Covid continued to sabotage the theatrical experience in 2021: that is true of all cinema, and especially of animation. Sony sent three of its animated features to Netflix and the fourth to Amazon Prime. Other major studios also rerouted their biggest films to streaming services in the US, with or without a simultaneous release in cinemas. Luca and Raya and the Last Dragon went to Disney+, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run and PAW Patrol: The Movie to Paramount+, and live-action and animation hybrids Tom and Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy to HBO Max. Only a few second-tier studio films, like MGM’s The Addams Family 2, received any kind of theatrical window (although, at the time of writing, Disney’s Encanto and Illumination’s Sing 2 are set to join them before the year is out).

These movies were made with children and teens in mind, as is Hollywood’s wont with animation. Some saw their theatrical releases jeopardised by the introduction of vaccine mandates in key American cities, at a time when few children had been jabbed. On the other hand, the films now also looked like valuable assets to the studios’ nascent streaming platforms: parents of young children are famously loyal subscribers.

Luca (2021)

Such parents are especially well served by these platforms, which let them replay their children’s favourite shows ad nauseam and saves them the considerable cost of a family outing to the cinema. Which raises the question: what is the future of family films on the big screen? When they’re not making the next Minions or Toy Story tentpole, will animation studios now focus on lower-budget streaming productions? Even Pixar, master of the animated event movie, is expanding into longform series.

Of course, animation is not just for kids, as some of the year’s best films demonstrated. In the documentary Flee, we watch director Jonas Poher Rasmussen sensitively interview his friend ‘Amin’ about his experiences as an Afghan refugee in Denmark. The intimacy between them allows the personality of Amin – whose anonymity is protected by the use of animation – to emerge in all its complexity, and so Flee sidesteps a tendency in films about refugees to sentimentalise their subjects.

War and refugees have become common subjects in European animated features. This year saw the premiere of Where Is Anne Frank, by Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman, which links the Holocaust victim’s story to the plight of modern-day refugees. Florence Miailhe’s The Crossing follows two children as they flee ethnic cleansing in a fictional Eastern European country. The paint-on-glass technique is striking – and extremely laborious – but the stilted character animation undermines the more dramatic parts of the story.

Cryptozoo (2021)

Streaming services aren’t only good for scooping up stranded Hollywood movies: they also release indie animated titles that might never have made it to our shores in previous eras. Netflix acquired The Summit of the Gods, a mountaineering drama based on the manga of the same name that’s tied loosely to the legend of real-life climber George Mallory. The film is very tightly crafted and reaches for a level of psychological intensity rarely found in animation. In the UK, Mubi released Cryptozoo, Dash Shaw’s freewheeling tribute to 60s counterculture and cryptid folklore.

Even so, many of the best and boldest independent films never make it to the UK. I wonder whether these highlights of 2021’s festival circuit will ever be distributed here: Archipelago, Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s mesmerising essay film about the history and landscapes of Quebec; Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People, Cesar Cabral’s inventive quasi-documentary profile of Brazilian cartoonist Angeli; and Dozens of Norths, the experimental first feature by Yamamura Kōji, doyen of Japan’s indie animation scene.

I see two big trends developing in the years ahead. China now produces a large number of animated features, many based on local mythology; some of these will rank among the top-grossing animated films globally every year, and a growing number will be exported. Meanwhile, Netflix’s headlong charge into auteur-led animation will start really bearing fruit in the next two years, when we’re due to get features by Guillermo del Toro, Henry Selick, Nora Twomey, Richard Linklater and others. This is a run the likes of which the industry has never seen. How many studios will follow suit and break the CG family comedy mould? Will Netflix itself keep up this pace?

A final note: the film I’m most excited about in 2022 is Perlimps, a radiant rainforest-set fantasy by Brazilian director Alê Abreu.

The best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema

By Isabel Stevens

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema