Technically, very few animated films premiered in 2020. It just wasn’t the year for a big family outing to the theater, so it feels like much was held back from traditional heavy-hitters—even if it’s only the third time Pixar has ever released two films in the same year and the first time they’ve done so since Cars 3 and Coco in 2017. Adding in films that had expanded releases, like the wide American release of Weathering with You (Makoto Shinkai’s witchy, magical love story follow-up to smash hit Your Name), bolsters the offerings a bit, but the pickings were slim throughout…even if the internet threw us a few bones like Don Hertzfeldt’s newest short, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime. Barring technicalities, short films and other rule-fudgers, 2020 was a year that offered up a few peaks—Soul’s Christmas streaming release is truly a holiday gift—and plenty of promise for the future.
Both anime and western animation were able to continue their post-production (and even production, in some cases) under distanced COVID-19 protocols, often with a unique intensity compared to their live-action peers. That and some promising originals from Netflix might mean the near future of animated features may have much more quality on offer, though there are still some stunning anime, stop-motion and other animated films that managed to come out this year.
Since it first aired back in 2016, My Hero Academia has secured its place as one of the best, if not arguably the best, shounen action anime of its generation. Set in a world populated by humans born with unique abilities known as “quirks,” the series follows Izuku “Deku” Midoriya, a young boy who dreams of one day becoming a hero despite being born without any powers. Taken under the wing of All Might, the world’s number one hero, as his secret apprentice and gifted with the elder’s awesome generation-spanning ability One for All, Midoriya is accepted to the U.A. Hero Academy, and soon embarks on his personal journey to one day succeed All Might as the world’s greatest hero. The second standalone spin-off feature since 2018’s Two Heroes, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising takes place some weeks following the conclusion of the first arc of the series’ fourth season. With All Might now retired, Midoriya and his classmates are charged with a work study assignment protecting the residents of the small island of Nabu. Things quickly turn sour when the island is attacked by a group of villains led by the mysterious Nine; cut off from the mainland and with no way to contact their mentors for help, it’s up to Midoriya and his friends to uncover Nine’s plot and rescue the island from disaster. Sure, the action is thrilling and the visual effects are stellar, but Heroes Rising feels like an hour-long filler episode capped by an exhilarating 20-minute spectacle that’s as impressive as it is ultimately inconsequential. Maybe that’s enough.—Toussaint Egan
For its interminable, meandering first half, Onward somehow compiles the worst parts of even the best Pixar movies. It’s aggressively high-concept, albeit strained this time, positing what would happen if magical creatures were dulled by generations of capitalism into losing everything magical about them. (Turns out: It makes them dull!) It features yet another protagonist who feels displaced from their home and yearns for a past they feel deprived of. (Usually a lost family member: here, a father.) Worst, it is yet another Let’s Go On A Quest! plot, a Pixar trope so exhausted and hoary that you always appreciate that a character at last just blurts out, “Let’s Go On A Quest!” It is dispiriting, during an era when the very meaning of the Pixar brand is being diluted by sequels and overarching corporate strategies, to see a movie that seems cobbled together from various other Pixar films, a reliance on a formula from a company that once rewrote all the rules themselves. It’s a relief, then, that Onward does ultimately right itself and, against all odds, still provide a signature Pixar moment or two, even improbably jerking a few tears here or there. That speaks to an almost pathological ability to find the beating heart of any story, even if, as is the case here, it’s surrounded by a lot of “irreverent” bells and whistles that feel less organic than “desperately clung to” as if to remind us, “Look, look, still Pixar!” But it also is a result of what appears to be a deeply personal project for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon. Scanlon is a Pixar lifer, and thus a project of this magnitude feels like the result of a lifetime of hard work and dedication.—Will Leitch
The Croods: A New Age is the follow-up to DreamWorks Animation’s 2013 film The Croods—and if you’ve seen that, you mostly know what you’re getting into with this one. Although it’s clearly tailored for kids to enjoy as its first priority, A New Age leans into the physical comedy and, for lack of a better phrase, crude humor of its predecessor with success, creating a lighthearted, low-ambition romp that kids will love and adults will enjoy. Not much time has passed since the original film, where the Crood family—led by patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage)—joins the orphaned Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in search of the ambiguous “Tomorrow” that his late parents urged him toward. Early on, they appear to find it in the garden of Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope Betterman (Leslie Mann). They lead a family of seemingly sophisticated humans who have embraced imitations of modern technology and a sheltered life, building a wall surrounding their home to block out the outside world. Lacking emotional weight, its world isn’t as deep as other DreamWorks Animation properties (such as Kung Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon), but it clears space for there to be as much comedy as possible. Thankfully, this humor doesn’t have one set of fart jokes for the kids and innuendo-filled humor for the adults, but instead uses universal physical comedy through expressive animation and exaggerated acting to make jokes that’ll get the kids but have the adults smiling (if not laughing) along. In fact, I think I laughed a bit more with A New Age than I did with the original, thanks in most part to its enhanced cartoonishness and the Bettermans’ added foil to the Croods’ antics.—Joseph Stanichar
