This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explore the greatest animated movies of 2021.
Examining last year’s ranking of the Best Animated Movies, it’s clear we had to do a little extra digging to find our favorites. We all know the drill by now: movies we were expecting were delayed to this year, which caused us to plunge a little deeper into the art form and explore corners that might have previously gotten blocked by the studio giants. As a result, we discovered some unique, unshakable gems that are still rattling around our imagination.
In 2021, the slate was less grim. Most of the expected arrivals … arrived. Phew. Although not all, we’re still waiting on The Bob‘s Burgers Movie, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and a few others. But we didn’t want to lose that sense of discovery. We still wanted to go reaching in the animated areas frequently overlooked. For that reason, once again, when assembling 2021’s best-of list of animated movies, I considered the animated short form on the same level as the feature film.
Comparing the feature to the short is not a cheat. Frankly, it’s more honest. Many of this year’s greatest animated efforts were accomplished in the short form, and a few of them were saddled within anthology series like Star Wars: Visions and Pixar’s Short Circuit. Dems the facts.
The animated movies you’re expecting to find below are there. They may or may not be in the ranking you would imagine or agree with, but they’re there, and I love them. What’s most exciting for me, though, are the movies listed that may be totally unfamiliar to you. Please seek out these little beauties. They could use your eyes, and a rewarding future awaits if you do find them.
15. Robin Robin
This year, Aardman Animations produced two Christmas specials, both of them currently streaming on Netflix. Shaun the Sheep: The Flight of Christmas is a delight and will achieve what you want it to achieve. And maybe it belongs on this list, but Robin Robin takes the edge because design-wise, it looks like it feels: warm and fuzzy.
Directors Mike Please and Dan Ojari are new to the Aardman game, and they contribute a unique vibe to the studios’ stupendous creativity. Rather than go the traditional claymation route or their CGI equivalent, Please and Ojari push the handcrafted look even further, creating characters from needle-felt.
It’s your grandma’s cupboard come to life. The characters’ distinctive appearance immediately endears you to their adventure, which involves a robin raised by mice trying to pinch a star from atop a Christmas tree. It also helps to have characters voiced by Richard E. Grant and Gillian Anderson. They bring the gravitas to the cozy feeling.
14. Ron’s Gone Wrong
Soon, children won’t be able to function without their B*Bots. They’re iPhones cranked to 11, artificial friends that know everything about you and the planet you occupy. After begging for an eternity, Barney’s dad finally caves to his child’s will, but the ‘bot he acquires is a little off.
Barney’s B*Bot — named Ron — is a lightly damaged, bargain-basement edition, and his algorithm is busted. Chaos reigns from there. Ron‘s Gone Wrong is not quite a vicious attack on our adherence to technology, but it carries enough bite to make ya feel sad after every punchline. And I appreciate that.
Erick Oh‘s latest animated short was created using the VR animation tool Quill. It was designed to be viewed as a traditional two-dimensional narrative on a screen or in a 360-degree virtual reality environment. The tiny circular plot of cartoon land it depicts feels like a hug or a noose depending on your mood, which probably depends on what segment of the film you’re living that moment.
Namoo is a birth-to-death story, following a painter as he experiences the many joys, sorrows, and doldrums that life offers everyone. Oh made the film as a response to losing his grandfather, and it feels like an utterly personal outburst while also operating as something beautifully relatable.
Planted at the center of everything is a tree, and on its branches, the painter crams what’s important to him. Watching life’s blah bits take over the beauty of its branches is agonizing, but thankfully, he eventually discovers relief. May we all be so lucky.
12. Batman: Soul of the Dragon
Batman: Soul of a Dragon is less of a Batman movie and more of a Bruce Lee movie. Warner Bros. Animation did what we wished Marvel did with their Iron Fist series. They took an incredibly problematic character — Richard Dragon — and retooled him for modern sensibilities — by basically lifting Bruce Lee’s attitude and fighting style.
Bruce Wayne takes a backseat in this ’70s-set exploitation flick that also features meaty rolls for badass supporting players like Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva. Selling the whole vibe is Mark Dacascos (Dragon), Kelly Hu (Shiva), Michael Jai White (Tiger), and James Hong (O-Sensei).
Warner Bros. is constantly cranking out Batman cartoons, and while The Long Halloween caught the most buzz this year, Soul of the Dragon was absolutely the superior flick and demands your attention. The narrative is a celebration of Bruce Lee’s filmography and philosophy. The hope is that it also serves as a gateway to action masterpieces like Enter the Dragon and The Big Boss.
11. Dinosaur Barbarian
Dinosaur Barbarian is the first of three micro-shorts from Disney and Pixar’s Short Circuit program that you’ll find on this list. The three-minute delight is a goofy, exuberant reimagining of the best and worst ’80s cartoon theme songs. You know the ones: M.A.S.K., Silverhawks, JEM!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.
For this spot-on hand-drawn spoof, director Kim Hazel recruited Mondo Boys to score the rocking tune that propels the animation, and they kill it so hard. These madmen, after all, are the dudes who scored rad flicks like She Dies Tomorrow and Dave Made A Maze. You will want to watch this short three times, back-to-back, wait a minute or two, and then watch it again. Highly addictive cartooning.
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