Now then, the original plan was to do a list for My Most Disappointed Animated Films of 2021, My Runner-Ups for Best Animated Films of 2021, and My Favorite Animated Films of 2021, but we will just cut it down to My Favorites, due to how it’s a new year, I am so far behind, and I want to get this list done. I’ll try to do more of these varied lists for 2022. I hope you understand, and if you want to see the entire list of films, here is a hyperlink to my Letterboxd list. Let’s get some honorable mentions out of the way!
Honorable Mentions: Luca, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, Seal Team, Josep, Raya and The Last Dragon, and Flee.
Now then, let’s get started so we can talk about 2022’s films next!
10. Fortune Favors Lady Nikkuko
I know some people weren’t happy with this film due to how it wasn’t a big ambitious follow-up to Watanabe’s previous film with Children of the Sea, but this coming-of-age dramedy about a mother and her daughter in a small sea-side town, finding connection with not just life and the people around them, but each other is a charming experience. It might not feel as grand on the big screen, but it sure looked nice up with Studio 4C’s amazing animation and Watanabe’s detailed directing of a fairly offbeat kind of story. It has its moments where the jokes fall flat, but the heart is in the right place.
9. Poupelle of Chimney Town
CGI animation in Japan, whether its use is in anime series or films, has evolved. That they can now craft a vibrant and distinct dieselpunk world in this film shows that the medium of CGI animation is still evolving. The medium is used to tell a rather sweet coming-of-age tale about a boy and his friendship with a mysterious robot in a capitalist and smoke-covered world. It might be a little clunky at some points, but it’s a fun little story that is visually distinct and a thrill to see from beginning to end for film lovers of all ages.
It’s a real shame this got such a small US release and one that was so barebones. It’s a crime it only has a digital-only release with no extras or an English dub for people who prefer a dub over subtitles. The director of Long Way North’s follow-up is a rip-roaring western adventure with some beautiful visuals that really show the western landscape throughout every scene with some of the best character development of any animated film from 2021.
7. The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily
Do you know what else is a crime? This gorgeous and incredible animated film still doesn’t have a proper US release for some unknown reason, when it’s one of the most visually stunning features in animation. You could literally frame every frame as a painting and get something out of it due to this film’s striking use of CGI and 2D animation. It definitely uses emotional and fairytale logic to tell its story and presents its themes of colonialism, greed, and discrimination to the audience, but not every film needs to be logical to be enjoyable, and it’s more of a crime that a company like GKIDS has yet to pick this film up.
6. Words That Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
People worry too much about creativity and originality in storytelling, and are willing to overlook films that are just straight-up rock solid and charming as all get out. It’s a bit of a bummer this film is stuck on Netflix, but the fact they brought over this adorable rom-com between two teens who feel like outcasts due to one thing or another is also a runner-up in 2021’s most visually stunning animation seen on screen. Sometimes, all you need is a well-executed experience in storytelling that will carry you through to the end credits.
It sure does feel like it has been a hot minute since Disney had a huge worldwide hit animated feature since 2016, right? While the film might be entering its backlash phase due to how it was always in the public eye since its November release on Disney+, there is a reason why this film became beloved due to its soundtrack and its focus on familial drama instead of your typical Disney good vs evil formula. Sure, the music might have some of the typical aspects of Lin Manuel Miranda’s music-writing quirks, and I get why people felt divided by its ending, but I give Disney kudos that they want to make animated films that deal with topics that were not seen in a lot of US animated fare. Granted, by now, we have had a few, and we could use some shaking up, but the fact is that Encanto is still a fun charming musical adventure that was a refreshing take after a couple of years of making non-stop sequels.
4. The Summit of the Gods
This film that Netflix sadly buried on their service was a beautiful journey of human ambition and what you are willing to sacrifice to reach your goals. When people want more “adult” animation, it’s not more stuff like Paradise PD, but stuff that tells a story that you don’t normally see in animation, which shows what you can do with the incredible medium of animation. With stunning landscapes, interesting characters, and some of the best animation from 2021, The Summit of the Gods is a film that sadly should have had more people watching it.
3. Josee, The Tiger, and The Fish
With the current trend of every film needing to be big and bombastic in the tentpole area of the film-going experience, it’s always good to remember that story, writing, and character are more important than big flash visual effect shots. This is a coming-of-age story about dealing with the trials and tribulations of life and overcoming hardship and challenge, all wrapped up in a very nice romcom setting with some of Studio Bones’ most visually lush animation that has ever come from one of the top-tier animation houses in Japan. It might have a few story beats that are predictable, but the overall journey is important, and if I enjoyed it from start to finish on a consistent basis, then it did its job.
2. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Honestly, these next two could basically tie for first place, as Sony Pictures Animation somehow raised the bar in stylized animation with a quirky family dramedy about the disconnect between a father dealing with his daughter moving out for college that just happens to line up with a robot apocalypse. With some of 2021’s most stylized visuals, there was a reason why this film took the world, Netflix, and animation fans by storm with its complex and intensely hilarious themes and comedy. Just a delight from start to finish, but if we had to pick a film that could beat it by the slimmest of margins, it would be…
I know some people find this film too overly ambitious and unfocused, with its combination of a coming-of-age story, a musical, a drama, a romance, and commentary about the social media age which is what we are dealing with in this day and age, but you know what, the emotional throughline of a girl dealing with the loss of her mom and becoming a stronger individual really pulls it all together. With jaw-dropping visuals, bombastic and powerful musical numbers, and some of the best storytelling from the director himself, there is a reason why this film beat out The Mitchells vs. The Machines by the slimmest of margins.