In Review

Best animation films of 2021

Top movies include Ron’s Gone Wrong, Soul, and Luca

1

Ron’s Gone Wrong

The story of this “impressively funny” animated film is familiar, said Huw Fullerton in the Radio Times. A craze is sweeping through schools, and “every kid in town” has their hands on a hot new toy. This time it’s not Pokémon Cards or even iPhones that are sending children crazy, but high-tech droids called B-Bots. Marketed as “your best friend out of the box”, they can sing, play and dress up. Only our lonely hero Barney, voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, is too poor to have such a companion, until his father (Ed Helms) gives him a beaten-up unit that fell off a truck – but which turns out to have more character than any of the pristine droids other children own. 

The film is a “mercilessly funny satire” on the way our devices have become despots, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. It’s like “Black Mirror for children” – except that it pushes “witty mockery instead of apocalyptic despair”. Olivia Colman in particular is hilarious as Barney’s grandma, “a massive Russian crone of peasant stock” who stomps around beheading chickens. Peter Baynham, best known for Borat and I’m Alan Partridge, co-wrote the script and has created a perfect blend of “madcap farce and piercingly precise gags about social media”. 

Be sure to catch it in the cinema, so that the paradox of watching it on a tablet “doesn’t make your head spin”. There are some “genuinely tender moments” in the film, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Yet it feels derivative and made by algorithm: a “cheeky tech spin on E.T.” with borrowings from Pixar’s WALL-E and Disney’s Big Hero 6. And though “good-natured”, the film takes a “suspiciously neutral” position on the question of whether children should abandon digital enslavement in favour of real-life friendships.

2

Soul

From its first feature – 1995’s Toy Story – onwards, Pixar has never been shy of tackling the big questions. In Soul, the animation studio takes on the greatest of them of all – the meaning of life, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, and it does so with all the “beauty”, “humour” and “heart” for which it has become known. Pixar’s first film with an African American protagonist is about a New York jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who is scraping a living as a high school teacher while longing for success as a performer. Then, moments after being booked for a potentially life-changing gig, he falls down a manhole. His soul ends up in The Great Beyond, a fuzzy pastel afterlife; but such is his desperation to realise his dream, he manages to slip back to Earth with another soul named 22 (a “delightfully irritating” Tina Fey), who has never occupied a physical body before. 

3

Luca

Set in Italy, Pixar’s latest offering is a “gorgeous parable” about the relationship between two young sea monsters, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Bookish Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and bold Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) are merboys who find they are able to assume human form to explore the nearby fishing village. With the aid of a spirited teenager (Emma Berman), they set out to win the local triathlon. However, the villagers loathe sea monsters, and the risk of discovery creates a thrilling tension. Some viewers have read the story as an allegory about growing up gay. Pixar insists the boys’ relationship is not romantic, but the film does deal with themes of belonging and identity, and with its tear-jerking finale, it is “soul food for kids of all ages”.

4

Raya and the Last Dragon

The heroine of this “sizzlingly enjoyable” animation is in many respects a traditional Disney princess, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph – but hand her a sword and she’ll show you some moves that would make Rapunzel’s hair stand on end. Orphaned martial arts expert Raya has the task of restoring harmony to the kingdom of Kumandra, whose people have been divided by an ancient curse. To do this she enlists the help of a dragon called Sisu, among other animal allies. They’re charming enough, but it’s the Southeast Asian kingdom itself – a beautiful and “teemingly strange” world of temple cities and bamboo forests – that really bursts with personality and colour. Driving the plot is Raya’s rivalry with another princess, Namaari, who shifts from standard villain to something more enigmatic. This is “a feast of a film”. 

5

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

The plot of this animated film is unhindered by convention, said Ben Travis in Empire: in other words, it’s “nuts”. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional nuclear family struggling to connect with each other in the world of modern technology. As daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) prepares to leave for film school, her father (Danny McBride) realises how distanced they’ve become. His solution is to turn her journey into a family road trip – which is then derailed by a robot apocalypse. With the rest of the world’s population enslaved by an Alexa-like AI (Olivia Colman), it’s left to the Mitchells to save humanity. Marrying dynamic visuals with a script that’s “as funny as hell”, the award-winning producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller show themselves to be “light years” ahead of the competition. 

6

Encanto 

The bespectacled heroine of Disney’s latest animated musical has one “radical” characteristic, said Kevin Maher in The Times: she’s “unexceptional”. She is a member of a “flamboyant Colombian family” in which every person has a familiar kind of gift – super-strength, the ability to control the weather, and so on. But Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), has nothing going for her beyond a “quirky, imperfect and slightly cerebral sense of fun”. When an old family curse is unleashed, however, and the Madrigal clan – ensconced in a vast country mansion that brings to mind the institute in X-Men – are stripped of their superpowers, Mirabel comes into her own.

The computer animation in this “brilliant” film is some of the best we’ve seen in years, said Maya Phillips in The New York Times. The colours are fabulous, and “precious details” such as the embroidery on skirts have been “meticulously woven”. As for the score – by Lin-Manuel Miranda – it is “spellbinding”, combining salsa, bachata and hip hop played on traditional Colombian folk instruments. In this and other ways, the film shows a “robust engagement with, and respect for, Latino culture” in all its forms. “Issues of representation” have certainly been “sensitively handled”, said Tara Brady in The Irish Times, but “where is the plot, exactly”? The voice cast is “charming”, and the visuals are “eye-popping”, but there’s “no hint of adventure or jeopardy” to really engage the audience. In the end, this is a film that feels “manufactured by a committee”.

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