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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, 2021, 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 help 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. 

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, 2021, 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.

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, 2021.

"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, 2021, 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.

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," 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."


2021 was quite a year for Walt Disney Animation Studios — it's the first time they've released two films in a single year since 2016, with both "Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Encanto," the latter directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard.

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is a proud member of the Madrigal family. They live in the Casita, a sentient house filled with magic. That's not the only thing that's magical, however, as each member of the Madrigal family receives a "gift" of superhuman abilities, which range from understanding animals to shapeshifting to super strength. Everyone, that is, except for Mirabel, the only family member not blessed with a gift. When the immense power of the Madrigal family starts to diminish, Mirabel sets off on a mission to discover the source of the troubles and tries to save the family, finding her own purpose along the way.

"Encanto" is full of trademark Disney charm, introducing a lovely group of characters that families will love. It is deeply indebted to Colombian culture, and it has a fantastic suite of songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda that keeps things moving. Ultimately, "Encanto" continues the great Disney tradition of wonderful animated films, with gorgeous visuals and a heartwarming story.


Mamoru Hosada is something of a titan in the world of anime, having directed a number of popular films, including "Summer Wars," "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," "The Boy and the Beast," and the Oscar-nominated "Mirai." Hosada's films are always remarkably ambitious, but their understanding of human nature allows intimate moments to shine through the vastness of it all. Hosada already has a very impressive body of work, but "Belle" may just be his best film yet.

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy 17-year-old high school student in rural Japan. She was a happy child, but after her mother died attempting to save a drowning child, she has become increasingly reserved and alienated from her friends and family. Suzu keeps to herself, hiding her incredible singing voice, since the loss of her mother means she hardly ever sings anymore. In "Belle," a major new app is sweeping Japan: "U," a massive virtual reality where people create an avatar and are whisked away to a fantastical, and seemingly endless, world.

Suzu joins the world of U, creating a beautiful avatar called "Bell" and singing, which is extremely well-received by the people of U. They turn Bell into a global superstar, and her performances draw millions of attendees. "Belle" is full of some of the most breathtaking images you've ever seen, compelling characters, and a unique and thrilling story. Don't let this one fly under your radar.

Boss Baby: Family Business

The boss is back, baby! The original "Boss Baby" was something of a smash hit, earning an Oscar nomination, and even spawning a successful Netflix television series, "Boss Baby: Back in Business." In the sequel, Tim (James Marsden) and former Boss Baby Ted (Alec Baldwin) have grown up and, as adults, drifted away from each other. Ted is a big-time CEO, and Tim is a stay-at-home dad. Turns out there's a new boss baby in town, as Tim's daughter Tina (Amy Sedaris) takes a bold approach to bring the brothers back together. The principal of Tabitha's school, Dr. Ewin Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum), is up to no good, and Tina, Tim, and Ted have to band together to figure out what he's hiding and save the day.

"Family Business" recaptures plenty of the frantic and vibrant charm of the original "Boss Baby." It also provides some genuinely sharp critiques of capitalism and the seemingly endless use of technology in society, particularly in regards to its impact on children. "Family Business" is a funny and heartfelt look at family and a great choice for a relaxing movie night for all ages.

Ron's Gone Wrong

Life isn't easy for Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer). He's a lonely and awkward kid just trying to survive middle school, and he doesn't have a friend in the world. Nowadays everyone is obsessed with their B-bots, designed to be perfect robot companions that help their owners make friends. Barney is sure his problems all revolve around the fact that he doesn't have a B-bot, and once he gets one, everything will be better. Unfortunately for Barney, his father and grandmother don't have a whole lot of money, but they manage to surprise Barney with his very own B-bot for his birthday.

Barney is thrilled that he's finally got the tech of his dreams, but it's quickly apparent that the B-bot is not all it's cracked up to be. His B-bot, nicknamed Ron (Zach Galifianakis) constantly malfunctions and has none of the capabilities he is expecting. "Ron's Gone Wrong" marks the debut of a new animation studio, Locksmith Animation, and if the film is any indication, they are definitely one to watch. The animation style is charming and colorful, and the film is filled with a great sense of humor. There's also a strong — if occasionally ham-fisted — message about the hold technology has on kids in modern society.


Don't let the fact that "Luca" is Pixar's lowest-grossing film ever get you down. The pandemic has had an undeniable effect on cinema, and the fact that the film was released on Disney+ at the same time certainly took a toll as well. Despite the disappointing box office, "Luca" is a wondrous, charming film, and a very worthy addition to Pixar's prestigious filmography.

"Luca" tells the story of the titular Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a 12-year-old sea creature who lives with his family in the waters off the Italian coast. Luca has been told his whole life that the human world is a terrifying place rife with danger, but he still longs for more than his humdrum existence as a goldfish herder. One fateful day, Luca meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea creature who lives above the surface. Alberto encourages Luca to join him on land, which leads Luca on a thrilling, life-changing adventure.

