But we don’t always think about animated films in the same way, as evidenced by the fact that awards voters never seem to give animated voice performances the same respect given to live-action performances. As animated films have proliferated in recent years, they’ve given us some terrific second-tier characters. With the acknowledgement that criteria for definition here are admittedly arbitrary—characters like Finding Nemo’s Dory, The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian and Shrek’s Donkey seem to play too central a role to be considered “scene-stealers—here are a handful of the best from feature animation's new golden age:
Edna Mode, The Incredibles: The flamboyant, diminutive costume designer—voiced by director Brad Bird—only appears in two extended scenes in Pixar’s 2004 adventure about retired superheroes in suburbia. Yet she provided one of the film’s biggest kicks of personality, whether with her insistence on “no capes” or her overly-enthusiastic demonstration of the Parr family’s new super-suits. Edna’s a brilliant concept for this fictional world, realized to hilarious perfection.
Scrat, Ice Age: In a mundane prehistory-set 2002 debut for Blue Sky studios that basically repurposed the plot of Three Godfathers/Three Men and a Baby, one thing guaranteed perking up the interest of viewers: the appearance of a bug-eyed rodent perpetually thwarted in his quest for an acorn. With frustrated squawks provided by director Chris Wedge, Scrat subsequently appeared in Ice Age’s two sequels and a pair of Oscar-nominated shorts, always delivering a shot of manic slapstick energy even when there wasn’t much interesting going on around him.
Kronk, The Emperor’s New Groove: Patrick Warburton’s smooth baritone defines the earnest, lunk-headed henchman of the villainous Yzma in Disney’s 2000 comic story about an arrogant South American monarch (David Spade) learning a lesson in humility. It was Kronk, however, who provided plenty of lessons in hilarity, whether speaking chipmunk, enthusiastically filling in as a diner’s short-order chef or becoming the angel/devil on his own shoulders.
Dug and Alpha, Up: What is it about animated filmmakers giving themselves all the juiciest parts? For the roles of a pair of dogs whose electronic collars allow their doggie-thoughts to be verbalized, Pixar turned to co-director Bob Peterson. He brought to life both the panting enthusiasm of Dug (“I was hiding under your porch because I love you”) and the forced authoritative diction of the helium-voiced Alpha (“Do you not agree with that which I am saying to you now?”).
Rhino, Bolt: Disney’s 2008 non-Pixar story was a bit of a creative disappointment, following the adventures of a TV-performing pooch (John Travolta) who doesn’t realize that his powers are fictional. But in yet another case of an animator getting to do all the fun stuff, Mark Walton created the voice for the chubby hamster—an unapologetic fan-boy of the titular dog—confined to a clear plastic ball. The glee with which he takes on his role as heroic sidekick (“I’m going to beat your pancreas with your spleen!”) earned the character his own short for the DVD release.
Kylie, Fantastic Mr. Fox: It’s almost unfair to single out one example in a movie so overflowing with terrific supporting performances: Willem Dafoe as the nasty rat; Jason Schwartzman as glum middle-schooler ash. But writer Wally Wolodarsky—a pal of director Wes Anderson—did brilliant work as the opossum who becomes Mr. Fox’s befuddled, reluctant partner in crime. Whether responding to Fox’s florid speeches with glazed-over eyes or providing a crucial voice of logic regarding the best route to avoid danger, Kylie becomes a priceless deadpan foil.
The Little Green Men, Toy Story: Just another brilliant concept from the guys at Pixar, and subversive in a way that’s startlingly subtle. Trapped in a machine, the little triple-eyed aliens in the 1995 original manufacture a cosmology in which the claw that delivers them to children becomes their deity. And it was accomplished so cleverly that nobody ever seemed offended by its metaphor for walled-off, cultish zealotry.
M-O, WALL-E: The little cleaner robot in Pixar’s futuristic dystopia doesn’t get to say much—or anything, really. He just goes about his business on the massive starship Axiom, futilely attempting to eliminate all of the “contamination” brought on board by WALL-E. The determination with which he pursues his task gives him all the personality he requires.
Puss in Boots, Shrek 2: The Shrek-Fiona-Donkey trio from the first film seemed like it might be hard to break into, but Antonio Banderas' swashbuckling kitty instantly made himself an indispensable part of the series. Whether interrupting a suave line with an inconvenient hairball, or captivating a foe with his sad, soulful eyes, Puss gave the Shrek films a fresh, funny new character to play with.
The seagulls, Finding Nemo: Here’s how you know a creative team has captured something perfectly: When you see a bunch of gulls collecting for some screeching scavenging, I’m betting the first word that comes to mind is, “Mine.” A single brilliantly chosen syllable has forever defined the personality of seagulls—and provided some of Finding Nemo’s biggest laughs.