Whether an anime fan, stop-motion enthusiast, or craver of CGI spectacles rich in colour and cute critters, 2022's animated titles had you covered.
If you'd been following the year-end coverage of entertainment publications around the world, the paucity of animated features and series in their best-of lists would have been glaringly evident. This in no way reflects the quality of last year’s crop. 2022 was a decidedly strong one for the medium. The D&D series The Legend of Vox Machina (Amazon Prime Video) and Mitsuo Iso’s The Orbital Children (Netflix) were early shots in the arm. Turning Red (Disney+ Hotstar) set the tone for feature-length animation. Whether you were a hardcore or casual anime fan, a stop-motion enthusiast looking for a horror classic in the making, a nostalgic looking for a rotoscoped love letter to growing up in the ‘60s, or a parent running on empty and looking to keep the kids occupied with an empty CGI spectacle rich in colour and cute critters, 2022 had you covered.
Pixar Vs The Rest
When it comes to the big studios, the story hasn’t read too differently in recent years. Pixar had another mixed outing: Turning Red was the studio building a new legacy with a tween-centred, anime-meets-Kafka, coming-of-age outlier; Lightyear was the studio mining its past legacy for a cash grab. The work of studios like DreamWorks (The Bad Guys), Illumination (Minions: The Rise of Gru) and Paramount (Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank) roughly fit into the same mould: the storytelling is derivative, the animation reliant on computer-generated imagery, and the overall result may tickle the kids pink, not so much us older folk.
The Bear Necessity
While the puberty-as-panda allegory of Turning Red may have left some of the kids 10 years and younger bamboozled, they will do doubt come to appreciate Domee Shi’s ground-breaking film once those hormones hit with an accompanying tornado of intense emotions. It is rare to see a film, animated or otherwise, nail the often-messy mother-daughter dynamics so well. Not to mention celebrate Chinese culture and tween insecurities. It’s a marriage of craft and heart that shows every now and again, personal vision and innovation can still be achieved within big studios. The only gripe is about the distribution strategy. Disney rerouted the film to its streaming platform without any kind of theatrical window. Even second-tier studio fare like DC League of Super-Pets enjoyed a short stint at the cinemas.
Netflix Animation Gets A Few 'Wins' — Finally
If Netflix hadn’t been able to challenge Pixar’s supremacy so far, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The streaming giant’s animation division is still in its nascent years, and its movies until 2021 couldn’t match Pixar in terms of artistry or storytelling. Things however changed in 2022. Just when you thought Netflix might raise the white flag, it got to enjoy its place in the sun. The Sea Beast was an oak solid maritime adventure yarn even if the creature design and CG wasn’t up to scratch.
The streaming platform became the de facto home of stop motion animation with not one, not two, but three titles this year: The House, Wendell & Wild, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Add Richard Linklater’s rotoscope ode Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood and the Cartoon Saloon co-produced picture-book adaptation My Father’s Dragon, Netflix’s 2022 catalogue represented the many different ways animated movies can look, move and feel.
The Anime Highlights
One can’t celebrate the year in animation without talking about the animes, which are now more accessible than ever, thanks to Crunchyroll and other streaming services. New episodes drop the same day or within a day of airing in Japan. Shonen staple Attack on Titan (Disney+ Hotstar) entered its final stretch. Stakes tend to increase with each season of a typical shonen anime: the bad guys get more powerful, more ruthless and sometimes more complex as well. Mob Psycho 100 (Netflix) takes the opposite route by going bigger with emotion rather than action in its final season. Bringing down the stakes, it tripled down on its earnest plea for kindness in the face of cruelty.
Meanwhile, traps, mind games and counter-strategies continued in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War – Ultra Romantic (Crunchyroll) as Miyuki and Kaguya try to coax an admission of love from the other. The animation as always is on the mark in capturing the tension like it were a life-and-death battle in this bizarro romcom. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean (Netflix) lived up to the franchise’s legacy, delivering off-kilter humour, extended battles, and one badass protagonist.
