Tim here. Year-end listmaking mania tends to skip right by animation, with only a glance in the direction of a solitary film that doesn’t tend to reveal much imagination on the part of the listmakers (probably, if you are a critic in 2014, your favorite animated feature was The Lego Movie, unless it was The Lego Movie. But I hear some folks really liked The Lego Movie). The Annie Awards do what they can, but they’re weirdly over-politicized.
All of which is to say, it’s the perfect time, before 2015 has a chance to warm up, to throw a little more light on animated film in the year that was than just rubber-stamping a Best Animated Feature award and moving on. May I present to you this unranked list of
Six Great Vocal Performances from 2014
Alison Brie as “Princess Unikitty”, The Lego Movie
Yes, the exact same Lego Movie I just complained about showing up everywhere. It’s a chronological list, it had to come first. And of the many things that make this movie so delightful, Brie’s sugary embodiment of the flightiest fantasies of children’s playtime is the one that’s stuck the most for me, all through the year. Manic enthusiasm delivered at machine-gun, and outbursts of scorching anger in the same high-pitch register: it’s a straightforward comic turn, but a singularly enjoyable one.
Will Arnett as “Batman”, The Lego Movie
Okay, so I’m a hypocrite. Anyway, Arnett’s self-amused, gravelly take on the Dark Knight is as much a parody of Christian Bale’s growly Batman as anything else, which is a big part of the joke. But it’s also a pretty great performance of the iconic comic book character by itself. Mocking and sarcastic, of course (that is the primary mode of the film’s humor), but with enough puffed-up importance and overclocked drama that it’s absolutely easy to believe that this is a entitled rich guy putting on a show to fight crime.
Cate Blanchett as “Valka”, How to Train Your Dragon 2
Not every A-list award winner has what it takes to do voice acting, and history has witnessed more dreadful celebrity roles in animated features than wonderful, revelatory ones. But Blanchett brings nuance and depth by the bucketful, making a frustratingly under-written part one of the densest animated characters of the year. The social awkwardness that comes from years away from humans, and nervous romanticism while meeting her long-lost husband are all Blanchett’s contribution, not the script’s, and she carries it off while nailing a Scottish accent.
Signe Baumane as “Narrator”, Rocks in My Pockets
Stretching a definition: Baumane is also the film’s writer and director, and it’s not entirely clear that what she’s doing is “acting”. It’s more like sitting down to hear her tell us a story. But what a storyteller Baumane proves to be! Jabbing at punchlines with ebullient good humor, clucking at tragedies with mournfulness that doesn’t turn into outright misery, and pulling out a whole ensemble of affected voices to give life to her characters, Baumane’s treatement of her family history is even more involving and energetic because of her words than her images.
Ben Kingsley as “Archibald Snatcher”, The Boxtrolls
A gutter-born Cockney accent is enough to make Kingsley’s crisp voice almost totally unrecognizable, which is impressive enough to begin with. What elevates this beyond mere success as a bit of celebrity casting gone right is the pathos with which Kingsley invests the character: villains in children’s movies aren’t known for their ambiguous shading, but Snatcher, as performed by Kingsley, has just enough self-deluding desire to fit in with a world that doesn’t want him to come across as deserving our pity as much as our scorn. If I were going to rank these performances, there’s an excellent chance Kingsley would be my #1. (With a shout-out to Sean Patrick Doyle as well who did his singing, too.)
Takeo Chii as “The bamboo cutter”, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The late Chii’s final performance in a career stretching longer than 40 years is a nimble execution of a stock character rather than an attempt to seriously expand the limitations of that character. He’s a blustering, overbearing dad who bullies the world in attempt to get his daughter all the things she doesn’t actually want. But even through the language barrier, the sweetness of Chii’s performance, and the desperation as he tries to impress and bluff his way into social respectability, come through with touching sincerity and simplicity, the adjectives that best describe Princess Kaguya as a whole.
Who did I miss? What were your favorite vocal performances this year? For the record the Annies nominated these four for Best Voice Acting in an Animated Feature: Cyndi Lauper as the voice of Nurse Cyndi - Henry & Me; Andy Garcia as the voice of Eduardo - Rio 2 ; Sir Ben Kingsley as the voice of Archibald Snatcher and Dee Bradley Baker as the voice of Fish in The Boxtrolls