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The greatest voices in animation history

Last updated on: April 13, 2011 14:08 IST

Image: Buzz Lightyear and Tim Allen (inset)
Raja Sen in Mumbai

Animation requires some serious acting.

Vocal performance is a genuine talent, and just getting an A-list star to dub lines for a film isn't enough to make it memorable. What turns an actor's voice into a character's is an alchemical combination of intonation and expression, of vivid personification and relatable humanity.

It is a fine art, and so as theatres currently play Social Network actor Jesse Eisenberg voicing Rio and prepare for Johnny Depp voicing Rango, here's a look at my list of the best vocal performances in English-language animation history.

Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story

There is some fine voice acting in the Toy Story movies- most notably from Tom Hanks playing Buzz's earnest pal Woody- but Allen makes the relatively hi-tech new toy into a seriously special character, complete with catchphrases and even, amazingly for an action-figure, hubris. 'To infinity,' he said, as we shouted back the rest in unison, 'and beyond!'

Eddie Murphy as Mushu in Mulan

Image: Mushu and Eddie Murphy (inset)

Based on a Chinese legend, this visually lush film is the story of a young girl taking the place of her father in war. Among her guides is the riotously funny Mushu, her guardian dragon and general nutjob.

Murphy, later so excellent as Donkey in the Shrek films, owns the role and makes not just a memorable little dragon but also gives the film comedic impetus.

Phil Harris as Baloo in Jungle Book

Image: Baloo and Phil Harris (inset)

In what has come to be Disney's most enduring animated classic, there's great voice talent everywhere you look: from Sebastian Cabot's Bagheera to Louis Prima's King Louie right down to the three Liverpudlian vultures.

Yet it is jazz-man Harris whose Baloo-voice befriends us, and makes us, as he'd languorously drawl, 'relaaax.' He sang the inimitable Bare Necessities as well, not to mention the smashing scat bits in I Wanna Be Like You.

Adriana Caselotti as Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

Image: Snow White and Adriana Caselotti (inset)

So crucial did Walt Disney consider maintaining the illusion of Snow White, the character, that Caselotti, 20 when they made the film, was contractually bound to never work in film again following Snow White's release.

Singing like a dream, Caselotti's one performance remains the quintessential princess voice- with wonder and pluck and irresistible naivete.

Peter O'Toole as Anton Ego in Ratatouille

Image: Anton Ego and Peter O'Toole (inset)

In a film about an ambitious rat, Peter O'Toole plays a patently patronizing food critic with a fantastic last name. The film is a visual treat, but it is Toole's incisively deep confessional- about the role of the critic and the need to celebrate the unknown- that is the film's most illuminating moment.

Toole, from icy sarcasm to congratulatory hurrah, shows just why he's a master of the craft.

Ed Asner as Carl Fredricksen in Up

Image: Carl Fredricksen and Ed Asner (inset)

Asner's long television run as Lou Grant, cantankerous newspaper editor, saw him more than suited to play the peevish Mr Fredricksen.

Irritability aside, Fredricksen remains one of the most romantic animated leading men of all time, and Asner- as vulnerable and wistful and sentimental as he is crabby- is heartbreakingly good.

George Clooney as Mr Fox in The Fantastic Mr Fox

Image: Mr Fox and George Clooney (inset)

Wes Anderson's delicious stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's story is packed with stellar voice talent- Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Michael Gambon, among other art-house superstars- but Clooney's leading man is in a class of his own.

Clooney makes his voice fit the character- smooth as silk and highly incorrigible- stunningly well, and brings a sense of surreal pathos: as if Mr Fox is ever so slightly self-conscious about being filmed. Fantastic.

Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King

Image: Scar and Jeremy Irons (inset)

A towering villain of Shakespearian proportions- and one initially considered far too frightening for the Disney audience- Scar was a lion who murdered his brother in cold-blood.

And few voices can chill the veins quite like Jeremy Irons, the actor wearing both ruthlessness and fury marvellously well throughout Disney's greatest 1990s success.

Gilbert Gottfried as Iago in Aladdin

Image: Iago and Gilbert Gottfried (inset)

One of the most incidental characters on this list, Gottfried's Iago makes it on sheer inimitability. The cursing, tetchy and bawdy parrot was a crazy character, and the stand-up comedian's distinctively harsh and loud voice was immaculately suited to an annoyed squawk.

Peter Sallis as Wallace in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

Image: Wallace and Peter Sallis (inset)

Veteran British actor Sallis only began voicing Wallace, the frequently befuddled inventor, when he was nearly 70, and has been spectacular with the character ever since, feckless enthusiasm shining through his tentative tones.

It is a particularly superlative achievement when you consider that Gromit, his canine partner-in-crime, is a silent, Buster Keaton like character- which leaves Sallis to do twice the work, and he does so extraordinarily well.