Horton Hears a Who
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Animation’s biggest voices

By Susan King, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Robin Williams, take a bow. Williams’ over-the-top performance as the big blue Genie in “Aladdin” marked the first time an animated feature promoted its celebrity cast member. But Disney knew it had something special on their hands. Ever since then, producers strive to get major stars to voice their animated films.

This Friday, “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” arrives in a new computer-generated family film. Jim Carrey lends his voice to the sweet elephant, Horton, who hears a tiny cry for help. Steve Carell, who was so entertaining a few years back as the junk food-obsessed critter Hammy in “Over the Hedge,” plays the Mayor of Who-ville, and Carol Burnett provides the voice of the kangaroo who forbids anyone to use imagination.

The jury is still out on whether their vocal performances become the stuff of animated legend, but here are 11 performances that have enchanted, scared and enthralled movie audiences. (Blue Sky Studios / Twentieth Century Fox)
Robin Williams

Genie (“Aladdin”)

Williams is a force of nature. But few feature films have been able to make good use of his manic energy and rapid-fire improv comedy skills. Ironically, Disney’s 1992 animated hit lets Williams fly loose and improv like a free-flowing jazz musician. Whether singing the jovial “Friend Like Me,” imitating Arsenio Hall or just delivering one-liners, Williams turned the blue Genie into an instant classic. (Disney)
Ellen DeGeneres

Dory (“Finding Nemo”)

The popular talk-show host hasn’t had great luck in feature films -- remember the dreadful “Mr. Wrong”? -- but she delivers a heartwarming performance in the 2002 Oscar-winning Pixar/Disney blockbuster as a good-hearted blue tang suffering from short-term memory loss who helps a clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) look for his missing son, Nemo. DeGeneres even was named best supporting actress by the Chicago Film Critics Assn. for her work. (Disney / Pixar)
Antonio Banderas

Puss in Boots (“Shrek 2,” “Shrek the Third”)

Anyone who owns an orange tabby knows they are special. The marmalade felines just have that extra dose of cleverness and quirkiness that makes them stand out in the litter. And the Spanish heartthrob captures that essence perfectly as the swashbuckling Puss in Boots. And that voice! Banderas turns on the charm, utilizing deep, sexy tones as the womanizing feline who utters such lines as “I’m Puss . . . in Boots” with the aplomb of a Charles Boyer and Sean Connery rolled up into one. He even manages a great purr and a hairball cough. Banderas told The Times in 2004 that Puss actually “thinks he’s Zorro . . . that’s what produces the comedy with him.” (DreamWorks Animation LLC.)
Vin Diesel

The Iron Giant (“The Iron Giant”)

Though Diesel frequently comes across as an arrogant blowhard in his live-action films, he gives an extraordinary vocal performance in this acclaimed 1999 Brad Bird animated family film. The Iron Giant is a 50-foot robot with a deep, gravelly voice from outer space whose bark is far worse than his bite. The gentle giant is “adopted” by a lonely 9-year-old boy named Hogarth. Though the film earned enthusiastic reviews, it didn’t catch on at the box office. (Warner Bros.)
Jeremy Irons

Scar (“The Lion King”)

Irons, who won the 1990 Oscar for playing the infamous Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune,” brings that character’s frosty disdain to his role as the evil, murderous Scar in the 1994 Disney hit -- a banished lion who will stop at nothing to become the king of the animal kingdom. In one scene in the film, Irons even reprises one of his famous Claus lines -- “You have no idea.” And during his musical number, Scar proclaims “my teeth and ambitious are bared -- be prepared.” (Walt Disney Co.)
Lucille La Verne

The Queen (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”)

As the evil queen, La Verne’s malicious tones have scared the bejesus out of children for the last 61 years. Just the thought of Snow White’s vain and evil stepmother asking the Magic Mirror: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” still sends chills up the spine. La Verne was also the artists’ model for the old crone witch that the Queen transforms herself into in order to give Snow White the poisoned apple. La Verne had previously played old hags in “Orphans of the Storm” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” She died in 1945 of cancer at the age of 72. (Disney)
Cliff Edwards

Jiminy Cricket (“Pinocchio”)

The soothing, honey-voiced sounds of Edwards singing the Oscar-winning tune, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” in the 1940 Disney classic makes the world seem a kinder, gentler place. Jiminy Cricket, designed by the legendary Ward Kimball, was the official conscious of young Pinocchio. Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike, was a well-known singer specializing in jazz version of pop tunes. He also appeared in numerous movies, including “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” in which he performed “Singin’ in the Rain.” He remained as the voice of Jiminy until his death in 1971 at the age of 76. (The Walt Disney Company)
Peter Behn

Young Thumper (“Bambi”)

As Bambi’s best friend, the bunny Thumper’s innocent, playful drawl nearly steals the 1942 Disney classic. Remember this exchange between Thumper and Bambi’s ill-fated mom?:

Thumper: “Whatcha gonna call ‘im?”

Bambi’s Mother: “Well, I think I’ll call him Bambi”.

Thumper: “Bambi . . . Yep, I guess that’ll do all right.”

Behn was the young son of a professor friend of two of the film’s animators who had met the lad during a visit. According to Leonard Maltin in “The Disney Films,” there was an anxious moment during the film’s production “when some three years after the recording had been made, it was necessary to do some new scenes. They worried that Peter’s voice might have changed, but luckily he was able to duplicate the pitch and quality exactly.

Behn had no connection to the Disney studio after the release of “Bambi.” A nationwide search was held when the 2005 restored version of the film was released on DVD. Behn was found in Vermont running a real estate brokerage firm. (Walt Disney Co.)
Betty Lou Gerson

Cruella de Vil (“101 Dalmatians”)

One of the greatest movie villains -- “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will” -- was the result of the perfect marriage between animator Marc Davis, who designed the insane puppy napper -- a chain-smoking, supermodel-thin villain with skunk-stripped hair -- and Gerson, who gave the character a whiskey-soaked, over-the-top cackle. In an interview with The Times in 1991, Gerson, who had narrated Disney’s “Cinderella,” created Cruella’s voice by exaggerating her own. “The character has a real sweep to it, and I gave my own voice that sweep.” But contrary to popular belief, she definitely wasn’t channeling legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead. “I was raised in Birmingham, Ala., and Tallulah was from Jasper, Ala. We both had phony English accents on top of our Southern accents and a great deal of flair.” Gerson died in 1999 at the age of 84. (Walt Disney Co.)
Sterling Holloway

Kaa (“The Jungle Book”)

Winnie the Pooh (“Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day”)

The lanky, sandy-haired character actor’s distinctive, high-pitched voice made him a favorite at Disney. He was the voice of Mr. Stork in “Dumbo,” the adult Flower in “Bambi” and the narrator of several Disney animated films and shorts, such as the “Peter and the Wolf” sequence in “Make Mine Music.” But he excelled in two vastly different roles for Disney -- that of the slithering, seductive snake Kaa, who lingered on the letter “s” when he spoke in 1967’s “The Jungle Book,” and as the sweet incarnation of A.A. Milne’s beloved, tubby bear, Winnie the Pooh, in such shorts as “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and “Winne the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” He died of cardiac arrest in 1992 at the age of 87. Hollowoy Street in Hollywood was named after him. (Disney Enterprises, Inc.)