Actors do some of their most interesting work when given the chance to let loose behind an animated role.
Maybe it’s the fact that they can walk into a recording booth with no makeup or costumes or props and just go for it. Maybe the kid inside of them comes out when working on such family friendly material. Either way, superstars and character actors alike, when paired with great writing, have shown some of their best stuff through their voice performances.
Here’s a look at some of the best examples of actors bringing cartoons to life:
■ George Clooney in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Clooney was nominated for a best-actor Oscar for “Up in the Air,” but his voice work as Mr. Fox was just as memorable last year. He brings all that Clooney charm in the richness of his delivery, all the smarts and presence that distinguish him as not just a movie star but one of the most solid, versatile actors working today. And merely the idea of this gorgeous, sexy man playing a furry, little woodland creature — albeit a crafty one with a sly sense of humor — is enough to bring a huge smile to your face.
■ Antonio Banderas in the “Shrek” series. Even as the “Shrek” movies have dwindled in quality — particularly parts three and four — Banderas has consistently livened things up as the swashbuckling kitty cat Puss in Boots. Sure, the character himself is cute. But Banderas makes him more than that: flirty, dramatic, daring despite his diminutive size. He’s been an absolute scene-stealer, and now Puss in Boots is about to get his own movie. Here’s hoping it’s better than “Shrek Forever After.”
■ Ben Burtt in “WALL-E.” He’s a multiple Oscar winner who created R2-D2’s signature sound effects in the “Star Wars” movies. Here, he provides all the blips and bleeps through which the lovable robot WALL-E — or Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class — communicates. And he’s a total heartbreaker. That he can convey so much emotion — wow us and move us with just a few noises — is a huge testament to the power of the Pixar machinery, of course, but also to Burtt’s tender, poignant performance.
■ Brad Bird in “The Incredibles.” The writer-director of another of the best Pixar films ever also took on the juiciest role: Edna “E” Mode, the petite costume designer to the superhero family. Half-Japanese and half-German, she’s all business — demanding nothing short of excellence, both in the costumes she creates and the people who wear them. She’s like Q to James Bond, only dressed more chicly in a severe bob and thick-rimmed glasses. Bird made the character superficial, condescending, and an absolute hoot. With those tiny legs of hers, Edna ran off with every scene in which she appeared.
■ Betty Lou Gerson in “101 Dalmatians.” “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will,” goes the song about Cruella De Vil from this animated classic. Materialistic and melodramatic at first, Cruella eventually becomes one of the most famous and fearsome Disney villains ever. Gerson played her perfectly, dripping with tacky wealth and insincerity. In an interview posted on Disney.com, Gerson said her voice and physique actually influenced the look of the character: “At the time, I was a slinky brunette with high cheekbones.” The flip side of her talent: She also provided the “Once upon a time ...” narration for Disney’s “Cinderella.”