Sorry, has everyone just been painstakingly taking photographs of elaborate and beautiful feats of imagination, one frame at a time, all throughout the pandemic? Because otherwise, I’m just not sure how to explain the glut of incredible and labor-intensive stop-motion animation that we’ve been blessed with in 2022. We’re lucky to get a single display of that dying technique in feature-length form during any given year. In 2022, we got a handful, including the title character waddling around Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. The best animated movies of the year certainly weren’t stop-motion only, but it’s in that style’s prevalence that we can find a guiding light in how to appreciate an art form under threat: When we respect the handmade, the hard-to-do, the tangible, we are drawn closer to the artists behind these works. We can (and should) shower affection on the brilliant feats of CG, rotoscope and traditional animation hitting the big screen. But when we can slow down and consider the time and effort put into the herky-jerky movements of a wooden boy, a hellbound assassin, or a cat realtor, we see the seams—and, ironically, feel all the more connected to those stitching them together. As artists feel pressure from VFX deadlines, are the first to go when budgets are cut at studios and streamers, and have their work stolen by insipid AI apps, they’re more deserving than ever of our devotion. Whatever techniques are involved in this year’s beautiful examples of animation, the more we remember the effort that goes into every frame, the more likely we are to keep these kinds of movies alive.
Here are our picks for the 10 best animated movies of the year:
More than 25 years ago, Mike Judge’s vision of the U.S. was one of unmitigated sowing, absolutely no reaping whatsoever, and Beavis and Butt-Head (also Judge), teenage boys whose whole American way of life has evolved their bodies into top-heavy monstrosities where the pituitary gland stores hormones like a camel’s hump (heh) stores water, were the ageless expressions of that pioneering curse. More than 25 years later, and Judge’s vision remains pretty much the same. As a legacy sequel, then, it’s hard (heh heh) to imagine Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe doing anything better. Written by Judge and Lew Morton (with story help from Guy and Ian Maxtone-Graham, all adult animation and/or SNL vets), little has changed for Beavis and Butt-Head, including the passage of time. Just as in Do America, puns provide all the story motivation Judge needs to get Beavis and Butt-Head anywhere—in this case it’s space, then through time, then eventually to college and jail, all while pursued by the government (who thinks they’re aliens, even after capturing them, because they look so inhuman) and astronaut Serena Ryan (Andrea Savage) and versions of themselves (“Smart Beavis” and “Smart Butt-Head”) from another reality. Toward the end of the film, Smart Butt-Head must remind Beavis of everything they did—“You also went to college…and jail”—only reinforcing how obligatory and episodic (heh) it all is, how every legacy sequel just aimless tosses IP (heh, “I pee”) at the wall, seeing what sticks, never really attempting to forge anything new. Just rehashing the same story over and over. Judge sarcastically bakes that lousy truth into the DNA of his own legacy sequel, making a movie that stubbornly refuses to have its characters ever change, exposing the creative dearth at the heart of most of these reboots. Then again, Beavis and Butt-Head not changing is inherent to Beavis and Butt-Head. Were they to ever learn from their mistakes, they would not be Beavis and Butt-Head. A legacy sequel that does nothing to revitalize its characters, expand its canon, extend (heh) its mythos, or even really tell a new joke. I laughed through the whole thing.—Dom Sinacola