For Mobile Suit Gundam veterans, The Witch from Mercury (Netflix) proved to be an excellent new iteration to recruit more initiates. For the initiates, it was the perfect entry point to a glorious pantheon. A critique of unfettered capitalism, class conflicts, political intrigue, mecha duels and a queer romance are all packed into 12 meaty episodes. Lycoris Recoil (Crunchyroll) is by no means as conceptually enterprising, but it manages to rise above its girls-with-guns template to be a finely tuned romp.
Spy × Family (Netflix), as the name suggests, mixes espionage thrills and domestic charades to wholesome results. The father is an undercover agent. The mother moonlights as an assassin. The daughter is a telepath. Theirs is a makeshift nuclear family assembled for a secret mission during a cold war between the nations of Westalis and Ostania. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (Netflix) was a welcome surprise, not held back in any way by the kind of bugs and glitches that hamstrung the video game experience.
Chainsaw Man (Ani-One channel on YouTube) was the clear breakout anime of the year. On making a contract with the devil Pochita, Denji is reborn as the titular hero who battles other devils alongside the Public Safety Devil Hunters. The action sequences are astonishing and remain easy to follow even when just about the most ridiculous things happen. Bocchi the Rock (Crunchyroll) is a spectacular animation showcase centred around a young wannabe guitarist prone to social anxiety and second-guessing herself. Her anxiety is expressed in a variety of visual styles: Claymation, paper cut-outs, zoetrope, live-action stock footage, etc. Tatami Time Machine Blues (Disney+ Hotstar) takes us right back to that Kyoto dorm 12 years after Masaaki Yuasa’s masterpiece, for another surreal adventure.
For The Grown-Ups
Based on Critical Role’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign, The Legend of Vox Machina gives us a gleefully profane and gruesomely violent fantasy epic as a band of misfit mercenaries defend the realm of Exandria. Season 3 of Harley Quinn picks up from where we left off: Harley and Poison Ivy are officially an item but must learn to accept the highs with the lows. It presents a discerning examination of what it means to be in a healthy relationship and not fall into old patterns. Meanwhile, Clayface robs Billy Bob Thornton’s life for a role of a lifetime, Batman obsesses over his parents’ murder, Catwoman cannot see eye to eye with him on their relationship, Joker runs for mayor on a socialist platform, and Bane wants his pasta maker back. Another joyous season for sure. Also delivering another batch of audacious episodes was Rick and Morty.
The Past In Rotoscope
In the season of memory pieces, Richard Linklater’s latest feature turned to rotoscope animation to bring to life the fantasy of his childhood. The animation style in Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood communicates the warm fuzzies of a memory recalled and the slipperiness of a fantasy, as a young boy realises his dream of going to the moon. Rotoscope allowed Linklater to recreate something at once familiar and abstract. Undone creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg doubled down on rotoscoping as a way to capture a shifting reality. The second season followed the time-hopping protagonist Alma as she unpacks her family’s inherited trauma.
A New Dawn For Stop Motion
One of the pleasant surprises last year was to see stop motion still thriving, despite hyperrealistic CGI having become the norm among the American studios. Thirteen years after Coraline, stop-motion wizard Henry Selick made a comeback with another coming-of-tale in Wendell and Wild. The visuals make up for an overstuffed, unfocused and disconnected story about a girl who can summon a pair of demonic siblings (voiced by Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele).
Guillermo del Toro’s pet project Pinocchio was the wish upon a star Disney couldn’t deliver. Against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise in fascist Italy, the Mexican filmmaker sets his iteration about an impressionable wooden boy forced to face the harsh reality of life and death. The movie is by no means perfect, but the hand-crafted artistry, the fluidity of movement and the expressiveness afforded by stop motion, paper over its narrative cracks.
The standout stop-motion film of the year was another pet project: Mad God, the Kickstarter-funded nightmare from visual effects legend Phil Tippett. Blood, guts, shit, monsters and all sorts of depravities are par for the course in this hellish odyssey rendered tactile by textures that pop off the screen. Like the best stop-motion movies, it burrows itself deep inside our brains.
The Must-See Shows
Bocchi the Rock!, Chainsaw Man, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, Harley Quinn (Season 3), JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 6: Stone Ocean, Kaguya-sama: Love Is War – Ultra Romantic, Mob Psycho 100 (Season 3), Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury, Spy x Family, The Legend of Vox Machina
The Must-See Movies
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, Mad God, Turning Red