2020 was lousy. But perhaps because production could continue more seamlessly from home and families, stuck at home with their children, were clamoring for new movies, there was an abundance of great animated movies. The types of animated features that were released in 2020 were incredibly varied as well – Pixar released two exemplary original features, DreamWorks Animation debuted two surprisingly super sequels, and Netflix made a competitive bid to be the most exciting place for cutting-edge animation (and did a pretty good job of it, too). There were also notable important – from Ireland, Japan, Britain – that helped showcase a variety of worldviews and animation styles are hugely important to keeping things fresh.
It’s also worth noting that Paramount’s SpongeBob The Movie: Sponge On the Run, which was scheduled for a 2020 release but relegated to some nebulous 2021 on-demand status (it was released in most major markets on Netflix this past fall), was weird and wonderful but will be saved for next year’s list.
And be sure to catch up on all of Collider’s Best of 2020 content.
10. We Bare Bears: The Movie
We Bare Bears: The Movie, based off the Cartoon Network series of the same name that concluded its four-season run last summer, is probably exactly what you’d expect. It follows three adorable, stackable bears – Grizzly (Eric Edelstein), Panda (Bobby Moynihan) and Ice Bear (Demetri Martin) – as they get into all sorts of comic mischief. In this case, it means that they’re run out of their community after causing a massive power outage (they tried to go viral; it didn’t work). But from that loose plot, which continues on the trajectory of a road trip movie as the bears try to escape to Canada, director/show creator Daniel Chong presents a weirdly autobiographical tale of what it is like feeling like an ostracized, unfairly prosecuted member of society. (The climax involves rescuing fellow bears from a cage-filled internment camp, which definitely packs an additional punch that will sail over most kids’ heads.) Not that this is some dreary parable. The animation by Rough Draft Studios is an absolutely, gorgeous anime-inspired treat and the movie is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (there are a number of jokes about the Bears’ 70s-era van that kill). Also worth noting that this is the first of two movies on this list that feature a pizza rat reference. So that’s something?
9. The Croods: A New Age
The fact that a sequel to 2013’s caveman comedy The Croods exists at all is something of a miracle considering the project was fully shut down in 2016, with the sequel’s original creators (Kirk DiMacco and Chris Sanders) leaving DreamWorks Animation shortly after. But The Croods: A New Age returned from the depths of development hell and the resulting film was a surprisingly fun and wacky sequel. In this installment, the titular neanderthal family (led by Nicolas Cage and including Emma Stone, Catherine Keener and Clark Duke) and Stone’s more sophisticated boyfriend (Ryan Reynolds), happen an advanced agrarian society engineered by the aptly named Bettermans (Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran). It is, as you can imagine, a primeval culture clash. The animation is top notch, occasionally drifting into sweetly surreal territory (like when Tran’s character gets stung by a bee and starts feeling groovy), with a host of new, weird mishmash creatures (some of them ingeniously designed by Gravity Falls veteran Joe Pitt) and a nice twist on the material. And Cage, who has turned in tremendous performances in animated movies in the last few years (including Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies), is the unexpected emotional anchor of the movie as a man grappling with the forces threatening to transform his family – from within and without.
8. The Willoughbys
People slept on The Willoughbys, which is a real shame. This charming and stylistically ambitious animated feature from Netflix is actually a perfect quarantine feature. It follows the Willoughbys, a formerly adventurous family who are now confined to their decrepit, horribly outdated mansion. (The kids are voiced by Will Forte, Alessia Clara, and Seán Cullen.) After arranging for their parents to go away on vacation, the kids are liberated, particularly when a kind Nanny (Maya Rudolph) encourages them to reclaim their adventurousness. Based on the novel by Lois Lowery, The Willhoughbys has a streak of Roald Dahl-ish darkness running through it, and the animation, while completely computer-generated has a tactile, pseudo-stop motion vibe (the characters’ hair looks like yarn, there are extended sequences in a richly imagined candy factory), with ace design work by the legendary Craig Kellman. The voice cast is also wonderful, with Martin Short, Terry Crews and Jane Krakowski all delivering inspired performances (although Ricky Gervais is a clear standout as the talking cat narrator). Oddly affecting (and, honestly, just plain odd), it’s the story of how family isn’t what you’re born into, it’s the people you choose to surround yourself with. If you missed out on The Willhoughbys earlier this year, it’s high time you give it a shot.
