Photo-Illustration: Rowena Lloyd and Susanna Hayward; Photos: Courtesy of the Studios
This year proved a particularly strong one for animated features released in the United States. Rotoscoping roared back into the public eye with the help of Richard Linklater. Visionary director Masaaki Yuasa dropped one of the best anime films of his career, which just so happens to be a rock musical set in feudal Japan. Not one but three stop-motion films made the list below. And Pixar released a whole, affecting movie about a Chinese Canadian girl’s period. The art, first and foremost, may be what matters every year, but the best animated movies of 2022 did a lot to push back against the notion that the go-to medium for a cartoon film be 3-D CGI, though a few of those shone nearly as brightly.
More than any other single factor, a pronounced clarity of vision defines the movies we’ve chosen to feature. Do they feel distinct in achieving their artistic goals, in making the medium somehow more exciting than it was last year, in saying something new with their chosen art form? Most important, has their diverse imagery persisted within our minds, the way the best animation is supposed to? The films on this list accomplish all this in some way — even Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe.
The Sea Beast has been hailed for its action-packed, almost-live-action-feeling sense of adventure, but its best scenes are the quiet ones. Take a moment about a third of the way into its two hours, after a crew of sailors have pitched a loud, kinetic, violent battle with the titular monster, straining their ship and soaking themselves in the process: Our heroes, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) and Jacob (Karl Urban), fall beneath the waves and under the water, and the whole world goes silent. Maisie points over Jacob’s shoulder. and the frame cuts to a much wider shot: The massive sea beast lurks beneath them, watching as the puny humans squirm. The Sea Beast is full of images like that, in which director Chris Williams uses the timing, scale, and other tools of the visual-language tool kit to put the audience in suspense before ultimately rewarding them — just as all the best action films do, whether they’re live-action or not.
Cartoon Saloon’s movies tend to rank among the least commercial animated titles that release in a given year. The director of My Father’s Dragon, Nora Twomey, knows this and operates accordingly. “We have a tremendous freedom for films,” she told the Dot and Line on the heels of the previous film she directed, The Breadwinner. “We can tell stories that don’t necessarily have to sell toys at Christmas time or anything like that … Telling stories is our priority.” My Father’s Dragon is another beautifully told story by a studio with a reputation for intricate 2-D animation. When young boy Elmer and his mother run into financial trouble, he lashes out, running away and eventually encountering a dragon and other talking creatures (with voices from the likes of Gaten Matarazzo, Ian McShane, Alan Cumming, and Whoopi Goldberg). Once the action kicks in, My Father’s Dragon portrays their contentious quest to save their magic island from sinking into the sea with a visual flair that matches the film’s heartfelt emotions.
Stop-motion virtuoso Henry Selick — back with a new directorial effort 13 years after the release of the underrated bit of nightmare fuel, Coraline — doesn’t seem to have missed a beat. Wendell & Wild fits neatly in with the other entries on the artist’s CV, including The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, thanks to its exploration of childhood trauma, ample gothic humor, and generous use of insane needle drops. Never before had I heard TV on the Radio’s horndog ballad “Wolf Like Me” used to soundtrack the climax of what is at least on paper a kids’ movie, but it’s exactly that chaotic spirit that gives Wendell & Wild its energy. (Other kickass musical appearances: the Specials, Living Colour, Hot Chocolate, Fishbone, and Ibeyi, to name a few.) Like the movie’s visual style and setting, the music is a reflection of its heroine, Kat Elliot, whose parents die in the opening minutes. The tragedy derails the next five years of her life until she finds herself at a stuffy Catholic school back in her hometown only to learn that a private prison has overtaken the place. When Kat learns she can summon a pair of demons, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele, who also produced and co-wrote the film), hell literally breaks loose as zombies rise from the dead with the help of magic hair cream and Kat confronts the reality of her parents’ deaths. Wendell & Wild isn’t as juvenile as the average Disney film, and its stop-motion effects aren’t quite as polished as Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, but its heart beats strong, and it’s a closer parable of real-world problems we face now than almost any other major animated American release this year.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On has made audiences laugh and cry for well over a decade, since the first 2010 web short by Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp debuted on YouTube, but its feature film released this year exposes the resourceful little guy to a much wider world. The mockumentary follows Marcel as he meets filmmaker Dean and desperately embarks on a search for his estranged community of fellow shells. Shot in stop-motion with an array of cameras adopted for macro photography, every scene pokes fun at Marcel’s relationship to scale: He creates rope out of bathtub hair, he sleeps on sliced bread, he looks at a map and what it represents far differently than we do. Slate’s charmingly sly performance as Marcel is funny throughout, but what makes the movie surprising is how much gravitas he can carry upon his one-inch shoulders.