Near the end of Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, Richard Linklater’s luscious rotoscope ode to the tail-end of the 1960s, the father of our young protagonist Stanley (Milo Coy) worries that his son slept through a historic event. “Even if he was asleep,” says Stanley’s mom (Lee Eddy), “he’ll one day think he saw it all.” The magic trick that is memory serves as the basis of Apollo, a film that recalls Apollo 11 from the rose-colored perspective of Stan, a ten-year-old boy living in Houston—Linklater’s childhood stomping grounds—at the time of the mission. The film begins with two suited men pulling Stan aside at school and informing him that NASA accidentally built a spaceship that was too small for an adult to ride in. Given this, they’ll need Stan to perform a test run to the Moon instead of one of their highly trained adult astronauts. What follows is a 90-minute, highly sentimental, kaleidoscopic examination of 1969, spliced with moments from the greatest fantasy of the Stanleys of the world: Traveling to space. Linklater doesn’t spare any detail of what life was like back then, nor does he worry about boring audiences by delving into the minutiae of it all. Grown-up Stanley (Jack Black), Apollo’s narrator, bounces confidently between descriptions of the monotonous games the neighborhood kids used to play, breakdowns of the plots of old black-and-white sci-fi shows, the conservative methodologies Stanley’s mom applies in making school lunches for her kids, the nuances of spending time with grandparents who lived through the Depression and everything in between. Everything in the film that has to do with chronicling life in 1969 is so captivating on its own that one can’t help but wonder what Apollo would be like if it removed Stanley’s outer space subplot altogether. Still, where Apollo succeeds, it really succeeds. It’s a stylish meditation on childhood that isn’t afraid to indulge in all the sentimentality that goes along with that. Almost 30 years after Dazed and Confused, Linklater is still reminding us exactly why childhood is a uniquely special thing.—Aurora Amidon
My Father’s Dragon, the latest film from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, is directed by studio co-founder Nora Twomey and based on the beloved children’s book of the same name created by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This adaptation brings to life, in gorgeous 2D animation, a kaleidoscope of surreal visuals and strange creatures encountered by a little boy and his dragon friend. Theirs is an intimate story about processing fear, especially speaking to those children wrestling with the burdens of having to emotionally navigate real-world stresses that invade their lives too soon. Like Gannett’s book, My Father’s Dragon is also narrated (sparsely) by the unseen grown child (Mary Kay Place) of the story’s protagonist, Elmer Elevator (Jacob Tremblay). She sets up an adventure Elmer had in his childhood that not only utilized his talent for finding things, but was also life-changing, involving a talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg) and a dragon (Gaten Matarazzo). Twomey and her artists have done the magic of staying within the illustration aesthetic of their studio’s signature approach, while expanding that into a more surrealistic and fanciful approach that feels individual and unique. It will especially appeal to the sensitive kids (and adults) in your life, and it most definitely meets the high standards Cartoon Saloon continues to make in the medium. —Tara Bennett
Early on, Wendell & Wild feels like it might not be for kids so much as inebriated adults. Over the course of its runtime, that is revealed to be a reductive appraisal—it’s a spooky coming-of-age comedy made of sad and dramatic moments which demonstrate the importance of community resistance to corporate control of the government. The plot has enough going on that it could have been a TV series or a two-parter, but for whatever its flaws or limitations, it flows coherently for 106 minutes to a satisfactory conclusion. All the while, it’s a marvel of artistry and artisanship, with a soundtrack full of Black-fronted rock bands to boot. Kat (Lyric Ross), a young green-haired Black girl, loses her parents—pillars of their community—in a car accident and is roughed up over the years by the juvenile justice system as the film visually summarizes through shadow-puppet illustrations of memories. It’s a nice added layer, artistically and didactically. A grant-funded reintegration program brings Kat back to her now largely-deserted hometown, Rust Bank, and its eponymous private Catholic school. There, Kat discovers her supernatural connection to the underworld through Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele). Wendell & Wild reminded me of Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas, but it isn’t cribbing from what has come before. It’s building on it, and kids and parents everywhere are lucky to have this film. Selick hasn’t directed a lot of movies, but his films have a lasting impact, etching themselves in the memories of their audiences for decades. —Kevin Fox, Jr.
