Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Top 10 Voice Acting Performances

Voice-over performances never amass as much praise their on-screen counterparts, yet they're equally important. And every day the line between the two styles of acting grows thinner, thanks to constant advances in motion capture and 3D modeling. One can only ponder the day when the likes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences acknowledges the importance of voice acting with its own Best Off-Screen Performance category. Until then, it's important to celebrate the under appreciated art of voice acting. Here are my picks for the top ten voice acting performances to date:

10. ) Peter Cullen: Optimus Prime, Transformers 
Many actors have played the Leader of the Autobots since Peter Cullen originally did it back in the 1980's. However, none of them provided the booming presence of Cullen's thunderous chords. In fact, casting Peter Cullen as Optimus is about the only thing Michael Bay got right with his 2007 adaptation. Cullen's Optimus is instantly recognizable among the long-time fans of the series and even more so with there having been four Hollywood blockbusters about the stupid toys. Whatever your thoughts on the action figures or Bay's films may be, Peter Cullen's stands as the definitive voice behind the entire Transformers franchise... And it's just a lot of fun to listen to.

9. ) Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie
It's amazing to think that Jim Henson built a dynasty out of nothing more than a few pieces of felt and a couple of cotton balls. Today, that dynasty is embodied by a talking frog who goes by the name
Kermit. Over the past few decades, Kermit has grown into a pop culture icon whose voice is just as recognizable as the frog himself. In fact, Jim Henson's voice is so crucial to the identity of Kermit that, since Henson's passing in 1990, only select few have had the distinct honor of voicing the head Muppet. It's a tough job though, because if the voice waivers too far from Henson's original, nasally tone, nobody buys it as Kermit anymore.

8. ) Tom Hanks, Toy Story
If Pixar Studios was going to convincingly pull off the world's first animated feature film, they needed to hit a home-run in the voice-over department. Thankfully, they did just that with a stellar cast, lead by a young Tom Hanks. What makes Hanks' performance as Woody so special is the way he captures the glaring imperfections of this cowboy kook. They are, after all, what make the character so relatable. Woody takes it upon himself to make sure he and the rest of the toys will always be there for their god, Andy, even if that means having to forcefully impose his self-importance unto everyone. At the same time, we get more mellow glimpses into Woody's insecurity as it's revealed that Woody, like the rest of us, is just trying to maintain some sort of relevance in the world.

7. ) Frank Oz & James Earl Jones: Yoda & Darth Vader, Star Wars
This pick is a bit of a cheat, I'll admit. Having two performances locked in as one selection seems a bit unfair. However, in my defense, how are you going to really pick between Frank Oz and Earl Jones? Both men give outstanding, iconic performances as two household characters from either side of The Force. On one end, you have Frank Oz, who truly works his larynx to achieve the instantly recognizable squeal of Jedi Master Yoda. What's also unique and often understated about Oz's performance as Yoda is raspy breaths in his speech, which make him sound exhausted. It's one of those details that solidify the illusion that this tiny, green elf has years of life experience.

Representing The Dark Side of The Force is Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Earl Jones' performance helps rank the dark lord atop the discussion as cinema's all-time baddie. Who among us didn't feel the rush of goosebumps down their arm after Vader threatened his own son with "Don't make me destroy you?" I mean, really, can you imagine anybody else playing that role? It wouldn't be the same. And after all, isn't that what a truly great performance is all about?

6. ) James Earl Jones: Mufasa, The Lion King
So why then, if James Earl Jones' performance as Darth Vader is so iconic, do I rank it lower on my list? Simple. There's simply more to the character of Mufasa.We get the rumble of Vader's hatred when Mufasa gets mad, but the pleasant chemistry with his loved ones when he's being a happy father and husband. There are more colors in the timbre of Jones' performance here as opposed to the monotone overlord. It's the best of both worlds!

5. ) Eddie Murphy: Donkey, Shrek
Sure Eddie Murphy may be known to our parents' generation for his abrupt, filthy monologues, but we know him for being an ass... I guess nothing's changed much. .His character Donkey from Shrek is easily one of the most recognizable animated characters to date and everybody who grew up watching these films, as I did, know every line and could repeat them verbatim on a moment's notice (you know you could).

4. ) Troy Baker & Ashley Johnson: Joel & Ellie, The Last of Us
Quite frankly, Naughty Dog's masterpiece The Last of Us is better than most
movies and like most movies, its performances are at the center, holding everything together. This is important because the game is so story-driven that had the performances fallen short of outstanding, the emotional investment and payoff just wouldn't be worth it. We can thank Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their amazing chemistry and endearing performances. They really bring a sense of identity to the two lead characters, Joel and Ellie, and alone make the game worth multiple play-through.

3. ) Brad Dourif: Chucky, Child's Play
Watching the Chucky movies, there's a sense of pure joy from Brad Dourif's performance as the titular psycho doll. "This is a man who loves what he does" is always my thought whenever Chucky maniacally chuckles. It's infectious and perfect for a character who gets a kick out of stalking little kids and murdering innocent people. And after 20 years of voicing the same character, Dourif's enthusiasm in front of the mic has never wavered and it's impossible to even imagine anyone else ever playing the role. A terrific, iconic performance from an underrated talent.

2. ) Mark Hamill: The Joker, Batman: The Animated Series & Batman: Arkham series 
Voice acting is every bit as much about emotionally becoming the character as any on screen performance. In the case of Mark Hamill, he almost physically becomes The Joker as he's voicing Batman's nemesis; in the booth, the way he shrivels himself up and throws his head back in his goosebumps-inducing crackle. While at times the version of The Joker in 'The Animated Series' is a bit of a kid-friendly cop-out, Hamill's performance nails the theatricality, flamboyance and pure insanity of one of comic books' best villains. Thankfully, Hamill was allowed to dive a bit deeper into the dark waters of the character's insanity later with Rocksteady's 'Arkham' games.
1. ) Robin Williams: Genie, Aladdin
I kept going back and forth between Williams and Hamill for the number one spot. To their credit, both performances capture the flamboyant personas of their respective characters and both really got into their character whilst recording in the studio. However, after much deliberation, I realized that Robin Williams  was allowed to do more with his character. While Hamill's Joker is perpetually manic, Williams' Genie expresses those same highs, but also the low depressions as he's inevitably captured and enslaved by Jafar. On top of that, Williams gets to sing a couple of now-popular Disney songs, including Never Had a Friend Like Me. Sure, The Joker sang occasionally, but never any featured musical tunes.

What do you think of my list? Who are some of your favorite voice over performances? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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