Over the Moon is Netflix’s boldest step yet into the realm of producing animated films to rival those of Disney. Directed by former Disney animator Glen Keane, who was responsible for bringing films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Tangled to life, and containing a collection of catchy and heartwarming songs, explosively colorful animation and a story immersed in Chinese culture, the film seems to have all the pieces of another animation classic. The film follows a 14-year-old Chinese girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) living with her now-single father four years after the passing of her mother. Still grieving her loss, Fei Fei clings to her mother’s traditional stories of the goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) living on the moon, awaiting her departed lover, and believes that if she can prove to her father that Chang’e exists, he will follow her example and stop trying to start a new family. Even if poorly contextualized, the beautiful animation sequences of Over the Moon can’t be ignored, and there are times when the colorful display is mesmerizing enough to distract from the plot confusion. There’s a good chance that very young kids will love the movie for its bright colors and cute animals alone, and its songs are catchy enough to not likely drive their parents up the wall upon the millionth time being played.—Joseph Stanichar
Netflix’s oddball Lois Lowry adaptation from director Kris Pearn and co-directors Cory Evans and Rob Lodermeier, The Willoughbys delights in subverting expectations for your traditional family-based animated movie. A plot based around children looking to “orphan” themselves by sending their terrible, abusive, overly lovey-dovey (to each other) parents on a series of increasingly dangerous vacations certainly doesn’t have that slick Disney sheen. For those looking for something a little different, or those with kids a little darker and weirder than those obsessed with cleaned and pressed fairy tale fare, it’s hard to go wrong with the funny and often beautiful Willoughbys. Smart writing, with sharp jokes and intriguingly silly characters (voiced by emphatic all-stars like Will Forte and Maya Rudolph) give the rounded, yarny designs plenty of energy and unending entertainment value—even as the film meanders through detour after detour. A jazzy score from Mark Mothersbaugh pushes further pep, though all that sugar-rush energy would be wasted without its fun, original messaging and story beats. With a few heartwarmers woven in, the film maintains its A Series of Unfortunate Events-esque meanness with a deadpanned straight face all the way to its tonally apt ending. —Jacob Oller
There have been creepier things done in movies than magically turning into a cat in order to get closer to your crush, but those are few and far between. It’s not exactly standing outside a window with a boom box. But in directors Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama’s A Whisker Away, even this bonkers premise yields beauty and touching romance. Mari Okada’s script deftly leaps the anime through some emotional loops, running it through crinkly toy tunnels, ultimately landing its silly premise—replete with a troupe of angsty, depressed middle schoolers—in emotional honesty. A dash of otherworldly magic from the canon of Miyazaki (a corpulent face-dealing cat and an entire invisible cat-world) mixes well with some honest dives into the mental health issues of its characters (not quite as deeply and darkly as Neon Genesis Evangelion, but with a similarly stylish flair). While the characters are a little annoying when you meet them—they’re middle schoolers, after all—the truth behind the writing manages to shine through, all the while impressing us with its realistic animal animation and stunning depictions of smaller-town Tokoname life.—Jacob Oller
The second Aardman film featuring the smirking, chuckling lil’ scamp Shaun the Sheep, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon takes all the painstakingly lovely claymation of the studio’s previous film and its Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run-filled filmography (which see cameos over the course of the media-stuffed movie) and gives it a broad coat of sci-fi paint. The resulting slapstick, which sees cute baby alien Lu-La stumble onto Mossy Bottom Farm, traverses territory familiar to any fan of the genre while making it accessible to everyone—think of it like a hilarious silent comedy giving young kids a piggyback ride through the likes of E.T., Close Encounters, and The X-Files. Helmers Richard Phelan and Will Becher keep things lively and sharp, with a rollicking pace and diverse antics that are as timeless, hilarious, and age-agnostic as the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Just fluffier. Farmageddon even taps a bit into a Pixar-esque message system (albeit a simpler theme targeted towards a younger set) about kindness and empathy regardless of differences. It’s a soft and simple movie, with much more in common with the easygoing vibe of kid’s animated TV rather than the sharpest of British comedy, but it’s one that’s completely enjoyable—and that’s a rarity for any film, let alone one basically guaranteed to put at least one livestock-driven smile on your face. —Jacob Oller
Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s Spanish-German language film The Wolf House is equal parts surreal, tragic and disturbing, due to both its uncanny stop-motion animation style and the real-world inspiration from which it draws. The film follows the perilous journey of María (Amalia Kassai), a young German woman who has narrowly escaped the jaws of a Nazi cult but must now outrun a hungry wolf hot on her trail. The cult María flees is based in Southern Chile, making it an evident parallel to Colonia Dignidad, a German sect established in Chile in the early ’60s by a man named Paul Schaefer, who was about to go on trial for child molestation in West Germany before he was granted sanction to enter Chile. As the wolf draws nearer, María stumbles upon a small house in the middle of the woods. She quickly makes herself at home. The house is ostensibly abandoned, save for two small pigs living in squalor in one of the bathrooms. María vows to raise the pigs as her own children, naming them Pedro and Ana. She clothes them, feeds them the little unspoiled food remaining in the house and excitedly tells them that she will teach them “everything that she knows.” But María finds it difficult to navigate what the cult has imparted on her, and complicated feelings surrounding pleasure, punishment and eugenic aesthetic ideals begin to find themselves seeping into her lectures to Pedro and Ana.