6. The House
Somewhere in the realm of Tim Burton meets Wes Anderson lurks Netflix’s new stop-motion anthology The House. Produced by Nexus Studios, the adult-oriented film tells three independent 30-minute stories about the humans and animals who live in the seemingly innocuous eponymous dwelling. Directing the individual entries are four indie animators: Belgium-based duo Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, Swedish director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and British director/actress Paloma Baeza. Its premise feels like a creative writing prompt in the best way, and each director uses the house motif as a launchpad into their own weird worlds. The resulting stories take place in different time periods with different species, but there’s a cohesiveness across the episodes’ themes and offbeat humor. Marketed as a dark comedy, The House is less concerned with laugh-out-loud jokes than peculiar ironies as the series ruminates on what it means to renovate oneself. Stop motion is a tedious, finicky art form unsuited for rapid commercial production, so there’s something thrilling about the glossy Netflix machine throwing its weight behind a niche project like this one. It’s not for everyone, but with a short runtime and idiosyncratic direction, The House tells a transportive series of fables for fans of the less-beaten path. —Annie Lyons
5. Mad God
Though it begins by quoting the 26th chapter of Leviticus—“I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors”—Mad God plays out like the Book of Revelation. Punishment and apocalypse are writ large and brown in feces and industrial run-off. Medical malpractice means more than negligence, it means quacks and ghouls elbow-deep in your guts. All is grist, everything is decay, human bodies little more than rag dolls made of shit. A so-called “She-it,” a screeching, walking tumor of hair and bared teeth, defends her beaked young against the mania of Mad God’s wasteland, wielding a cleaver. (All while I crammed so-called “Cheez-Its” down my gullet, watching and ceaselessly consuming.) Your pleasing odors escape un-savored into the ether. And just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of Hell, convinced there are no more realms of the beyond left to unveil, you see there is always more bottom, always more beyond. You see whole universes of innocent creatures suffering behind heavy vault-like doors, within the memories of one disposable martyr after another, in the spaces yet to be born. In a series of ever-obliterating visions, Mad God reduces the human experience to cosmic chum. It’s deeply upsetting, and often just as stirring. It would be a pretty clearly nihilistic piece of work, too, were it not such a careful, frequently astounding achievement. A stop-motion film 30 years in the making—beginning with an idea sparked during a lull in shooting Robocop 2—Mad God is mostly the work of one man, legendary animator Phil Tippett, every elaborately nauseating set hand-fashioned over the course of decades. In Mad God, life seems meaningless. Stories don’t end when protagonists die because there are only antagonists running reality. And yet, as punishing as the film can get, it’s also clearly, fully realized, as pure a translation of a remarkable man’s bodily prowess—action, reaction, sinew and muscle and bone in tandem, the heartrending inertia of all things moving toward obliteration and the patience to let that happen—as we’re privileged enough to get from someone who’s already given us so much of himself. For all the grossness, all the bodily fluids and misery and Dan Wool’s charmingly contratonal music, for all the cynicism about the nature of the human race, Mad God is ultimately hopeful. It’s an absolution, for Tippett and maybe for us too. Nothing that’s taken 30 years, and so much health and sanity, could be anything but.—Dom Sinacola
When cartographers allowed their senses of imagination and self-preservation to fill the unexplored regions of their maps, they used to warn of creatures like lions, elephants and walruses. Creatures beyond understanding, with teeth and trunks and tusks easy to caricature into danger. But we mostly remember that when you sail to the faded edge of knowledge, there be dragons. The Sea Beast deftly hones this ancient human fear into a sharpened spear tip, striking at ignorance. Its swashbuckling adventure navigates a sea filled with massive critters sure to whet kids’ appetites for piracy, Godzilla films and exciting animation. The first movie from longtime Disney story staple Chris Williams after leaving the House of Mouse for Netflix, The Sea Beast is, to paraphrase Jared Harris’ Ahab-like Captain Crow, all piss and vinegar. That the film even alludes to the phrase, and drops a few other lightly-salted lines you might expect from some seasoned sea dogs, is indicative of its separation from the sanitized juggernaut. It looks violence in the eye; it isn’t afraid to make its threats real. All rightfully so. Telling a tall tale of hunters—mercenary crews funded by a colonialist crown to take out the kaijus populating the ocean—wouldn’t be right without at least a little edge. Our way into the world, the young Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), has experienced its dangerous realities firsthand: Her parents went down with a ship, leaving her as one of dozens of hunter orphans. But that hasn’t stopped her from lionizing her martyred family (something explicitly encouraged by the monarchy) and seeking her own glory. Stowing away on Crow’s ship, the Inevitable, she and the capable Jacob (Karl Urban) find themselves confronting the legendary ambitions they’ve built up in their own heads. Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin immediately drop us into the Inevitable’s quest to take out Crow’s toothy and horned Red Whale, dubbed the Red Bluster, with total confidence that there’s no time like maritime. As our eyes roll and pitch across the impressively realistic waves and our ears try to follow the meticulously detailed helmsmanship, the hunting scenes ensnare us like the catch of the day. We understand the hierarchy of the diverse crew, the honor code among hunters, the tactics needed to take down imposing creatures that look like Toho turned their greatest hits into Pokémon. It’s savvy and respectful writing, put into legible action by Williams’ skilled hand, that trusts in its setting and subject matter to be inherently cool, and in its audience to greedily follow along. By the time the lances are flying, the cannons are firing and the creatures are dying—or are they?—you’re as deeply hooked as any dad watching Master and Commander. A delightful new-school deconstruction of old-school Romantic adventure that never compromises on the lushness of setting, color and emotion inherent in the latter, The Sea Beast rises to the front of Netflix’s animated offerings like a high tide.—Jacob Oller
Belle explodes onto the screen with a bombastic concert in a virtual world. Known simply as U, it’s the ultimate virtual community where users can become entirely different from their dull real-life counterparts. Among them is one singer that has captured the love and adoration of billions. As the starlet Belle begins belting out her opening number, center stage on the back of a giant whale, it’s easy to be swept into this vibrant world. Thankfully, Belle has enough substance to back up this spectacle. The crux of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film is a reimagined Beauty and the Beast mixed with teenage adversity in a digital wonderland. It’s a potpourri of hormones, misunderstandings and animation styles that recall his 2009 breakthrough Summer Wars. Belle even relies on the family dynamics seen in some of his later movies—like the lone outcast Ren in 2015’s The Boy and the Beast or the wolf siblings in 2012’s Wolf Children. Hosoda’s children have always had to endure great tragedies. It’s within this combination of family struggles and virtual reality that Belle finds its groove. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old high school student who lives in the countryside with her father (Koji Yakusho). Although a few years have passed since the death of her mother, Suzu is still traumatized. She’s shut out the world around her, her despair sapping her of her joy and love of singing. Her relationship with her father is nonexistent, and she’s a certifiable pariah at school. Suzu takes the plunge and joins the world of U. This new world—free of the pressures of reality—allows Suzu to pursue singing once again. That’s until trouble arises in the form of a violent avatar known as “The Dragon.” Belle’s most spellbinding sequences come from inside the virtual world of U. Colorful 3D figures float through a kaleidoscope of colors and towering structures. The biggest setpieces in the movie take place here: An epic concert for billions of eager spectators, a battle through a castle—these are only a few of the memorable sights and sounds of U. To get an idea of what it sounds like, Nakamura’s contributions are like a mixture of rap and pop that becomes an instant earworm like on the opening title, “U.” The song brings in a wild rhythm while Nakamura races to keep up with the beat. It’s the perfect introduction to this futuristic virtual world. Other songs, like the ballad “Lend Me Your Voice” and the soaring anthem “A Million Miles Away,” are more traditional pieces that build up to crescendos that will have your hairs standing on end. Not only is it an intriguing retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it’s also a moving story about overcoming grief and seeking help when everything seems lost. Though it tackles a little too much, Belle is a triumph.—Max Covill
2. Turning Red
