The Year’s Great Unsung Voice Actors

By  · Published on September 20th, 2016

Awards Rejects

Some of the best performances of 2016 are invisible to the eye.

I disliked Finding Nemo when it came out in 2003, solely for the fact that Ellen DeGeneres had one of the most distracting vocal performances of all time, second only to Robin Williams in Aladdin. I tend to be against celebrity voices in animated features anyway, because if I picture the person behind the character on screen then I’m completely taken out of the movie.

She didn’t bother me nearly as much in this year’s sequel, Finding Dory, and that’s either because she was more reserved with her shtick or the quality of the character animation was better to the degree that I saw Dory more than DeGeneres this time. Whatever the reason, my tolerance of her performance fits nicely in what I consider to be a really great year for voice acting.

There are still plenty of distractors, like Matthew McConaughey in Kubo and the Two Strings, J.K. Simmons in Zootopia (thankfully a brief role), and pretty much the whole cast of Sausage Party. Also the whole animal cast of the “live-action” Jungle Book. Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming Moana seems like a strong possibility for this group, as well.

I Don’t Want to Picture Your Pretty Face While Watching the Character You Voiced

But 2016 has brought far more notable unknown or unrecognizable talents. Below is a list of some of my favorites, none of which will receive Academy Award recognition in any of the performance categories and maybe even will be too unheralded to receive Annie Awards nominations for best voice acting in an animated feature. But they’re really great and need something.

Katie Crown as Tulip in Storks

Starting off with the newest pick, Katie Crown’s vocals in Storks are what reminded me to share this little roundup. Crown is primarily a voice actress (currently heard regularly on Cartoon Network’s Clarence) and was meant to just provide a temp track for this movie, but she did such an amazing job that she wasn’t replaced with someone famous as planned. What makes animated characters memorable is often a combination of the voice and the character’s design, in motion, but the success of the dorky sweet “Orphan Tulip” is pretty much all her doing.

Art Parkinson as Kubo in Kubo and the Two Strings

While McConaughey is too McConaughey and Charlize Theron has received deserved praise for her comparatively subdued performance, it’s Art Parkinson as the title character whose work I felt more deeply in Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s funny, I dislike most onscreen child acting but appreciate a lot of offscreen voice acting work from kids (Anton Starkman is also great in Storks). Not only does Kubo sound nothing like Parkinson (best known as little Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones), but he has a distinct, almost lispy innocence that fits perfectly yet not conventionally with the virtuous and daring stop-motion character.

Kate Hudson as Mei Mei in Kung Fu Panda 3

This is like the Beatrice Straight in Network of great voice acting performances for me this year. Kate Hudson has a surprisingly minor role in the third Kung Fu Panda movie. Some of Mei Mei’s scenes seem to have been cut out (she gets a bonus short on the DVD at least), and when the character is on screen she involves a lot of action moments, between her ribbon dancing and her nunchucks skills. But what the actress does with the role – her first in an animated movie – is by far the best work she’s done since Almost Famous. Why did she wait so long to take a voice acting gig, and can her agents please book her for more, preferably something more sizeable?

Jenny Slate as Bellwether in Zootopia

There are a lot of great voice acting performances in Zootopia, with the more recognizable people (Simmons, Idris Elba) in smaller roles and less distracting stars (Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman) as the leads. In between, there’s Jenny Slate as Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a meek little sheep with a huge presence, owing much of her eminence to the scratchy-sounding vocal characterization. Even if she wasn’t so integral to the plot of the movie, she’d be a memorable element, and not like the popular sloth character, Flash, whose existence is based mostly on a gag.

Ed O’Neill as Hank in Finding Dory

Unlike DeGeneres and Albert Brooks, who resumes his voicing of Marlin in Finding Dory, Ed O’Neill is not the most familiar actor by voice alone, and he seems to be masking it a bit anyway in his performance as Hank the “septopus,” the greatest, most significant of the sequel’s new characters – outside of Sigourney Weaver as Sigourney Weaver, that is. O’Neill portrays him as a cranky yet endearing loner, and it may be the role he’s been suited for his whole career (and I have a soft spot for Al Bundy). I’m hopeful Pixar will soon announce another sequel, Finding Hank’s Missing Tentacle.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.