7. Trolls World Tour
Trolls World Tour, when it was originally released earlier this year in the opening days of the ongoing pandemic, was maybe unfairly judged. There was a lot of criticism about Universal’s decision to release the movie at home alongside the theatrical exhibition (a concept that now seems quaint) and the movie itself felt like it was caught up in the collateral damage. Because Trolls World Tour, a peppier, more visually extravagant sequel to 2016’s Trolls, is a lot of fun. Director Walt Dohrn, a longtime DreamWorks vet who co-directed the first film, double down on the arts-and-crafts stylization of the Trolls world, where everything looks like it was main out of yarn or glitter or paper mâché and expands the universe to include different lands devoted to different musical genres, each with their own look and feel (we love the country world which looks like it was constructed of piled-up quilts). One evil troll (voiced by Rachel Bloom), looks to do away with the variety, replacing the music with heavy metal. Trolls World Tour winds up being a musical riff on Avengers: Endgame; the characters learn that celebrating our differences is what makes them special and everybody else can just enjoy the hot-glued sequins-and-cardboard vibe and the killer soundtrack.
6. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Finally. Released in 2019 in England, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon finally made its way to America thanks to a deal forged between Netflix and British stop motion animation studio Aardman Animation. This installment sees Shaun befriending a cuddly alien and attempting to avoid detection. While this concept at first seems like an incongruous mixture of science fiction and the usual slap-sticky charm of the original series (itself a spin-off of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series), it’s actually totally great. Incredibly, the movie is almost completely silent, instead relying on pantomime and elaborate set pieces to tell the story, which has a cute, E.T. feeling to go along with its more subtle social commentary about what it’s probably like being an illegal alien in modern day Britain. If you haven’t watched the first film or any of the television show, don’t worry, Farmageddon’s story is straightforward and stand alone and you can easily figure out what it’s about, who the characters are (and what their relationships are to each other). Chances are, if this is your first exposure to the franchise, you’ll be wowed and immediately will want to watch everything else. That’s just sort of how it goes.
5. Lupin III: The First
The Lupin III character has been around since the late 1960s and taken on a variety of forms, including a popular magna series and several animated shows and movies (including one, The Castle of Cagliostro, that was served as the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki) but with Lupin III: The First, the gentleman thief character goes through his biggest transformation yet – into the world of 3D computer animation. What’s so fun about Lupin III: The First, which follows an Indiana Jones-ish quest to track down some mysterious doodads before they fall into the hands of post-World War II Nazis, is that it maintains the rubbery, exaggerated style of the original animated works (it’s particularly indebted to Cagliostro) in the more rigid animation form. It’s wholly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and each new dizzyingly staged action sequence is more eye-popping than the last. But if Lupin III: The First were merely a technological exercise, it wouldn’t get your heartrate pumping. Instead, the narrative, too, full of double crosses and emotional scarring, is just as propulsive. Each character is giving detailed moral shading; if a thief one of the more trustworthy, honorable characters in the movie, what has happened to the world?
4. Over the Moon
A decade ago, master Disney animator Glen Keane (responsible for characters like Ariel and the Beast) was supposed to make his directorial debut with what would eventually become Tangled. Now, with Keane in his late 60s, he has finally made a movie that is all his own. And it’s a doozy. Over the Moon takes its inspiration from ancient Chinese folktales but is wholly modern. It’s the tale of a young girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) who builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove that a goddess named Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) is real. Once she gets to the moon, of course, things go sideways; her soon-to-be stepbrother (Robert Chiu) makes mischief with the goddess while Fei Fei finds herself on a mythic quest across the planet. The plot might be thin, but the design work (much of hit handled by Keane himself) is absolutely astounding, with subtle, tactile details on earth and big, Day Glo colors on the moon. (Animation was handled by Sony and what was formerly known as DreamWorks Oriental, Pearl Studios.) And the musical numbers are occasionally quite riveting (“Ultraluminary,” a big, K-Pop style number, might be the best original song of the year not featured in Eurovision). With Over the Moon, Keane was actually able to see his vision all the way through to the end, which aligns well with the movie’s themes of remembrance and acceptance.
