After theater closures following the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the worst box office returns since 1980, Hollywood has an uncertain year ahead. But one thing’s for sure. In 2021, every major studio is betting big on family animation.
There’s lots of sense to this. Family-friendly animated films form a genre that, alongside superhero movies, is all but “guaranteed” to get people into theaters.
With more than 30 cartoon movies slated for release this year, count on several to bomb hard. The jury is very much out whether audiences will respond to big-screen reboots of nostalgia franchises like “Tom and Jerry” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” or prequels on top of sequels like “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”
Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hitmaker behind “Hamilton” and “Moana,” has two animated musicals set to release. There’s even a WWE-backed “monster wrestling” movie coming.
All this considered, maybe a glut of worthwhile entries will cause families to seek quality storytelling among the duds. At least, fans and critics who love the animation medium can be heartened that top talent in the field has ample work. Positioning cartoon feature films as a kiddie cash-grab, however, mar the future of an art form pioneered by American filmmakers.
When talented directors marry a sharp script with expressive voice actors and eye-popping visuals — representing the work of hundreds of artists over years — it’s hard to deny the power of animated films. Consider when animation studios have put their best efforts of world-building and character development into writing and directing the hardest genre to pull off: comedy. Yet, years later, these ten flicks are still good for plenty of laughs.
10. ‘Horton Hears A Who’ (Blue Sky Studios, 2008)
A quick-witted adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s timeless, hand-drawn book, “Horton Hears A Who” keeps the gags coming as it carries vital themes about valuing every life. With apologies to “Ice Age” flicks, it represents the best work of Blue Sky, a studio recently acquired by the Magic Kingdom. As such, families can access this one on Disney Plus.
9. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ (Sony Pictures Animation, 2018)
“Spider-Verse” moves so fast, one can hardly catch all the sly humor. This visual stunner can’t be called a comedy per se, but deserves to land on almost every “best-of” list. While some prefer Sony’s “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” the filmmakers behind that one tackled similar themes in “The Lego Movie” (see below) to even greater effect.
8. ‘Tangled’ (Disney, 2010)
Since 2000, a dozen fractured fairy tales — including little-recalled “Hoodwinked,” which almost made this list — have lit up the big screen, although none as funny or charming as “Tangled” from veteran animator Glen Keane. With Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi voicing the sparring leads, this take on Rapunzel has soaring songs that don’t overpower the comic story.
7. ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (DreamWorks, 2008)
DreamWorks Animation has leaned into comedy as its brand, with mixed results — from the first feature “Antz” to “Madagascar” and beyond. Sometimes their story process fires laughs on all cylinders, as in this wacky mash-up of martial arts parody, the hero’s journey, and ad-libbed lines from Jack Black among other top comedians. As with all entries here, skip the TV spin-offs to enjoy this franchise’s best material.
6. ‘Finding Nemo’ (Pixar, 2003)
Because Pixar films expertly balance emotional drama with well-timed comedic moments, it’d be easy to pack a best-of list with “Toy Story” and other franchises. Rising above the rest, this fish-out-of-water tale deserves recognition for its artistry, strong themes of fatherhood, and director Andrew Stanton’s choice of top comic actors to voice this ensemble dramedy.
5. ‘Chicken Run’ (Aardman, 2000)
Small but inventive British animation studio Aardman got its big break at the turn of the millennium with “Chicken Run,” a prison-break parody featuring Mel Gibson as a cocky rooster. Their later “Wallace and Grommit” film, also produced in that signature stop-motion style rarely seen today, offered an equal helping of zaniness.
4. ‘The Lego Movie’ (Warner Bros., 2014)
Considering Warner Bros. hadn’t made an animated feature for 13 years, this one came out of nowhere. Geared pointedly to Generation Z with its hyper-fast, tongue-in-cheek style, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller rose to fame with this hilarious twist of a “Toy Story” concept, complete with an excellent third-act surprise that got parents teary-eyed.
3. ‘Megamind’ (DreamWorks, 2010)
Ten years ago, somehow two cartoon films about supervillains who learn to become heroes were released a few months apart. Upstart studio Illumination took the world by storm with “Despicable Me,” a Steve Carell vehicle that keeps chugging with its fifth franchise entry coming in 2021. Many people missed Will Ferrell’s take on a similar role in this endlessly quotable flick.
2. ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (Pixar, 2001)
Opening a fantastical alternate reality, this snappy, colorful movie skewers cookie-cutter corporatism as it engages viewers in a madcap comedy of errors. With nary a second wasted, it’s easy to miss how gags and one-liners from veteran performers like Billy Crystal are used as plot exposition. Packed with laughs and heart, “Monsters, Inc.” tells a multi-dimensional story that could only be realized in animation.
1. ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (Disney, 2000)
Coming out of its Renaissance Era, Disney Animation took an experimental approach to stories in the early 2000s. While “Lilo & Stitch” along with “Bolt” are fun rides, the famously chaotic production of “Emperor” found a cult following. Pitch-perfect delivery from comedy greats Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, and David Spade merged with frenetic pacing and Looney Tunes styling for a film that achieves more than the sum of its parts.