Filmmaker Domee Shi (who delivered the best short Pixar’s ever made in Bao) becomes the first woman to direct a Pixar movie alone, and her floofy red panda’s coming-of-age story stretches the strengths of the company’s legacy. Turning Red is a hyper-cute whirlwind of figurative layers and literal loveliness, dense with meaning and meaningful even to the most dense among us. An exceptional puberty comedy by way of Sanrio-branded Kafka, Turning Red’s truthful transformations are strikingly charming, surprisingly complex and satisfyingly heartfelt. And yes, so cute you might scream until you’re red in the face. Hyperactive 13-year-old overachiever Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) likes to think she runs Toronto with her weirdo friends, partitioning her life into boy-band obsession, extracurricular exceptionalism and deference to intense mom Ming (Sandra Oh) and soft-spoken dad Jin (Orion Lee). She’s got it all balanced, embodying the multiple identities we develop as we become our own people with the overwhelming energy of someone discovering this exciting new freedom for the first time. Chiang’s crackling vocal performance and a blistering visual pace right out the gate make it clear that Mei’s a ridiculous little goober who knows exactly who she is. That is, until she’s “visited by the red panda.” What initially seems like a fairly straightforward allegory for the bodily betrayal and raging emotions of puberty starts scooping up more and more relatable elements into its impressive, finely detailed bear hug. Shi and co-writer Julia Cho weave an ambitious amount of themes into a narrative that’s main plot engine is boy-band concert lust. Its love-hate bout with puberty is obvious, but self-actualization, filial piety and intergenerational trauma keep its romping red wonder from feeling one-note or derivative of underwhelming transformation tales. Turning Red’s oddball characters and well-rooted fantasy inject personality into the common plot device. Not only one of Pixar’s best efforts from the last half-decade, Turning Red is one that overcomes some of the animation giant’s weaknesses. It’s original and human-centric; it’s not particularly beholden to messages more weepy for adults than enjoyable for children. It’s funny without being overly witty and smart without being overly heady. Shi displays a fantastic ability for integrating the specific and personal into the broad beats of a magical cartoon, all done sweetly and endearingly enough to become an instant favorite among modern kids and those who’ll recognize their past selves. —Jacob Oller
Guillermo del Toro has never shied away from infusing the harsh realities of life and death into the journeys of his young protagonists. His fascination with the intersections of childhood innocence and macabre whimsy are what make him the ideal co-director of Netflix’s newest Pinocchio adaptation, a work that marvelously marries the filmmaker’s flair for dark fantasy with the equally strange fairy tale elements of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio. Like all successful marriages, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio brings out the very best of both parties. The stop-motion musical is an artistic triumph that colors Collodi’s cherished storybook characters with humanity and depth to craft a mature tale about rebellion, mortality and the love between a parent and child. This rendition marks the 22nd film adaptation of the Italian novel, and while it remains true to the grisly nature of Collodi’s original stories, it boldly departs from its dated moral lessons. In The Adventures of Pinocchio (and notable renditions thereafter), Pinnochio’s many escapades are structured as cause-and-effect narratives that serve to caution children against defiant behavior. In Disney’s 1940 animated feature, an evening of fun and relaxation on “Pleasure Island’’ nearly turns the wooden boy into a salt-mining donkey. In the original serial La Storia di un Burattino, delinquent behavior leads him to a gruesome death. These values of compliance and servility are reversed by del Toro’s fascist setting. In his Pinocchio, disobedience is a virtue—not a crime. These moral examinations are given a sense of urgency in death—a theme that informs so much of the film’s mind and soul. Where previous adaptations are preoccupied with life—with the puppet’s extraordinary consciousness and the hope that he may someday become a “real boy”—del Toro’s Pinocchio is interested in what our mortality can teach us about being human. In the film, death is never too far away from the protagonist or his loved ones. Death touches Carlo, then remains close to Pinocchio throughout his epic journey. The beauty of del Toro’s Pinocchio is that death isn’t treated with the usual dread and cynicism we typically see in the Western world. Here, death is mysterious, ethereal, soaked in gorgeous blue light. Death is not something to be feared, but respected and accepted when the time comes, because the notion that we will someday—maybe unexpectedly—leave this earth is what makes our time here so beautiful. I don’t typically advise listening to crickets, but believe Sebastian J., because the story of Pinocchio has never been told quite like this.—Kathy Michelle Chacón