Awkwardly released days before the worldwide pandemic shut everything down, Onward was the first original Pixar movie (meaning not part of a preexisting franchise) since Coco way back in 2017. Director Dan Scanlon based the story, about a pair of elf brothers (Chris Pratt and Tom Holland), who attempt to bring back their dead father for a single day, on his own experience losing his father at a young age. That personal connection makes so that the story, set in a suburban fantasy world where sprites ride motorcycles and trolls work at highway tollbooths, grounded and emotionally resonant. And no matter how big things get (and, admittedly, they get pretty big), there’s always that heartbreaking lifeline. Pixar fills Onward with all sorts of inside jokes, clever wordplay (a desolate gas station in a foggy part of town meant to resemble a mythical marsh is called Swamp Gas), and warm humor, but they never lose sight of what the story is really about – the wish fulfillment of getting to spend 24 more hours with someone who you’ve loved and lost (a theme that resonates even greater in these COVID times). Add to that one of Pixar’s most cry-your-eyes out endings and you’ve got a new Pixar gem.
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been working steadily over the past few years, producing imaginative, utterly lovable features that look and feel unlike anything else being produced in the modern animation landscape. But with Wolfwalkers they have made their first masterpiece. Set in 17th century Ireland, it follows a young girl named Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who assists her father, an ace wolf killer Bill (Sean Bean), but gets more than she bargained for when she befriends a young wild girl from the forest named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), part of a magical clan of “wolfwalkers” that can take the form of a wolf. The story goes from there, a mystical tale of friendship and understand set against an increasingly dangerous ideological confrontation. (The movie’s heavy is Oliver Cromwell, a real-life British historical figure who is more infamous than revered.) Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart bring Wolfwalkers to life using traditional animation, rendering the wild, forest animation with hairy lines that bring to mind the Xerography process of classic Disney, going as far as to leave the rough outlines inside the finished animation, while the city remains cold, reminiscent of wood block carvings. And all of that stylization is in service of a deeply human, relatable story, told with confidence and grace that eschews large chunks of exposition for an organic unfolding. Wolfwalkers is a film you can’t help but treasure.
One of Pixar’s grandest, most metaphysical achievements, Soul is the studio’s second original movie of the year and one of the most incredible movies of 2020 (animated or otherwise). Co-written and directed by Pete Docter, whose previous films include Up and Inside Out made him the Pixar’s most next-level conceptualist, Soul concerns a middle school music teacher named Joe (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of playing jazz in a big band. On the day of his big break, he falls down an open manhole and his consciousness wakes up in the Great Beyond, where he joins forces with an unaffixed soul named 22 (Tina Fey) and goes on a journey to reclaim his body. Yes, the central conceit is deliciously high concept, and from there the movie spirals in all sorts of unexpected, equally delightful directions. With co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers, Docter allows himself to loosen up. Not everything in Soul ladders back to the narrative or its thematic concerns. Instead, Soul breathes like few Pixar films have before, luxuriating in odd adventures or snippets of conversation that don’t do anything but provide texture to the world. (For a movie that is all about what it means to be human and features large sequences set in the afterlife, it’s surprisingly not preachy.) Featuring a marvelous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with jazz compositions by the great Jon Batiste, Soul is a life-affirming, lovably bizarre triumph. Originally set to debut at Cannes before opening in June, it finally came to Disney+ on Christmas Day. It was worth the wait.
Steve Trevor’s return in ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ brings up genuinely disturbing questions the movie is not prepared to answer.
About The Author