After last year saw heavy delays in production and release across the industry, 2021 was a pretty spectacular year for animation. In the past 12 months, we’ve seen iconic franchises finally come to an end, we’ve seen a box office juggernaut, pleasant surprises, gripping documentaries, and even an epic fantasy Disney film.
Some of the films in this list premiered internationally last year but only became widely available in the U.S. in 2021, while some will get wide releases next winter, but have already screened at numerous festivals around the world to qualify for awards, hence their inclusion on this year’s list. Without further ado, here are the best animated movies of 2021:
Disney’s first of two films in 2021 was unlike anything they had done before. An epic fatasny film set in a world of magic, with a stronger focus on adventure, action and worldbuilding than the fantasy fairy tales the studio is known for, and featuring a world inspired by Southeast Asian cultures.
Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a warrior princess (Kelly Marie Tran) seeking the fabled last dragon (Awkwafina) in order to restore a magical gem that can bring back her father after shadow demons ravaged her land. With stunning visuals, energetic and kinetic action sequences and an expansive world rich with lore and details, this was Disney’s most exciting film in years.
Our return to the “Universal Century” timeline of Mobile Suit Gundam, Hathaway is based on a light novel by the original franchise creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, and it shows. The action is thrilling, sure, but it is also just a series of harrowing nightmares. Set after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, the film follows a world where the Earth Federation is finally no longer at war with its colonies, and we follow the titular Hathaway Noa, a former Federation pilot as he returns to Earth for a new mission, disillusioned with the authoritarian policies of the Federation against those living in space colonies. Hathaway decides to lead an insurgency against the Federation for polluting the Earth and its treatment of the space colonies, but nothing is as it seems.
Hathaway features stunning animation, with gorgeous visuals that bring Earth to a far, far away future, a great use of CG that is never distracting, and the thrilling sounds of Hiroyuki Sawano to make the action and emotions hit ten times harder.
When Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train finally got released in the U.S. it came with incredibly hype. After all, the film had broken all box office records when it premiered in Japan in 2020, including beating Tenet at the box office, plus the fact that this was a continuation to the highly successful first season of the show, meant you absolutely had to see the film in order to understand the story going forward.
Thankfully, Mugen Train suceeded all expectations. The film, which follows Tanjiro, Inosuke and Zenitsu as they board the titular Mugen Train to aid the powerful flame hashira Rengoku in finding and killing a demon that had been terrorizing the train, features a compelling story that finds a nice balance between thrilling action and tearjerker emotions. Seeing Tanjiro confront his family is a hearbreaking moment, while studio Ufotable simply outdoes itself with outstanding animation, especially during the final fight. The fact that Rengoku became such an essential and fan-favorite character in the span of just two hours is an achievement in an of itself, while we even got another banger of a song from LiSA.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish has the type of world one can easily be lost in. This slice-of-life film has enough magic to feel fantastical, while looking just like our world to feel relatable. Add in animation by acclaimed Studio BONES and you’ve got yourself a must-watch film.
We follow a gifted artist and disabled woman named Josee, and a scuba diver named Tsuneo, as they simply try to find purpose in life. They realize they can help each other and in turn being together allows them to achieve more independence and self-improvement. What makes the film special is its portrayal of Josee not as a disabled character who is a burden to others, but a fully fleshed-out character with agency, she is more than her disability, but it still informs her character and is central to who she is, without ever belittling her. The film has a tearjerker of a story about how leaning on others can mean you can better yourself, and some stunning visuals of the ocean that are particularly welcomed in these cold, dark winter months.
Adapted from Jiro Taniguchi‘s manga of the same name, The Summit of the Gods is a nail-biting survivor drama that rivals any live-action film when it comes to showing the alluring beauty, and also the inherent peril, of mountain climbing. The French-Japanese film follows a Japanese photographer who becomes obsessed with searching a long-lost mountain climber who claimed to have found evidence that an English mountaineer reached the top of Mount Everest three decades before the first recording expedition reached the summit.
The Summit of the Gods is a film about obsession, about what drives people to set up on these dangerous journeys, with meticulous attention to detail, showing audiences the precision with which climbers use their instruments, the arduous planning, the on-the-fly improvisation when things go wrong. The best part of the film is the way it uses negative space and silence to accentuate the feeling of being alone in the vastness of nature, all with gorgeous visuals.
Violet Evergarden: The Movie offers a visually striking conclusion to the romance drama franchise, telling the story of a robot ghostwriter in a world devastated by war. A poignant exploration of the meaning of happiness and love, the film is a return to form for Kyoto Animation after the devastating arson attack of 2019. The film features some of their finest work yet, with meticulous attention paid to character movement, production design and costuming in ways not commonly seen in anime. Make sure to have tissues at hand for this one, because it is an emotionally devastating yet beautiful and unforgettable experience.
