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Look who's talking in the movies' greatest cartoons

Voice casting can make or break an animated movie. From rabbits with a lot of rabbit to jovial genies and buck-toothed trucks, Leigh Singer selects the best and the worst

Early animation didn't deign to credit the voices behind its characters. Today, stars queue up to lend their talents to sure-fire hits, receiving top billing for a fraction of the work involved in live-action performances.

But, do you need an A-lister to voice a grade-A hit? And can you miscast an actor as easily in animation as in live-action? By its own high standards, Pixar's new Cars 2 has received mixed reviews, many highlighting the focus on the voice of Larry the Cable Guy's rube tow-truck, Mater. Here's a history of some of the best and worst attempts by actors to bring 2D characters to life.

'Cars 2' is out on 22 July. 'Puss in Boots' is out on 9 December.

The Good

Robin Williams

The Genie in Aladdin (1992)

The game-changer. Famous personalities had voiced animated characters before Robin Williams was let loose on 'Aladdin', but after he had finished, A-list actors were considered as integral for 'toons as for blockbusters. What this star-heavy movement missed, though, is how perfectly Williams's manic, motormouth improv meshes with the Genie's mercurial, shape-shifting persona, transforming a larger-than-life supporting character into something even grander. True, a few of Williams's pop-culture puns have dated, but almost 20 years on, his ingenious, rat-a-tat riffing holds up miraculously well, the synergy between actor and character a wish come true in live-action, animation or any medium.

George Sanders

Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (1967)

The final film supervised by Walt Disney before his death featured his most high-profile voice cast: bandleader Phil Harris, jazz man Louis Prima – and Oscar-winner George Sanders. Sanders was regularly cast as dastardly, debonair antagonists onscreen, and thus an ideal fit for 'The Jungle Book''s sadistic tiger, the king of the urbane jungle. Brandishing a wit as razor sharp as his claws, his superior breeding evident in every languidly menacing utterance, Sanders is the perfect balance to Mowgli, Baloo and co's effervescent high jinks, proving that less – the bare necessities, perhaps? – can be so much more. Shere perfection.

Peter Behn

Thumper in Bambi (1942)

Peter Behn was just four years old when his father, a screenwriter, took him in to audition for the title role of Disney's newest animated feature. It quickly became clear that the youngster's scattershot, rowdy vocals wouldn't do for the shy deer prince, but for Bambi's loudmouth best buddy. Used as the bedrock for much of Thumper's buoyant personality, Behn's sole screen role, which he hid from everyone for years (easy to do when you're uncredited), set the template for the "comedy sidekick" role that persists in movies, though most recent examples lack the easy charm of a natural, untrained kid at play.

Kathleen Turner

Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

When Bob Hoskins's private eye first catches sight of the voluptuous, vamping Jessica Rabbit, his jaw drops like an anvil on a cartoon head – and that's before he's heard her impossibly sultry tones. Yet in her Eighties pomp, Kathleen Turner wasn't just the huskiest femme fatale since Lauren Bacall – she was also a deft comedian. Jessica gave her licence for both. Sure, animated characters could be funny, but sexy? Turner somehow pouts and winks at the audience simultaneously, drawling priceless one-liners such as, "I'm not bad – I'm just drawn that way", and giving film noir a gleefully knowing twist.

Brad Bird

Edna Mode in The Incredibles (2004)

Don't you just hate those Pixar helmers? Not content with writing and directing timeless modern classics, they often dabble in a little voice work, too. Used as temp tracks for the drawn-out animation process, sometimes the results are so good they become permanent – witness Andrew Stanton's laidback turtle Crush in 'Finding Nemo', Bob Peterson's faithful hound Dug in 'Up' and, best of all, Brad Bird's archly hilarious costumier to crime fighters, Edna Mode, part-pint-size diva and part-Q from James Bond. Outshining pros such as Holly Hunter and Samuel L Jackson, Bird's Mode performs his/her own scene-stealing heroics, naturally without a cape, daahling.

Antonio Banderas

Puss in Boots in Shrek 2-4 (2004-2010) and Puss in Boots (2011)

It's easy to rag on DreamWorks Animation's obsession with movie stars' voices but sometimes the obvious choices do pay off. The 'Shrek' films cast heavyweight comedians Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy up front with predictably assured results, though perhaps the most welcome surprise was the comic – and musical – stylings of Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. Half-Zorro, half-Pepé Le Pew, Banderas toyed with his Latin lover image like a cat with a mouse, milking every second (though admittedly, it's the animators who provide the highlight – Puss's saucer-sized, pleading eyes). Unsurprisingly, his long-touted spin-off feature will be with us soon.

Ellen DeGeneres

Dory in Finding Nemo (2003)

It would be easy to fill this entire list with Pixar films, so adroitly do they cast their actors, often eschewing star power for character actors – Dave Foley, Craig T Nelson, Patton Oswalt – who simply deliver great, unflashy performances. Ellen DeGeneres easily fits this category. Put her centre stage as an amnesiac fish, and she's the funniest, most moving element of a very funny, profoundly moving film.

and the bad...

Brad Pitt

Sinbad in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

The epitome of star miscasting. Brad Pitt is a fine, often underrated actor but to use him here as Sinbad smacks of the worst A-list pandering. Making little attempt to shift his vocal inflections or sell the anachronistic dialogue ("Who's bad? Sinbad."), Pitt's bland beefcake performance only takes you out of the film's mythical, ancient world. One trailer even cut in shots of Pitt and co-stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer in the recording booth, making you wonder exactly who this animated adventure was aimed at. The effect is similar to Pitt's awkward showing in 'Troy'. And that's just bad.

Robert De Niro & Martin Scorsese

Don Lino & Mr Sykes in Shark Tale (2004)

Careful what you wish for: movie fans had not seen a Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro joint venture since 'Casino' in 1995, so reports that the pair would reteam for DreamWorks' undersea gangster spoof whet the appetite. The reality is that they, along with everyone else, flounder in a deluge of smug self-regard. Who or what does it serve that De Niro and Scorsese's characters are designed to physically resemble each man? Are they playing actual characters or merely the idea of De Niro and Scorsese as cartoon fish? If it's the latter, who cares? Muddying its own shallow waters, especially for children, 'Shark Tale' is all bait and no catch.

Larry the Cable Guy

Mater in Cars and Cars 2 (2006, 2011)

Proof that even Pixar is fallible, 'Cars' adopts the studio's patented mismatched-buddy-movie formula ('Toy Story', 'Monsters, Inc.', 'Ratatouille') but sadly saddles audiences with one half of a double-act that only a pre-schooler could love. Buck-toothed hick tow-truck Mater is played by Larry the Cable Guy, whose irritating, homespun, aw-shucks catchphrases and slapstick are meant to signal simple decency but mainly just seem plain simple. A far cry from Pixar's traditionally sophisticated humour, Mater / Larry is, bafflingly, given pole position for 'Cars 2', suggesting that the sequel, like its earlier model, will come last in the affections of older Pixar fans.