Year Ender: Animated movies that made a mark in 2021

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The technology of animation just keeps getting better and better; and 2021 saw some great examples of this. Luckily, the animation industry is uniquely situated to thrive in the remote-working times that we’re living in, and we are sure to see a rise in animated features in the coming years as well.

Animation was busier than most departments of the entertainment industry during the pandemic and it was a task to pick the top 10 from the superlative options available. Be it reinventions of classic characters and formulas, thrilling action movies or a beloved franchise coming to a satisfying finale; every piece of art only contributed in shaping 2021 to be a definitive year in animation history.

Here are our favourite picks:

1) Ron’s Gone Wrong

Directors: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine, Octavio E. Rodriguez
Box office collection: $60.4 million

The story of this impressively funny animated film is familiar. A craze is sweeping through schools, and every kid in town has their hands on a hot new toy. This time it’s not Pokemon cards or iPhones that are sending children crazy, but high-tech droids called B-Bots. Marketed as ‘your best friend out of the box’, they can sing, play and dress up. Only the lonely hero Barney, voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, is too poor to have such a companion, until his father (Ed Helms) gives him a beaten-up unit that fell off a truck, which turns out to have more character than any of the droids other children own. 

The film is a funny satire on the way our devices have become our life dictators. Olivia Colman in particular is hilarious as Barney’s grandma. Peter Baynham, best known for Borat and I’m Alan Partridge, co-wrote the script. The film takes a neutral position on the question of whether children should abandon digital enslavement in favour of real-life friendships.

2) Luca

Director: Enrico Casarosa
Box office collection: $49.7 million

Set in Italy, Pixar’s fun film teaches a simple lesson about the relationship between two young sea monsters in a beautiful way. Bookish Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and bold Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) are merboys who in their human form explore the nearby fishing village. With the aid of a spirited teenager (Emma Berman), they set out to win the local triathlon. However, the villagers detest sea monsters and the risk of discovery creates a thrilling tension. 

The film deals with themes of belonging and identity, and with its tear-jerking finale, it is definitely soul food for kids of all ages.

3) Raya and the Last Dragon

Directos: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs
Box office collection: $130.3 million
Awards won: Theatrical Film Award at BMI Film and TV Awards, Best Animated Film at NTFCA, Best Voice Performance (Awkwafina) at WAFCA

Orphaned martial arts expert Raya has the task of restoring harmony to the kingdom of Kumandra, whose people have been divided by an ancient curse. To do this, she enlists the help of a dragon called Sisu, among other animal allies. They’re charming enough, but it’s the Southeast Asian kingdom itself, a beautiful and strange world of temple cities and bamboo forests, that really bursts with personality and colour. Driving the plot is Raya’s rivalry with another princess, Namaari, who shifts from standard villain to something more enigmatic. 

Raya and the Last Dragon is a feast of a film that is captivating throughout the entire stretch. With visual beauty and a solid new Disney princess, the film surely left the fans elated. It also imparts crucial lessons regarding the importance of teamwork, forgiveness, and trust. 

4) The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Directors: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Awards won: 18 wins in total, including ‘Best Animated Film’ at multiple occasions

The plot of this animated film is anything but conventional. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional nuclear family struggling to connect with each other in the world of modern technology. As daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) prepares to leave for film school, her father (Danny McBride) realises how distanced they’ve become. His solution is to turn her journey into a family road trip, which is then derailed by a robot apocalypse. With the rest of the world’s population enslaved by an Alexa-like AI (Olivia Colman), it’s left to the Mitchells to save humanity. 

Marrying dynamic visuals with a script that is hilarious, the award-winning producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller show themselves to be way too ahead of the competition. The Mitchells vs. the Machines demonstrates how indispensable every single one of us is, and how much those living with disabilities have to offer the world, if only people took the time to notice.

5) Encanto

Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Charise Castro Smith
Box office collection: $193.7 million
Awards won: Best Animated Film at DFWFCA, Best Animated Film at FFCC, Best Animated Feature at NBR

While most of the 2021 family films understandably made their debuts on streaming platforms, Encanto aimed to welcome families back to the megaplex with a theatrical-only release. Set in a magical village in Colombia, this lushly animated flick follows the one non-magical member of a family blessed with superhuman abilities.

Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard craft a mature story of family strife that didn’t scare off kids, packaged it neatly and specifically into the Colombian jungle. A versatile lead performance from Stephanie Beatriz, who sings and charms and jokes like she’s been a Disney princess before, and a great support cast kept the already light tale moving briskly along.

The computer animation in this brilliant film is some of the best we’ve seen in years. The colours are fabulous, and precious details such as the embroidery on skirts have been meticulously woven. The score by Lin-Manuel Miranda is spellbinding, issues of representation have been sensitively handled in the film, the voice cast is charming, and the visuals are eye-popping. 

