The Cream of the Crop from a Year in Animated Cinema
To say that 2022’s cinematic landscape was a hotbed of quality animated offerings is honestly underselling the golden age the medium has been seeing the past decade or more. What makes this past year in particular so interesting is that it feels like a slight repeat of the early 1980s, when Disney was having more difficulty connecting with audiences and turning a profit off their animated films. Except this time there’s more than just Don Bluth’s startup providing beautiful and entertaining alternatives.
Between increasing international reach for overseas offerings and the arrival of exciting new studios (some that arrived spitting bangers from jump street while others have really come into their own recently), this past year is a sumptuous buffet of animated films. I’m going to visit some highlights (brutally ranked using ironclad mathematical equations and definitely not arbitrary based on drifting whimsy) that reflect not only outstanding work in the medium, but also showcase the promise of treating animation as a medium rather than a genre.
(Directed by Mamoru Hosada)
I know this one is cheating, but I honestly don’t care. Mamoru Hosada’s moving animated musical didn’t get an international release until January of 2022, and catching it during its limited IMAX run remains one of the standout visual experiences of the year as well as an emotional knockout. Reshaping the familiar beats of a “Beauty and the Beast” narrative around the story of a high school girl struggling to reconnect to people via an anonymous persona in an online virtual world, Hosada weaves his idealistic-but-realistic view of the potential for online communities and his now-familiar talent at juggling genres and seemingly divergent narrative threads together with a ton of serious bops to craft one of the best animated musicals in years. The film rewards repeat viewings by nesting clever setups in seemingly throwaway moments that come back with a vengeance later in the story, and deliberately plays with the form of its familiar inspiration (deliberately echoing specific scenes in the disney animated film from 1991) only to take them in a completely different direction.
With additional help from artists that worked on the likes of Frozen and Song of the Sea, Belle feels both like Hosada’s most intimate and international film at the same time, and is a towering achievement in the power of empathy and bravery in the face of tragedy.
10. The Bad Guys
(Directed by Pierre Perifel)
On the surface, this could have easily been a forgotten entry on the rubbish heap of family animation alongside the likes of The Nut Job, but the zippy heist film that emerged is a delightful example of execution making all the difference. Based loosely on the series by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys boasts a script that most adults who’ve seen a movie before will be able to map out every twist of, but the younger target audience will get a thrill from the “Ocean’s Eleven meets Lupin III” greatest hits compilation. However, the real star is the stylized direction and expressive character animation. Not only does Pierre Perifel and his team cleverly utilize a lot of the “post-Spider-verse” stylization choices and tools to add 2D elements to faces and movement lines, and highlight visual gags, they also give some extra juice to the kinetic action beats. Not unlike a good heist team, The Bad Guys is all about smartly using familiar parts to become more than the sum thereof.
Look, Marian really likes this one so I’ve watched it a lot this year, and there are still gags that make me laugh. When the bubblegum keeps its flavor that long, someone did something right.
9. Mad God
(Directed by Phil Tippett)
On the complete other end of the story spectrum, there’s special effects legend Phil Tippett’s life-long opus of nightmare imagery and macabre monsters. Apart from a vague anthology structure and gestures toward narrative forms, Mad God is (true to its name) a wild descent into one insane tableau after another. This movie almost didn’t exist, as Tippett initially abandoned it when he felt Jurassic Park had been a death knell for stop-motion animation as an art form (fortunately, he was wrong — as several entries on this list will bear out).
The film was built in stages over decades as Tippett and a rotating crew of volunteers toiled away at otherworldly landscapes and unspeakable horrors, and the discordant nature of this process is something the film manages to use to its favor (except for when the live-action sections get intrusive). To say that it defies description would seem like a cop-out but for the fact that part of the film’s effectiveness is how magnificently indescribable it is. Mysterious subterranean assassins, butchering scientists, unspeakable monsters and infant horrors and towering giants — it’s an overwhelming sensory journey that is decidedly “not for everyone.” However, for anyone looking for a truly singular experience from a legend in the field, this is one that absolutely shouldn’t be missed.
