Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Snow Queen,” Tony nominee Gad is the voice of Olaf, a snowman who was created by sisters Anna and Olga before they drew apart from each other. Not only does Gad effectively serve as the film’s comic relief, but his Olaf serves as a poignant reminder of the last time the separated sisters worked together to create Olaf.
16. DOUGLAS RAIN in “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY” (1968)
Canadian stage actor Rain is not widely known to the public. But his voice is. As the voice of the HAL 9000 computer in the Stanley Kubrick space masterpiece, Rain’s calming voice is initially a source of comfort on the spaceship. When HAL begins to malfunction, however, that calmness becomes terrifying as the astronauts attempt to shut HAL down. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”
15. BETTY LOU GERSON in “ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS” (1961)
Yes, we love Glenn Close as the 1996 live-action Cruella, but her performance would probably not have been the same without the path first set by the original Cruella. Primarily a radio actress, Gerson brought to Cruella that hilarious upper-class disdain toward anyone who want to stop her from getting that coat made out of puppies.
14. SCARLETT JOHANSSON in “HER” (2013)
In Spike Jonze‘s sci-fi romance, Johansson provides the voice of Samantha, an operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence designed to evolve over time. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in the voice-over role, and in her performance, she manages to be helpful, curious and flirty all at the same time until her owner (Joaquin Phoenix) eventually realizes what she’s up to.
13. CLIFF EDWARDS in “PINOCCHIO” (1940)
One of the most iconic voices in the Disney canon, Edwards (also known professionally as Ukelele Ike) most famously voiced the character of Jiminy Cricket in the studio’s classic “Pinocchio,” in which he served both as both the film’s narrator and the cricket who serves as the conscience of the title character. In the film he also sang the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which has since become the representative song of The Walt Disney Company.
12. JAMES EARL JONES in “STAR WARS” films (1977, 1980, 1983, 2016)
Jones has won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, two Tonys and three Emmys, but even with that bevy of awards, he is probably most identified with the heavy-breathing villain of the “Star Wars” films, Darth Vader, even though he received no on-screen credit for the first two movies. His legendary basso profondo voice was enough to communicate the menace with which Lord Vader threatened our heroes.
11. JEREMY IRONS in “THE LION KING” (1994)
Oscar winner Irons voiced one of the great Disney villains as Scar, usurper to the throne in “The Lion King.” Loosely based on King Claudius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Irons brought to Scar a kind of velvety condescension, much in the style of Claude Rains or George Sanders, that provoked an audience’s rage when he framed young Simba for Mufasa’s death. Wonderfully hateful.
10. KATHLEEN TURNER in “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT” (1988)
“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” For that line reading alone, Turner deserves a distinguished spot in the Voice Artists Hall of Fame. As a human toon married to the befuddled Roger Rabbit, Jessica is regarded by film historians as one of the sexiest toons in film history, and Turner’s deep ultra-sensual line readings cemented her “sexiest ever” reputation.
9. BILLY CRYSTAL in “MONSTERS, INC.” (2001)
If you had to give voice to a small, round, single-eyed monster, you might not necessarily think of adopting a wise-guy New York Yankees kind of sensibility to your vocals. But that’s what Crystal did, both in the original “Monsters, Inc.” and its sequel, 2013’s “Monsters University” and wound up creating one of the most unexpectedly memorable characters of his film career.
8. STEVE CARELL in “DESPICABLE ME” films (2010, 2013, 2017)
As Gru, who is aspiring to become the world’s greatest supervillain, Carell speaks a mile-a-minute in a vaguely Eastern-European accent to juggle his latest super plots with trying to raise his three little adopted girls. The three films have given Carell, who has been working in several more serious films lately, to get in touch with his antic side once again.
7. AMY POEHLER in “INSIDE OUT” (2015)
In the Oscar-winning “Inside Out,” which takes place in the mind of an 11 year-old girl, five emotions become characters who do their best to lead the girl to a good life. However, the one emotion the drives all the others is Joy, and the sunny optimism that Poehler brings to the character, even when she is under the most stress, is a wonder to hear.
6. PATTON OSWALT in “RATATOUILLE” (2007)
Remy, the unlikely hero of Brad Bird‘s “Ratatouille,” is a rat with a highly developed sense of taste and smell whose goal in life is to become a chef. To say that such a character would be a challenge to voice is an understatement, but Oswalt found the key in emphasizing Remy’s enthusiasm and determination to make his dream come true, a drive with which we can all identify.
5. TOM HANKS in “Toy Story” films (1995, 1999, 2010)
I’ve never seen a poll on this, but I would wager that Hanks as cowboy Woody in the “Toy Story” series would rank extremely high on any list of the most beloved voice performances ever. Imagine the likability of adult Hanks mixed with the boyish enthusiasm of 10 year-old Tommy Hanks, and you’ve found the key to the esteem that moviegoers hold for this comic performance.
4. BRAD BIRD in “THE INCREDIBLES” (2004)
Possibly the most unexpected voice performance in the Top 10 is that of the film’s writer/director Bird as costume designer Edna Mode, who is clearly modeled on real-life eight-time Oscar winning designer Edith Head. It’s almost a given that Bird’s writing for Edna would be strong — to begin with, she is never wrong — but it is the hilarious vocal inflections that he gives Edna that helps to nail every single joke.
3. ELLEN DEGENERES in “FINDING NEMO” (2003)
Another candidate likely to be high on the “most beloved” list is DeGeneres’ voice work as Dory, a royal blue tang fish who helps Martin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish, locate Nemo, his kidnapped son. In “Nemo,” Dory is meant to be a supporting role, but the warmth and humor that DeGeneres brought to the role quickly made her a fan favorite and led to the character getting her own starring role in the film’s sequel, “Finding Dory” (2016).
2. EDDIE MURPHY in “SHREK” films (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010)
If Eddie Murphy ever gave a PG-rated comedy routine onstage (a most unlikely prospect), you could tape it, and that could be the dialogue line for his voice work as Donkey in the four “Shrek” films. While most of the other characters in the film move the plot along, most of the funniest laugh lines are given to Donkey, and Murphy steps up, delivering one of his funniest film characters ever.
1. ROBIN WILLIAMS in “ALADDIN” (1992)
Williams’ vocal performance as Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin” has been justifiably acclaimed, and in watching it again, I began to realize that a large part of its success is that Williams had a partnership with the animators. In “Aladdin,” Williams’ stream-of-consciousness comedy style finally found the proper vehicle. As soon as Williams would change characters, so did the animated Genie visually, which doubled the impact of what remains as one of his best film performances.