Pixar's "Luca" is a tender and insightful look at the friendship between young boys. You can feel the love the filmmakers have for Italy, as the whole film is infused with Italian culture. While "Luca" may not have the same epic scope as some of Pixar's finest films, its scaled-back approach doesn't make it any less of a magical experience.


"Vivo" burst forth onto Netflix in 2021 with its bold colors, using a bright pastel palette and the vibrant backdrops of Florida and Cuba. Directed by Kirk DeMicco ("The Croods"), "Vivo" is about a song-obsessed kinkajou (a tropical rainforest mammal voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) who performs daily in Havana alongside his best friend Andrés (Juan de Marcos). Andrés gets an invitation to see his old friend Marta's (Gloria Estefan) last concert, all the way in Miami. Despite some serious hesitation, Vivo and Andrés set off on an adventure that is full of fun character designs, lovely music, and, above all, important self-discovery.

Lin-Manuel Miranda really had a banner year in 2021. Besides "Vivo," he's had a hand in creating "Encanto," "In the Heights," and "tick, tick...Boom!" Miranda not only has the starring role as Vivo, but he also wrote the songs for the film. Miranda uses his glorious blend of Broadway show tunes and hip-hop that gives "Vivo" its beating heart.


While the world of animation certainly has a reputation for being geared towards children, there are plenty of exceptions that demonstrate that it is a medium that can explore a huge range of emotions and experiences. "Flee" is certainly proof of that. The film, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is an animated documentary following the story of Amin Nawabi. Amin, who shares his story from the safety of Denmark, reflects on his life growing up in Afghanistan, and his harrowing tale of fleeing his home country as a young gay man in war-torn Kabul to live as a refugee.

"Flee" is an exquisitely powerful story of loss and resilience as the film charts Amin's stunning and often terrifying journey. It's always a thrill when a film comes along that changes what animation can do, and while it is not the first animated documentary, "Flee" feels like a landmark in adult animation. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called "Flee" "a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary," and we couldn't agree more.


An unabashed criticism of the structures of capitalism and the surge of commodification, "Cryptozoo" is a wild, kaleidoscopic ride. The film investigates a group of hunters of mythical creatures, whose goal is to gather all of the "cryptids" into a magnificent sanctuary called the Cryptozoo. Well, the hunters call it a sanctuary, but in reality, it's more of a theme park, where members of the public can gawk at the majestic creatures. Their biggest goal is to capture a Baku, which they consider to be the most powerful of all creatures. The excellent voice cast includes Zoe Kazan, Lake Bell, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie, and Michael Cera.

It's incredibly refreshing to still see hand-drawn animation, especially when it feels as boundary-pushing and creative as "Cryptozoo." As noted by Leslie Felperin for The Guardian, it's "utterly bizarre in the best possible way, this lovingly handmade animated feature by writer-director Dash Shaw ... isn't like anything you've seen before." The film is a striking, hallucinatory experience reminiscent of animated classics like "Fantastic Planet" and "Belladonna of Sadness." Put simply, "Cryptozoo" is a complete original and without a doubt one of the best animated films of 2021 — although it's probably best kept to adult audiences only.

Wish Dragon

"Wish Dragon" is a delightful modern-day fairy tale. Din (Jimmy Wong) is a working-class college student, with grand dreams of reuniting with his childhood best friend Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Li Na moved away a decade prior and now lives a life of luxury. One fateful day, Din is given a teapot by a mysterious elderly man, but what appears to be an ordinary appliance is actually a mystical object holding a magnificent wish dragon named Long (John Cho).

Despite Long's rampant cynicism, he is capable of granting Din's wishes. Din gets three wishes (is this starting to sound familiar?), and Din will be Long's final master before his lifelong servitude comes to an end. The star-studded cast features a "Crazy Rich Asians" reunion, including Constance Wu, Bobby Lee, Will Yun Lee, and Ronny Chieng. As the film is indebted to Chinese culture, it was important for director Chris Appelhans to have the film made in China with a strong Chinese creative team. The film is a lovely experience for all the family and offers laughs not only for children, but plenty of more subtle gags for adults to enjoy.

Back to the Outback

Life at the zoo is tough, especially when you're viewed as a predator. That's certainly true in "Back to the Outback," where the charming Maddie (Isla Fisher) is a friendly blue snake who, despite being highly venomous, wouldn't hurt anyone. However, she's constantly presented to children as a killing machine, capable of killing 100 people in a quick 10 seconds. She's joined by a spider named Frank (Guy Pearce), Nigel the scorpion (Angus Imrie), and Zoe (Miranda Tapsell), a thorny devil lizard. The group is tired of being treated like nasty predators, and they're fed up with their lives of captivity.

So, the group take things into their own hands and stage a breakout, attempting to head back to the Australian Outback where they can live freely, as they've always wanted. Things become complicated when they take the beloved koala Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin) along with them, who very much would rather stay in the zoo and bask in the endless adoration he receives every day. "Back to the Outback" is filled with bright and vibrant colors and loads of really charming character designs. The film has a great sense of humor while dealing with some challenging topics like animal captivity. There's plenty for both kids and adults alike to appreciate with "Back to the Outback."