8. Wendell & Wild
(Directed by Henry Selick)
After The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, any animation fan worth their salt would be keeping an eye on Henry Selick. In 2015, he teamed up with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele to make an original animated film out of an unpublished story idea he’d had, and seven years later they delivered a film crammed almost as full to bursting with sumptuous otherworldly visuals as it is with narrative ideas. Following young Kat after the deaths of her parents and gets entangled with the titular pair of hapless demons, Wendell & Wild is equal parts a school days dramedy, a paranormal adventure, a murder mystery — and that’s just Act 1.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to wonder if this might have been better-served as a limited series, but I respect the energy of bringing this much and deciding to leave everything on the mat. Even while Selick and company keep adding plates to the already spinning mass (it’s also an anti-private prison movie!), the confident payoffs in the finale (along with the dynamite voice work, especially from Lyric Ross) bring the big emotional hits home. Key and Peele still have their infectious chemistry, and Selick brings his decades of experience in the medium to bear for a film that’s as impressive in its fine details as it is in staggering scale.
7. My Father’s Dragon
(Directed by Nora Twomey)
Cartoon Saloon (the studio behind 2020’s masterful Wolfwalkers, among others) is one of the last studios still betting on hand-drawn animation, and their beautiful yet simplistic style has evolved alongside their ambitious storytelling. My Father’s Dragon (based on the books by Ruth Stiles Gannett) is the latest film from The Breadwinner director Nora Twomey, and a departure from the outright emotional rending that has characterized several of the studio’s previous films. Primarily the story of a boy named Elmer as he’s whisked off from the big city to Wild Island, the film echoes familiar children’s fantasy stories that its source material actually predates while still capturing its own identity both in the lush visuals and the sensitively-drawn characters.
Rather than manufacturing conflict for the sake of spectacle as so many lesser animated films fall prey to doing, My Father’s Dragon uses the contained setting of a sinking island, talking animals, and a well-meaning interloper like a pressure cooker that pops off just in time for the tragic misunderstanding or emotional catharsis the story calls for at the time. It offers reassuring but sometimes hard answers to uneasy questions, earning its candy-coating covering by acknowledging the shadows underneath.
6. The Sea Beast
(Directed by Chris Williams)
I remain convinced that if this swashbuckling adventure had hit theaters instead of being a streaming exclusive, it would have been one of the big hits of the summer. An original idea from Chris Williams (director on Big Hero 6, co-director on Moana, and a Disney veteran since he was story artist on Mulan), The Sea Beast spins a yarn of daring monster hunters who keep their kingdom save from the savage leviathans that rule the oceans.
It would be tempting to dismiss this movie as “How to Train Your Kraken” (which the trailer and poster more or less lean into), but even if the only unique offering The Sea Beast brought to the poop deck was a passel of gnarly high seas action sequences that could easily hang with the finale of Dead Man’s Chest, it would be worth a look. Luckily, the dynamic between veteran hunter Jacob (Karl Urban) and young stowaway Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hastor) and the creatures they run into is both dramatically engaging and rich in surprisingly pointed themes given the target audience. This is exactly the sort of animated treat that’ll engage the kids and speak frankly to the adults in a huge audiences on a hot summer day — and while it sadly missed that chance, it’s already at your fingertips.
5. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
(Directed by Andy Suriano & Ant Ward)
Ok, how good is this movie? I hadn’t seen a single minute of the new Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show(a shakeup to the original concept involving some tweaked origins and mystical powers), and yet this film is still one of my favorite viewing experiences of the year. Rise: The Movie is more or less a feature-length button on the series, but is a cleverly self-contained “stop the dark future from happening!” setup that requires basically no knowledge of the series outside “they’re superhero turtles.”
Ben Schwartz (ironically in his 2nd role as “a blue-themed animated character who beefs foiling an armored car robbery” of the year) is the nominal lead as a Leonardo, the showboating QB of the team who needs to learn to stop tripping over his own ego in order to save his family and New York City from a Krang invasion. The film is a brisk 82 minutes and yet still packs in as many super-powered set pieces as any MCU entry this year, but with a unique energy and exaggerated style that’s like the ’80s cartoon by way of Samurai Jack and Voltron. The film’s use of stylized 2D animation results in the most visually arresting action the genre since Into the Spider-Verse, and it proves adept at landing what dramatic punches it has time for just as well.
4. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
(Directed by Joel Crawford)
Not to be an asshole, but y’all wouldn’t be as surprised at the new Puss in Boots being good if you’d paid attention to how dope the first Puss in Boots movie was. I mean, you’d still probably be a bit taken aback by how good Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, because it’s pretty freakin’ phenomenal. Faced with the final of his nine lives, the titular outlaw feline is tossed into an adventure of wishes, regrets, amends, much-needed therapy dogs, and the sharp-fanged specter of Death. Antonio Banderas, who made the character the highlight of Shrek 2, gets to play a new layer of dramatic pathos to the character alongside his signature roguish charm — and proves equally adept at both. I’m not the first to compare The Last Wish to 2017’s Logan, but what struck me about the film is not how it grapples with the surety of death but the the way it delineates what is worth dying for vs. what’s worth living for.
Having the film open and close with absolutely insane action sequences (both ably showcasing the creative shading and kinetic movement that makes this the best-looking DreamWorks CGI film ever) sure doesn’t hurt, either.
3. The House
(Directed by Enda Walsh)
If you’re looking at this and thinking “Wow, what a year for stop-motion animation!” then I heartily agree. If you’re thinking “um, why is Downton Abbey made of felt now?” then congratulations on having a new bonkers experience in front of you. Starting as a dreamlike horror anthology that goes surreal and then shockingly sweet over the course of its 3 segments, The House began life as a television miniseries concocted by Enda Walsh. The reorganization into an animated anthology creates a singular viewing experience that is a great head trip but also a cleverly-mapped journey about what can and can’t be controlled.
Sporting memorable characters brought to life by talent like Mia Goth, Matthew Goode, and Helena Bonham-Carter, the triptych of tales revolving around the inhabitants of a possessed (or just very odd) house landed hard on my favorites of the 2022 when it dropped early in the year and only moved down a few rungs by the end. Another notch in the win column for Netflix’s animation distribution, and another standout stop-motion entry for the year.
2. Turning Red
(Directed by Domee Shi)
While many (not altogether incorrectly) refer to the period between 1999–2010 as the highest Pixar ever got on their creative mountain, I’d contend that the past few years have seen an exciting array of new talent pushing against the bounds of the studio’s machine-pressed efficiency. I’ll go to bat for Onward and genuinely think Luca is a triumph (Pixar made a Miyazaki movie!), but Turning Red is a contender for their best film since Inside Out.
Domee Shi’s feature debut combines the look of her short film Bao, the Pixar “house” style, as well as visual cues from anime resulting in a film that’s something like Mamoru Hosada crossed with The Peanuts Movie. A good deal rests on Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh’s performances as Meilin “Mei” Lee and her mother, Ming, as they navigate Mei’s sudden transformation into a giant red Panda as she’s taken her first few steps into puberty. The fact that the film is a period piece that feels as much like a 2000’s-era teen misadventure comedy as a Pixar genre exercise is as refreshing as the varied perspectives the film offers that still aren’t in large supply in feature animation. And while it’s true I’m a mark for a film that so deliberately references Hosada films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Turning Red is how it’s story goes beyond where most movies would be satisfied to end to the really dig into the emotional stakes in the most dramatic possible way.
And also reveals itself to secretly be the best superhero movie of the year, so that’s neat.
1. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinnochio
(Directed by Guillermo del Toro & Mark Gustafson)
How about that, a director known for his deliberate design and carefully sumptuous visuals all geared toward reinforcing character and narrative went and made an animated film and knocked it out of the park his first time at bat. You’d think he’d had a longtime passion for the medium as well as years of experience working on some of the best DreamWorks animated films over the past decade and change.
No, I’m not surprised that this particular long-gestating passion project turned out to be another masterpiece from the filmmaker who’s on a 20-plus year Oops, All Bangers streak. What I was surprised about was how elegantly Guillermo del Toro reshaped a parable about honesty and obedience into a treatise on the importance of resistance, particularly in the face of fascism (ok, I wasn’t as surprised about that last part — this is del Toro, after all). Molding the clay of the original story into a wondrous new shape with the help of an army of talented animators and designers, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio shows us the life Geppetto the toy-maker — particularly the son he lost during the First World War. Pinocchio himself is as much an engine of chaos in a grieving man’s life as he is another chance at family, and the film is heartbreaking in its honesty about the way imperfect parents can push away their children even while it’s reassuring of their resilience in finding their way back.
And if it seems like I’m making this sound like a bummer, there’s an entire musical number devoted to mocking dictators with fart jokes and a gag involving Pinocchio’s version of immortality that got one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is precisely the sort of passion project you can’t imagine actually coming together or, living up to its potential even if it did, but hot damn — both those things happened.