Kid Cudi’s 92-minute animated film — or, uh, 92-minute TV series, if you’re following Netflix’s oddball cataloging — is a painterly, musical gem. Conceived as a visual accompaniment to the musician’s eighth studio album, the film is a romantic comedy about an aspiring comics artist, Jabari, as he finds love in New York City and tries to push his art to new commercial heights. Divided into chapters, Jabari’s Manhattan is primarily washed in a vibrant watercolor style from DNEG Animation, bringing a textured liveliness to the cartoonist’s world and the characters who inhabit it. It especially works when Cudi’s hallucinatory, spacey music has the freedom to fade in, like when “In Love” starts playing as Bari invites a love interest to hop on his bike and the visuals spin out to trace the tires’ abstracted, brushstroked path upward from the streets and into a dark canvas of stars. Or when Bari races from a kaiju-size version of his own creation, Mr. Rager, in a starkly desaturated dream sequence soundtracked by a pumping electronic score. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins put it earlier this year, “When music, visuals, and story move in concert, Entergalactic is delightfully loose and vivid.”
Beautifully made through rotoscoping, a century-old animation technique that briefly, stupidly, nearly derailed the film’s eligibility for the Oscars this year, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is a fantasy about what it might be like to send a child to the moon. Steeped in ’60s nostalgia, director Richard Linklater walks us through protagonist Stanley’s life in Houston in the heat of the space race, linking the city’s growth to the expansion of NASA and the larger cultural changes of the period. In that backdrop, visualized faithfully via reference materials and home videos from the period, fourth-grader Stanley gets drafted by the space agency to serve as an astronaut and be the first human to land on the moon. As the adult voice of Stanley, Jack Black brings us up to speed on what life was like back then, narrating over images of animated newsreels, photorealistic shots of Houston life, and the young Stanley’s wide-eyed appreciation for rockets, Roman candles, and the near-certainty of alien life. The boy’s proximity to history is endearing and highly specific, and the artistry rendered onscreen by Linklater, head of animation Tommy Pallotta, and animation studios Minnow Mountain and Submarine is undeniable.
Very few ’90s animated properties are as malleable for revival as Beavis and Butt-Head. The basic format established by the original cartoons — in which two teen bros, unfettered by the shackles of intelligence or social propriety, spitball into the eyes of un-chill viewers with snickers and persistent sex jokes — is relevant in any era. “The joke’s on them,” as creator, voice actor, and writer Mike Judge recently put it. What you have to nail, though, is tone and execution, which this movie does in spades, flinging the dynamic duo of dick humor into the modern day and roasting everything from smartphones to multiverse mumbo jumbo. It’s a real achievement to be able to write a consistently hysterical revival comedy starring characters who are so stunted. The movie is animated in the same glorious, distinctly cruddy style of the ’90s show minus some 2022 HD sheen and a handful of action sequences, and in many ways it just feels as if Beavis and Butt-Head never went away. They’re still wiener-heads just looking to score, and that’s beautiful.
