There has been a modern Renaissance in the animation industry as animated films have risen to renewed prominence over the past two decades. The importance and popularity of animated media has been made abundantly clear as more studios realize that there is an increasing demand for animated films. Which makes sense: animated media is vital to the industry and has always been a staple in audiences’ viewing practices throughout all of film history.
Of course, the initial COVID-19 lockdown and into the ongoing global pandemic, it was made difficult for moviegoers to make their way to cinemas. Films studios and filmmakers were nonetheless determined to have their work be seen, resulting in 2021 being a tremendous outpour of films through the year. While the high volume of film releases was to be celebrated, a decuplet of animated features stood out amongst the genre.
10 Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon walks the fine line between cultural commentary and social awareness; while it takes place in a truly gorgeous fantasy nation, it celebrates the countries and backgrounds that inspired Kumandra to come to life. Southeast Asian regions of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines project a heavy influence over Raya and the Last Dragon, which tells the tale of setting differences aside in order to find a common ground to settle on. The film itself is staggeringly beautiful and arrestingly charming. The details that create such personality for Raya and the Last Dragon are intricate and expound upon the power of animation in mainstream media. It’s a refreshing film, especially considering Disney’s propensity for using the same types of characters to tell the same types of stories.
9 Batman: The Long Halloween Parts 1 & 2
The stories by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale scale back on Batman’s lore and trek back over what has been established in order to reiterate how intense Batman truly is. Compared to past Batman live-action interpretations, Batman: The Long Halloween is comfortable with taking a closer look at Bruce Wayne’s persona of a detective. It faithfully adheres to the canon of the comics while being able to veer away from being another cut-and-paste of past Batman animated features. This two-parter draws together the familiarity of murder mysteries and crime dramas through the means of superhero animation written with maturity and is compelling in nature. Performed with care and conviction, Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1 & 2 raises the bar for the DC Animated Universe.
8 The Mitchells vs. The Machines
The Mitchells vs.The Machines is an animated film that, despite how many times it is revisited, greets each rewatch with a sense of being indisposable. There is a rich, tender affection for family that holds onto the film tight, and refuses to let it go. Sincerely dazzling and charmingly funny, The Mitchells vs. The Machines finds creativity at its heart and runs with it. Its frantic pacing, brilliant use of color, and vivid imagination deserve to be credited for turning a fun watch into something even more delightful. The approach to parent-child dynamics bursts with such reality that there’s enough room for the film to resonate with any audience. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is crafted with an undeniably endearing attitude and accomplishes greatness through its weird, wild antics.
7 The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf
When asked if Western culture should continue to create anime, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf answers in an echo of a resounding “yes.” This grimdark, gory, and pitch-black world crawling with inhuman monsters switches the point of view from Geralt of Riveria to Vesemir and provides a deeper look at an unsettling universe. The overarching themes are pumped full of anguish and moral ambiguity which make the series so captivating and complex. Gruesome fantasy violence paired with a striking style of animation is detrimental to The Witcher: The Nightmare of the Wolf‘s impact as an entity in The Witcher saga, and it delivers that unnerving experience. It’s an exciting watch, especially for fans of The Witcher as Season 2 returns.
The hyper-modern anime riff on Beauty and the Beast measures the effect of cyberbullying from a more contemporary lens, keying into an important issue that continues to pillage the mental health of those who take to the internet. Optimizing the maximalized aesthetic to capture the big-hearted nature of Belle, director Mamoru Hosoda presses their finger firmly on the pulse of today’s pop culture scene. A bit discombobulated times, it’s impressive that Belle manages to keep each moving part of itself as it ultimately marries a tale as old as time with technology that has yet to reach the real world. Its unbridled originality gives Belle every right to stand out on its own.
Sweet, and culturally thoughtful, Encanto is brimming with family reconciliation that restores the power of accepting people for who they are and not who they should be. Visually, Encanto is mesmerizing, and its indulgence in vibrancy both through colorful characters and the use of color alike is important to the film’s mission. While it shares a similar feel to what Disney has to offer through other animated works in the same year, it is sure to cast out a deeply emotional, deeply personal impact through its storytelling alone. The tonal shift of applying the traditional Disney formula from a more diverse perspective permits a range for whose story is able to be told, and how they reach just beyond the target audience.
Though its ambition may be more muted than Pixar’s previous feats, the minimalism that wraps itself around Luca takes its time while enjoying the pleasure of everyday life. It finds splendor in its simplicity and is supported with a genuinely kind, generous spirit. Its study of identity projects a certain warmth while challenging the negative energies of bigotry. It welcomes underdogs and greets outcasts like old friends while executing a heartwarming story about the power of friendship. Luca encourages that childhoods should be looked back on with fondness, and takes joy in captivating that feeling of childhood joy. This charming undeniably adorable animated feature is a summertime treat.
3 PAW Patrol: The Movie
PAW Patrol: The Movie is a good old-fashioned G-Rated reminder that even the little ones can enjoy a trip to the movies. The titular rescue pups display the selflessness of the occupations that they represent and continue to encourage preschool-age individuals to do good wherever, whenever. There isn’t much that can be asked for a PAW Patrol-inspired movie to accomplish from a cerebral standpoint, but this harmless-yet-entertaining movie keeps itself from becoming tiresome or boring. PAW Patrol: The Movie is lightweight and casts out a multi-generational appeal. It taps into messages of self-acceptance, the importance of mental health, and teamwork on an airy wavelength.
2 Ron’s Gone Wrong
Ron’s Gone Wrong sinks itself into the ongoing love-hate relationship between the human race and the impending overpowering of Artificial Intelligence throughout today’s technology. It remains self-aware of its time period, and though may strife to see its imagination take over, finds itself benefiting from endearing humor and a truly likable spirit. It’s a purely fun piece of animated media that reflects how the children of today are raised in a digital age but refuses to complicate itself. Ron’s Gone Wrong is lively, bursting at the seams with good fun, and manages to keep itself grounded in the message that it aims to call awareness to. The quirkiness that it finds itself adopting underlines its charm and prompts a conversation about how big tech is perceived through the public eye.
1 Batman: Soul of the Dragon
In comparison to the age-old Batman tales, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an out-of-the-box means of expanding the ability of the superhero genre. DC Animation strays away from rehashing a plotline that has been forced into repetition throughout the decades and colors their additional piece of Batman-inspired media with originality. There is a distinct lean into the 1970s through the film’s ambiance and is paired with a strong voice cast to support it. Even stronger fight scenes add that punch of excitement that the superhero genre has domineered, and Batman: Soul of the Dragon tips its hat towards the martial arts genre that heavily influences the film. It locks into the richness of nostalgia and runs with it.
Some like the casting while others would have preferred more of Tom Cruise as Reacher.
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