Animated documentaries aren’t new, but they are certainly a rarity. Flee shows why that is a mistake. The medium is the perfect choice to tell the gripping story of Amin, an Afghan refugee living in Denmark. The film tells his life story in painful detail, all the trauma, the joy, the sorrows, the silliness, the mistakes. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen employs animation first and foremost to give Amin (a pseudonym) a sense of anonymity, but it also allows Flee to play with Amin’s fuzzy memories. Certain scenes are animated more fluidly, with exaggerated features and shifting perspectives to highlight a blurry memory, while others are given more detail as Amin paints a picture of the scene. By the time credits roll, Flee tells a loving, heartbreaking, heartwarming and very much human story that should set a standard for documentaries going forward.
The Mitchells vs The Machines is one of the biggest surprises of the year, a film that could only exist in animation, and which uses the medium for all it’s worth, blending styles and techniques to tell a story that best represents what it’s like to be part of the extremely online generation. The film tells the story of Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) a teenager who loves making short films and uploading them to YouTube. Though her dad thinks she’s just addicted to a screen, the film makes it clear that is just the way Katie best expresses herself. Sure, the film is full of seemingly random film and pop culture references, but it serves to paint a picture of Katie as a character.
The feature debut of Mike Rianda, The Mitchells vs The Machines is both a great coming of age film, a fantastic story of a family coming together and learn to be better, and a highly entertaining apocalyptic adventure about the unlikeliest heroes saving the world from evil AI. The film also features one of the best jokes in a movie this year, when the Mitchells face the angry god Furby. Like Into the Spider-Verse, the film expertly blends styles, using pop-up 2D animation and watercolor textures, as well as even a couple of live-action inserts to give a human touch to Katie’s creations to make her feel like a proper child of the YouTube era.
Mamoru Hosoda has been making movies about the internet for 20 years, since his work on the first Digimon movie, but Belle may very well be his most visually stunning and emotionally resonant film to date. A new take on the tale as old as time, Belle reimagines the Beauty and the Beast story for the online era, following a teenager who discovers a world beyond her provintial life and inadvertently becomes the biggest pop sensation of a massive online virtual reality called U. But as her popularity rises, she realizes that the online world of U can allow her to become a better person, and even save a life, as she meets her own beast, known as Dragon, and attempts to help him.
Belle boasts impressive visuals, as Hosoda swaps art styles effortlessly to reflect the endless possibilities of the virtual world. He also uses 3DCG animation to represent the hyperreality of the U, while resorting to traditional hand-drawn 2D animation for the real world. As a musical, Belle has a soundtrack full of J-pop bangers you should add to your playlist asap, while the human story is both heartwarming and poignant in its commentary of the toxicity of social media. Still, what makes Belle special and memorable is how incredibly hopeful it is when it comes to the internet, with Hosoda focusing on the ways the online world allows the younger generations to express themselves, connect, and change the world from the better.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time is a miracle through and through. A cursed production that suffered delay after delay after delay, the film was finally unveiled this year after being in production for almost a decade, and it was absolutely worth the wait.
The fourth and final instalment in the Rebuild of Evangelion series, Thrice Upon a Time continues where Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo left off, with Shinji Ikari having almost destroyed the world. Where the tetralogy started off as a retelling of Neon Genesis Evangelion, this movie fully moves into original territory, with Hideaki Anno taking the oppotunity to reflect on 26 years of Evangelion and its impact on both the world and its creator himself. Even when retreading old ground, Thrice Upon a Time is always pointing out the small and nuanced differences in the narrative and the characterization, highlighting the ways these characters have changed in the eyes of the audience and of Anno.
After a high-thrill opening, and before an epic, apocalyptic Eva fight to end all Eva fights, the best part of Thrice Upon a Time is when it slows down significantly as it unwinds the emotional state of the characters. It is here that Anno’s eye for visual innovation is at its best and boldest, bringing live-action techniques like virtual handheld cameras and motion capture in order to focus on the fluid movements of the characters.
But when it comes to bold choices, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time continues the Evangelion tradition of non-traditional climaxes, as Anno does not culminate 26 years of Eva stories not with two Evas fighting (though we do get that), but with Shinji being mature enough to finally stand up to his father, look him in the eye, and force him to talk things out. Like the ending to the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, the true climax of the film is an extremely intimate and introspective theraphy session, as Anno once again experiments with animation and pays off every emotional thread not only from this movie or the Rebuild series, but even End of Evangelion and the TV anime in a way that feels throught out from the very beginning. This truly feels like the Evangelion story Anno always wanted to tell, and the fact that it manages to finally give a satisfying closure to an infamously interminable story is nothing short of a miracle, a story that is thrilling, entertaining, profound and emotional on its own, but which also comments on, and enhances the original. This is a film about healing, about giving viewers a yearning desire to go out into the world and confront its ugliness and its beauty.
After 26 years, Evangelion is finally, truly, over. To Anno, thank you. To Evangelion, farewell. And to all the children… congratulations!
From anthropomorphic animals, to hyped sequels, the cutest fairy tale and a gripping war story, this was one of the best years for anime ever.
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