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The Best Animated Films Of 2021

The year in animated films has offered something for everyone, from cute talking animals to demon-slaying antics. Plots have included a robot rebellion-interrupted family road trip, a kidnapped snail needing rescue from a sponge and a starfish, and a super-powered squirrel helping a cynical child cope with real-life woes. Now, that's some range.

Vibrant, eye-popping visuals, ground-breaking queer teen representation, inclusivity and diversity have abounded as well. The films below feature CGI, live-action, hand-drawn animation, or a mixture of all of the above. Thematically, several of the films tackle family dynamics, whether it's the broken family in "Flora & Ulysses" or the "family is where you find it" message behind "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run." Trust in yourself — and others — also figures heavily as a theme in "Raya and the Last Dragon."

Everything on the list below can be enjoyed together by families, including the demon-slaying. Yes, really! Here, then, are the best animated films of 2021.

"The Mitchells vs The Machines"

"The Mitchells vs The Machines" has made a big splash since it hit theaters on April 23, streaming a week later on Netflix. The film has been lauded not just for its family friendly fun, but also because one of its lead characters, teen Katie Mitchell, is queer, out, and accepted.

Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is on a road trip with her family, which is quickly derailed when technology rises up against humanity. Her ingenuity and creativity helps save the day, and her family — which includes the voices of Maya Rudolph, Danny McBride, and the film's director Michael Rianda — treat her queerness matter-of-factly.

The film is Certified Fresh at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Robert Daniels of The Los Angeles Times calls the film "unwaveringly sweet," noting that it uses a "colorful blend of biting absurdity and copious dad jokes" to mitigate its basic man vs. machine story. Derek Smith of Slant Magazine writes: "While 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines' certainly lays out the dangers of technology run amok, it also sees its power to connect people, with different outlooks and from different generations, in meaningful, even healing, ways." Nell Minow at Movie Mom says the film isn't afraid to point out how weird families are. She calls the movie "fast and fun and funny and exciting," with a "vivid, poppy energy" that ultimately adds up to "a heartwarming tribute to families and to the unconquerable spirit that lurks within the weirdness."

"Demon Slayer: Mugen Train"

"Demon Slayer: Mugen Train" (aka "Kimetsu no Yaiba: Mugen Ressha-Hen") already rode the tracks to massive box office success overseas before getting a theatrical release in the U.S. on April 23, even passing 2001's massively popular "Spirited Away" in grosses for anime films. The Haruo Sotozaki-directed sequel to a popular Japanese TV series and manga concerns Tanjiro, a young teenager who fights demons on the titular train along with a group of demon-slayers while trying to save his sister, who has been turned into a demon. The film is rated 97% at Rotten Tomatoes.

Daniel Kurland of Den of Geek enthuses that although the movie "trades in extravagance ... every frame of 'Mugen Train' is packed with passion. This film is such a thorough love letter to both the anime and its fans." G. Allen Johnson over at The San Francisco Chronicle praises the film's "kinetic" visuals and says it "is sharply paced, colorful fun." Variety's Peter Debruge is more restrained, saying the film "will be hard for newbies to follow" because of its reliance "on the complex mythology established by the 26-episode show." He notes, though, that even if it all "sounds confusing, rest assured that there's a wacky enjoyment to be had even when things don't make sense."

"Raya and the Last Dragon"

Featuring Disney Animation's first Southeast Asian princess, "Raya and the Last Dragon" was released to overwhelming critical acclaim. It became available on Disney+ and in theaters on March 5, and is Certified Fresh at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" boasts the voice talents of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, and Daniel Dae Kim, and tells the tale of Kumandra, a once-united country now divided since the evil Druun were banished by the sacrifices of Kumandra's once-plentiful dragons. However, infighting among Kumandra's nations allows the Druun to return. Raya searches for Sisu, the last dragon, in order to save Kumandra and restore everyone turned to stone by the Druun.

Vulture's Alison Willmore writes that "Raya and the Last Dragon" is "a marvel of character design, world-building, and canny choices." Kevin Maher of Times (UK) says audiences "will watch the last 30 minutes of the movie on the verge of tears." Justin Chang at The Los Angeles Times points out that while the film is "an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations," it's "pleasing range of faces, skin tones and body types on display helps offset the anonymous quality that plagues even the most sophisticated three-dimensional character design." He praises most of all Raya, who he calls "an appealing amalgam of countless smart, unpretentious, down-to-earth action heroes before her — the kinds of characters that, as with this movie, you gravitate toward as much for their familiarity as for their novelty."

"Flora & Ulysses"

"Flora & Ulysses," based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, appears to have snuck under the radar for many in terms of its release. Having made its debut via Disney+ on February 19, the film stars Matilda Lawler as Flora, a 10-year-old comic-book lover and self-described cynic who rescues a squirrel she names Ulysses. Ulysses, voiced by John Kassir, develops powers after his accident and decides to become a superhero.

A film with a plucky young heroine and a cute CGI animal is a good fit for Disney, which is also no stranger to deeper family dynamics. Flora is dealing with her parents' divorce and the distressing feeling that her mother doesn't love her, and Ulysses helps her cope. The cast includes Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, and Danny Pudi.

Director Lena Khan, working from Brad Copeland's screenplay, has produced "a tonally faithful adaptation of" the novel, though Copeland "altered some of the book's dramas," writes Kate Ebland at IndieWire. Erbland says the film is "an inventive, sweet story filled with classic storytelling beats and enough new fluff to appeal to a wide audience." Geeks of Color's Ferdosa Abdi calls it "an absolute delight" and praises Lawler's acting, saying she "perfectly captures the childlike wonder that comes with being an excitable kid who loves comics." CBR's Josh Bell says that there's "enough potential here to imagine 'Flora & Ulysses' becoming the first original Disney+ franchise," though there's been no word on that — yet. "Flora & Ulysses" is rated 72% on Rotten Tomatoes.

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run"

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run," billed as "the first-ever all CGI SpongeBob motion picture event" is the latest big-screen adventure for the silly little poriferan. SpongeBob and his BFF Patrick search for SpongeBob's missing snail, Gary. Turns out King Poseidon is holding Gary hostage to use his snail slime as a youth serum, and SpongeBob and Patrick must rescue him — while getting up to wacky hijinks along the way, of course.

Tim Hill directs and provides the voice of the Documentary Narrator. SpongeBob voice talents Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Clancy Brown, Rodger Bumpass, Mr. Lawrence, and Carolyn Lawrence return. Newcomers include Awkafina, Keanu Reeves, and Matt Berry. The film also introduces Kamp Koral, the setting of a new streaming series for the square dude.

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run," rated 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, is "a joyful and loving tribute to the oddball world that [creator Stephen] Hillenburg envisioned" that's also "alive with laughs and light-hearted lunacy," says Kristy Puchko at IGN. Bilge Ebiri at Vulture leans into the absurdity of the film, likening it to seeing H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch monster, Cthulhu: "[Y]ou walk away from the experience a changed person, possibly raving about the apocalypse." Time's Stephanie Zacharek calls it "an act of loony generosity we shouldn't refuse," adding, "All that matters here is joy. ... Whether you're eight or 80, you'll get all the jokes in 'Sponge on the Run.' Its wisdom is infinite."