Accordingly, The Wolf House can feel sickening at points, mostly due to the ever-morphing vessels that serve as avatars for María, Pedro and Ana. Their corporeal forms emerge crudely shaped from clay, ooze onto the walls and windows as painted figures, grow bloated and disjointed as paper-mache, stitched together and dressed with felt and plush. The titular lycanthropic abode was a real house that the filmmakers utilized to create the film’s uncanny, human-scale dioramas, the diligent craftwork of the years-long undertaking captured in the finished product’s every frame. By confronting the state-sanctioned violence in Chile’s recent past, Cociña and León construct a physical space to reflect the emotional space one must inhabit to process these traumas and to confront the evil figures that may still live within them. —Natalia Keogan
Wolfwalkers is filmmaker and animator Tomm Moore’s latest project out of Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio he co-founded in 1999 with Paul Young, and the capper to his loosely bound Irish folklore trilogy (begun with 2009’s The Secret of Kells and continued with 2014’s Song of the Sea). At first blush, the film appears burdened with too much in mind—chiefly thoughts on everything from English colonialism to earnest portraiture of Irish myths, the keystones of Moore’s storytelling for the last decade. Linking these poles are a story of friendship across borders and social boundaries, a dirge for a world pressed beneath the heels of men, a family drama between a willful girl and her loving but overprotective father, and a promise of what life could be if strangers reached across those borders and boundaries to find, if not love, then at least common ground. How Moore and his collaborators Ross Stewart and Will Collins created such a robust screenwriting economy that each of these threads not only fit into Wolfwalkers’ 103 minutes, but feel entirely essential to its vibrance, is likely a whole narrative unto itself. Their collective achievement speaks for itself, of course: Wolfwalkers is a stunning effort, the best of Moore’s career and the best Cartoon Saloon has produced to date. Every detail here, every flourish, has a purpose, whether splashes of red on flower petals, soft edges around dusk-lit trees, or three-panel split screen sequences that read like the pages of illuminated manuscripts brought to life. The effect is magic, and that magic is profound and breathtaking. —Andy Crump
Pixar’s best in years, Soul matches its musical deftness with character and locations designs that are true love letters to New York City and its inhabitants. That’s the way it should be for a movie all about learning to look up once in a while and enjoy the life that’s happening all around you. Less heady than Inside Out, thanks to its grounded roots in barbershops and tailor back rooms, Soul is still one of Pixar’s most existential. A focus on jazz is a natural fit. Jamie Foxx’s obsessed music teacher/jazz pianist wannabe Joe flirts back and forth with death, getting a little It’s a Wonderful Life lesson while an unborn soul (Tina Fey) learns about all life has to offer alongside him. With plenty of jokes and impressive visual creations to plaster over some unwieldy plot decisions (Why are Black people always being pushed out of their bodies in animations?), Soul still sings. It’s got some of the most impressive lighting I’ve ever seen in an animated film, with skin, hair and metallic instruments glistening with a complex, near-photorealism that invites you to reach out and touch them. As Pixar’s premium offering in 2020, its tears flow early and often as crushing montages and inspiring instrumental performances prove over and over again how much joy there is to appreciate in this world—and how much joy Pixar films have the potential to capture. Soul is one of the closest yet to fully achieving that potential on an intimate, human scale.—Jacob Oller