After the many challenges and delays of 2020, the pent up creative energy finally released in 2021. This was a year of vibrant transformation for the medium of animation. The animation from around the world feels reflective of what the next decade is going to be rather than a re-hash of what’s come before. I haven’t seen this diversity of great content since the Adult Animation Renaissance of 2018. There were so many excellent programs this year that I’ve divided them into several categories.
This year, Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls) was finally able to bring his ten year passion project to life with Kid Cosmic. The cartoon follows the misadventures of five unlikely heroes honing the powers of five cosmic rings. Kid Cosmic embraces the aesthetics and bombastic fun of retro comics while also taking many unexpected turns. The use of long-form continuity mixed with self-aware humor makes the show feel fresh and alive. Kid Cosmic is a winning combination of vintage and cutting edge that’s sure to appeal to audiences young and old.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Directed by Michael Rianda,(Gravity Falls) The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about a dysfunctional family whose road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse. The animated film utilizes a blend of 2D and 3D aesthetics that adds an extra layer of depth and comedy to each scene. The playful writing, creative editing, and fresh art direction make this an animated comedy you won’t want to miss.
Gobelins animation school has consistently delivered visually sumptuous and thought-provoking animated shorts. This year was no exception, with my favorites being Salt Water Chronicles, Good Job, and Petrichor (seen above). I hope that the viewership of Gobelins shorts will expand beyond those who work in the animation industry. There’s honestly more artistry and emotional content in these shorts than the majority of animated TV.
Yuki 7 is a three-episode micro-series created by Studio Chromosphere inspired by 1960s psychedelic spy adventures. The art direction for the series is inspired, bringing the best of vintage and cutting edge aesthetics. Only time will tell if Yuki 7 gets turned into a full series. But the first three episodes are an impressive web debut and a feather in the cap of Studio Chromosphere.
Long Gone Gulch
Long Gone Gulch is an animated series pilot created by Tara Billinger (Mickey Mouse shorts) & Zach Bellissimo (Rick & Morty). The pilot excels in its expressive hand drawn animation, fresh character designs, and hints at a larger world to explore. Long Gone Gulch manages to capture the best elements of old and new cartoons to create something truly unique.
After animated explorations with Cliffside and Internecion Cube, Liam Vickers is finally able to make an edgy horror-themed animated series with Murder Drones. The new pilot features Vickers’ strengths at balancing horror, comedy, and action. The CG animation is very impressive for a web series, made all the more special by the macabre subject matter.
Helluva Boss has been one of the most game-changing adult animated series on the web or otherwise. With its fresh art style, nuanced character development, intricate world-building, action, and blasphemous humor, Helluva Boss outclasses many Adult Cartoons on traditional networks. If Helluva Boss’s model continues to be successful, we could see many more cartoon creators follow in Vivienne Medrano’s footsteps.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is a slice-of-life ecchi comedy about Miss Kobayashi, an average office worker, and Tohru, an amorous female dragon who transforms into an adorable human maid. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid manages to imbue humanity into its bombastic characters and world. The anime’s ability to juggle multiple tones sets it apart from other similar comedy series. As an ecchi comedy and a yuri romance, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is at the top of its class.
Blue Period follows the unlikely artistic journey of high schooler Yatora Yaguchi who decides to apply to art school after finding inspiration in a painting. With so many anime that focus on action and high concepts it’s refreshing to see a show that centers purely around the drama of making art. Many anime fans are creative types with artistic ambitions. Therefore it’s cathartic to see an anime that explores the struggles many of us have gone through. From understanding artistic principals to convincing his parents that art school is a good idea, the journey of Yatora Yaguchi is one that hits home on multiple levels.
Wonder Egg Priority
Wonder Egg Priority follows a young girl who is given a mysterious egg in a dream. When it hatches, she gains a new friend, but she must also face the world of her worst nightmares. Wonder Egg Priority perfectly captures the feeling of watching anime for the very first time and not knowing what the hell is going on but being fully emotionally invested. At times heartwarming and at other times blood-chilling, Wonder Egg Priority is an emotional rollercoaster. Despite a frustratingly inconclusive final episode, Wonder Egg Priority’s empathetic character writing ultimately wins the day. The characters from this series and their struggles will stay with me for a very long time.
Mortal Kombat: Battle of the Realms
Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms is an adult animated film sequel to Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge. When humanity is threatened by the evil forces of Shao Kahn, Raiden and the defenders of Earthrealm must travel to Outworld in order to compete in a final Mortal Kombat which will determine the fate of the realms. Battle of the Realms revels in MK‘s signature blood and gore without pulling any punches. Whether you’re a longtime fan or new to the franchise, Mortal Kombat Legends joins the realm of video game adaptations done right.
Invincible marks a turning point in animated adaptations for indie comics. The show stands out because of its hour-long prestige format and ability to connect with comic readers and casual audiences alike. With two more seasons green-lit, Invincible could become the poster child for a new wave of comic book heroes. If this show paves the way for more successful animated adaptations of creator-owned comics, then Invincible is the hero we need right now.
Developed by LeSean Thomas and Studio MAPPA, Yasuke transports history’s first black Samurai into a fantastic world full of mystery, mechs, and magic. The blending of cultures, time-periods, and genres is complemented by a superb psychedelic soundtrack by Flying Lotus. I hope to see more anime featuring black characters in the near future. From its unique inception to its creative execution, Yasuke is a an amazing testament to the power of cross-cultural collaboration.
Horror fantasy series Castlevania delivers a bloody and satisfying conclusion to four seasons of battling Dracula’s armies. Each of the characters– hero, villain, or in-between– are given authentic character arcs and a proper send- off. Powerhouse Animation Studios honors their influences of Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Berserk by delivering their most visceral and well-choreographed fight scenes–each character’s unique weapons and powers are utilized to their fullest. A spin-off series has been announced following Trevor and Sypha’s son, Richter Belmont and set during the French Revolution.
Animated Event Series
Maya and the Three
Maya and the Three is a Netflix Animated Event Series told in nine chapters from visionary creator, Jorge R. Gutiérrez (The Book of Life). Each of Maya’s nine episodes is like a miniature movie with feature quality animation and rising action that builds to a climax worthy of any big-budget superhero film. Everything from the character designs, environments, fights, and directorial choices are above and beyond what we’ve seen in previous CG animated films. Maya and the Three takes some surprisingly dark turns that will no doubt gain it a cult following for the Highest Body Count in kids animation.
The story of Arcane is about the fraught relationship between the rich citizens of Piltover and the lower class subjects of Zaun. At the heart of this strife is the story of two sisters trying to survive in a world destined to split them apart. The world of Arcane, both in aesthetic presentation and design, is unlike any sci-fi or fantasy world we’ve ever seen before. It’s alive with rich colors, blends of cultures, and a cross section between the ancient and futuristic. The characters within Arcane have bold designs, expressive acting, and complex motivations.
The cultural diversity of the characters is also inspired and it’s satisfying to see a new fantasy world built for a new generation. The striking directorial choices show a clear love of cinematic storytelling. The cumulative effect of the art and story is a new gold standard for what animation can do with genre fiction. If this is what the future of animated entertainment looks like, then I have high hopes for the future.