6) Belle

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Box office collection: $57 million

Belle is anime superstar Mamoru Hosoda’s highest-grossing film, and that’s before it even hit theaters in the U.S. It is a visually stunning retelling of Beauty and the Beast for a digital age, gorgeous to look at and packed with things to say about our increasingly digital lives and how we socialize within social media. It manages this through both the artistry of its virtual world and its characters. 

Heroine Suzu (the Japanese word for “bell”) is a shy and deeply scarred young girl who finds fame and acceptance until her path to stardom collides with the antisocial and violent Beast, with whom she forges a strong bond. Despite the homages to the Disney film, it would be wrong to call it a remake. Instead, Hosoda and Studio Chizu, with the help of Cartoon Saloon and Disney veterans Jin Kim and Michael Camacho, made a film more about one young girl’s journey back to life after enduring tragedy, rather than a fairy-tale version of true love.

7) Mad God

Director: Phil Tippett
Awards won: Most Groundbreaking Film and Best Animated Feature at Fantasia Film Festival, Best Film and Best Visual Effects at Sitges, Best Film at Nocturno Nuove Visioni

For three decades, legendary visual-effects supervisor and director Phil Tippett was working hard on a pet project titled Mad God, and for three decades, no one was sure if it would ever be completed. The final product is about as different from any of the animations on this list; it is a fully practical stop-motion film that happens to be violent, bloody, and suggestive of a descent into hell, complete with demonic monsters, sadistic doctors, and screaming children.

Every set, creature, and piece in this masterpiece is hand-crafted and painstakingly animated using traditional stop-motion techniques. Mad God is a labour of love, a testament to the power of creative grit, and an homage to the timeless art of stop-motion animation. 

Mad God does not tell a conventional story, and it doesn’t include a single piece of dialogue, yet it threatens to overwhelm with the amount of information that is dropped on the audience visually. This work of a genuine visionary has all the makings of an instant cult classic.

8) The Summit of the Gods

Director: Patrick Imbert

The Summit of the Gods is a breathtaking adaptation of the manga series by renowned manga artist Jiro Taniguchi and writer Baku Yumemakura. It is a moving story that captures the grandeur of climbing and holds a deep reverence for history and nature. The stunning visuals and the beautiful atmospheric soundtrack is sure to linger on; long after the film is over.

Just like the high-climbing feats, The Summit of the Gods is gorgeously portrayed in muted colors, simple line work, and the film is extraordinarily executed. It is a movie that strives across its run-time to go further and prove its mettle. It mostly succeeds across two story lines that inevitably intersect – photojournalist Fukamachi Makoto wants to know who first summited Everest, while climber Habu Joji grows increasingly obsessed with doing just that. The audiences learn more about both the tireless men as they tackle their respective missions throughout the stretch of the film.

The characters are designed in clean lines and the background landscapes are painted to perfection, whether capturing urban environments or the sides of cliffs. 

9) Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway

Director: Will Gluck
Box office collection: $153 million
Awards won: Best Visual Effects or Animation at AACTA

With Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, the famous James Corden-voiced bunny is back for another hop around the silver screen. Starring Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne in live-action roles as Thomas and Bea, this sequel finds Peter Rabbit and his furry friends running in the big city after they run away from home. They attempt a farmer’s market heist, and get caught up with some shady characters.

It’s the human stars who truly shine in the film – Domhnall Gleeson finds fun new ways to fall over and Rose Byrne delivers knowing lines. We’d say the fun flick is an excellent amalgamation of the meta stuff for adults and the cuteness and slapstick for the kids. It is quite rare for a sequel to be as much or more fun than the original.

The crucial messages that the film imparts about self-exploration, love, forgiveness, and family deserves a special mention. The live-action, CG-animated adventure looks spectacular with the high-tech, talking creatures integrated seamlessly into the film’s English location. You truly feel as if you could reach out and touch Peter’s furry head and give him a little pet!

10) Flee

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Box office collection: $50,098
Awards won: 50 wins, including Best Documentary Feature Film, Best Animated Feature Film, Best Non-English Language Film at EDA

How does one come to terms with a childhood filled with unspeakable suffering and tragedy? For Amin, the protagonist of the moving visual marvel that Danish-French director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s movie Flee is, the answer is to run from it, or hide it, even from those he loves most. The story’s entwined dual narratives follow Amin’s family’s desperate attempts to flee a war-torn Afghanistan over the course of more than a decade and his own experience coming out as a gay man, harrowing twinned journeys of self-knowing and survival. 

The film masterfully juggles two visual styles – one more realistic and rich with color, the other awash in dark grays and beiges and sketchy as only our most difficult and distant memories are. The film’s storytelling style, which centers its own director’s halting and painful conversations with his friend and main character, makes Amin’s process of reckoning with his past as much the focus as the stories themselves. Flee is as masterful a documentary as it is an animated film, and it’s one of 2021’s best movies.

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