Disney’s best animated release this year by far, Pixar’s Turning Red was an instant classic upon arrival in March. Directed by Domee Shi, an animator who’d previously worked on seven of the animation studio’s features and made the brilliant short film Bao, Turning Red doubles as both a strikingly fresh coming-of-age story about a mother and daughter and one of Pixar’s tightest plays yet for the millennial-audience set. Its heroine, Mei, is a 13-year-old girl in 2002 Toronto who’s obsessed with the biggest boy band of the era, and its plot pulls from the pages of A Goofy Movie and My Neighbor Totoro. Ultimately, though, the giant red panda in the room is what makes it special. Mei starts turning into the large, furry creature one morning, which the movie cannily uses to comment on puberty, her connection to her mom and the rest of her matrilineal family, and ultimately Mei’s self-worth. Despite these thematic resonances, Vulture critic Alison Willmore appreciated how light on its feet the film feels: “While it’s about a Chinese Canadian mother and child, it’s neither dutiful in its treatment of them nor loaded down by obligations to meet the impossible expectations of a whole disparate demographic of viewers.” Despite the fact that its characters can change into building-crushing panda creatures, its most visually spectacular scene is a peaceful one set in a soft-focused, dreamlike bamboo forest — an astral plane where Mei interacts with the women of her family, finding love and understanding as she does so.
Photo: GKIDS Films/YouTube
One of the few anime films this year not based on an already colossally successful TV property (looking at you, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero and Jujutsu Kaisen 0!), Inu-Oh is the latest visionary effort by Masaaki Yuasa and the animators at Science SARU — a trippy musical jaunt through feudal Japan as reimagined through rock performances. Its central pair of musicians — Tomona, a blind biwa player, and Inu-Oh, a dancer born with a severe limb-length inequality, among other congenital differences — take the 14th century by storm as they play anywhere the authorities will stomach them, from a dried up riverbed to in front of the shogun Ashikaga himself, until the authorities can stomach them no longer. The plot is relatively simple, but that works in the film’s favor. Like many of Yuasa’s works, watching Inu-Oh is more about treating your eyes and ears to a festival of colorfully exaggerated choreography and music that most American audiences aren’t likely to hear anywhere else. Inu-Oh was released in theaters in its original Japanese, but when the English dub arrives on home video in early 2023 from GKIDS, the licensor won’t be redubbing any of the songs, and that’s for the best.
It’s not Walt’s Pinocchio, and no one needs it to be. Directors Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s stop-motion fable handily outpaces the other recently released but ultimately forgettable films based on Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. This version — in the works for nearly 15 years — is a dark fantasy that ruminates on morality and mortality within the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy. All of the film’s voices, which include Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Christoph Waltz, acquit themselves admirably, but special shoutouts go to the casting of David Bradley, a.k.a. Game of Thrones’ extremely prolific father Walder Frey, as Geppetto, and Gregory Mann on double duty as both his son, Carlo, and as Pinocchio. Nothing comes easy for them, as Geppetto loses a son in the opening scenes and Pinocchio collides into problems fitting his twiggy animated form to the fascism of the era. Geppetto drowns his grief in alcohol, and his support network in this Il Duce–postered village doesn’t help; Pinocchio lies, and his father figure is, at first, far too whiplashed to properly parent a boy who speaks with the voice of his dead son. The stop-motion tactility emphasizes the trials of their lives: Consider the precisely crafted, positioned, and timed movements of Geppetto’s white whiskers or of Pinocchio’s early, faltering steps in his wooden frame. Every scene is visibly etched with the admirable effort of animators at the studio ShadowMachine — fitting for a film about the work we do, physically and emotionally, for love.
Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
It overcame two years of pandemic-related delays to finally arrive, but The Bob’s Burgers Movie helped kick off the summer-movie season with a sizzling flare this year — bringing its movie-budget visuals to the recognizable format and warm writing of the series. The film’s highest compliment is that it feels like a supersize Bob’s Burgers episode: As with several other series setups, the Belcher family’s burger joint is in jeopardy, and they have to save it, whether that means trying to sweet-talk a bank’s loan officer with fast food or setting up a mobile stand near in the Wonder Wharf without, er, getting permission. Its humor is as fun as anything the show’s aired over the past decade, especially Bob’s descent into a manic spiral over the fate of his restaurant, not to mention his family ( “Oh God. Ohhhhhh, no. Ohhhhh, boy,” repeated by H. Jon Benjamin over and over). They dig their way out of the financial (sink)hole and blow up a murder mystery by leaning on one another, the same way they tackle every problem. Now, The Bob’s Burgers Movie ain’t perfect. It needed more songs. But no family, or cheeseburger, ever really is.