Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: 2020 was kind of rough.
What started out as a seemingly normal and even mundane year quickly escalated into a global crisis the likes of which modern society had never witnessed. All of a sudden, everything about our lives changed. In addition to the devastation caused by the pandemic, social unrest dominated the headlines, and the political landscape felt more split apart than ever before.
Through it all, there were some bright spots, the least of which being the communal sense of everyone experiencing something together (even if it was socially distanced). We all got better at Skype and Teams (or used them for the very first time), and found out a new meaning for the word Zoom. We did our best to keep in touch with loved ones, and may have even given that old-fashioned action of sending a letter via snail mail a try!
With the Oscars now having closed awards season (a little later than usual), it’s time once again for our site’s annual look back at the year that was (also a little later than usual), with our staff favorites from what the world of entertainment had (or was able) to offer, including Pixar’s Onward [above], along with your picks for what you chose as the best animated movies of 2020 from our Reader’s Choice poll!
This year, modern entertainment naturally found itself unable to catch up with everyone’s moods. A notable (if not accidental) exception was Rick & Morty [right], which perhaps more so than any other television series, became a demented sort of comfort food, speaking to the exhausted state of the world with its outrageous yet often depressing brand of comedy, allowing us a moment to laugh at our own collective misery.
South Park showed up — however briefly — to provide some levity on an extremely topical level. And the Animanaics [below right] made a triumphant return to screens, remaining as hilarious as ever, but slightly more cynical, as even they couldn’t help but feel at least somewhat fatigued by the recent events around the globe (even singing an entire song about it).
Of course, one industry that got hit harder than most was movie theatre presentation, with cinemas forced to shut their doors a year ago and being left unable to fully recover since then. Already struggling to get butts into seats, the inability to maintain any level of steady income could represent an alarming and potentially near-fatal blow — and things are still looking pretty dire!
With auditoriums not being an option, Hollywood turned to their ever-growing secret weapon — streaming services — to release their big budget would-be blockbusters, not making matters any easier for theater owners.
Initially, Universal’s decision to have Trolls: World Tour skip theaters entirely (apart from some drive-ins) may have seemed harmless enough (and arguably even justifiable), but it proved to be the opening of Pandora’s Box as other studios were quick to follow the lead, with Mulan and even Pixar’s Soul never being shown on a big screen in the States. Indeed, Disney made it very apparent that Disney+ is currently their most prized golden goose, with The Mandalorian continuing to earn (almost) universal praise from fans and critics alike. For better or for worse, this seems to be happening at the expense of its once unstoppable cable channels, which cancelled their successful DuckTales reboot unexpectedly as streaming becomes the Mouse House’s new priority.
Streaming wasn’t the only way the landscape was changing, however. In an attempt to be more mindful of racial injustice, the animation industry recast the voice actors of characters on several cartoons, including long-running hits like The Simpsons and Family Guy [below].
Rather ironically, these choices were all made based on skin color, and however good the intentions behind them may be, it does seem like a solution to something which isn’t actually the problem.
As always, there were too many passings to ever give the proper amount of respect in a single article.
Among the notables were Sir Sean Connery (who many probably don’t know lent his voice to the pioneering 1996 special effects film Dragonheart), beloved Jepoardy host Alex Trebek, Shrek 2 co-director Kelly Asbury, Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, and Scooby-Doo! creators Ken Spears and Joe Ruby — both departing within mere months of each other.
With all of that out of the way, we once again thank you — our readers — for sticking with us through good times and bad. Though we inevitably had fewer movie reviews last year (due to a lack of, well, new movies!), we’ve strived to continue to provide you with the same quality content that our site has become known for. And now, without any further delay, please enjoy what we can only tenuously call The “Best” Of 2020: The Year The Earth Stood Still!
2020 already started on something of a cautionary note for us, with my wife working for a local council and word in January that a Chinese delegates trip may have to be postponed because of an initial outbreak that, back then, didn’t seem to be anything to be too concerned about. Once the thing had passed through more of Asia and hit Italy the next month, I remember saying, “here we go”, having been too well versed in my Twelve Monkeys and Planet Of The Apes lore and seeing how those films depicted the spread of “viruses through air power“! By the end of February we were calling a halt to our twice-weekly movie nights and by the end of March we were all going into lockdowns the world over.
The first lockdown was “fun”, the feeling that “we’re all in this together” creating a bond between the sensible people that got what was at stake, or at least could see where this was going and did their bit to protect themselves and, by extension, everyone else. It astounded me what a bunch of selfish and stupid creatures human beings have turned out to be, especially in the higher echelons of power, although there are some bright spots out there (like the smarter minds that made the vaccines!) that give a little hope for the future of our species. I’ll leave it to James to expand on these more positive aspects toward the end of this article: my job here is seemingly to provide the dystopian opening!
My own industry, the business of show, took the toughest hit, with cinemas and live theatres closing and production of all kinds first coming to a halt (wiping out, for me, my entire year’s earnings), before complicated ways and means provided a path, if not always viable or practically productive, of continuation for those who were not particularly vulnerable, although I was also not so lucky there, given those pesky “underlying health conditions” we heard so much about. What the film studios did have, in abundance, was classic library titles, and it was fun to see the likes of Jaws, The Empire Strikes Back and Jurassic Park return to the limited big screens and drive-ins that were open and hit the number one spots again years after their initial successes!
Catalog played a huge part at home, too, with studios rediscovering home video and, Paramount especially, putting out lovely new editions of titles that had never been given Blu-ray releases, including The Court Jester and The Greatest Show On Earth. Of course, streaming was the big breakout, with Disney+ launching just at the right moment, as it turned out, and while the shift to smaller screens was a death blow for movie theatres, it was a boon for home audiences, with Artemis Fowl [above] leading the way as the first of many to premiere (and not “premier” as the premium bolt-on later had it) in this way, and even if it did end up being a fairly inauspicious debut (more Foul than Fowl?) it was also something of a career achievement to finally get my name on a Disney picture.
In a year where we were trapped in our own homes, movies allowed us to escape and go anywhere, and other anticipated titles soon made their inevitable online debuts. Many of them fell flat for me, including Blunder Woman 1984, a film so camp and all over the place that it still kind of has to be seen to be believed and didn’t even live up to being as good as something that was made in 1984! Bill And Ted Face The Music was likewise looked forward to, but ended up coming and going, and on the even lower end of the scale, the disappointingly bmud Tenet proved to have been a saved cinema trip. The One And Only Ivan was a film I absolutely detested for being one big fluffed up lie, though Mulan provided a serviceable but ultimately uninspired live-action update.
On the flipside, we greatly enjoyed the latest The Call Of The Wild, and a total surprise was Bob Zemeckis’ The Witches [right], which was delightfully fun. I was also able to catch a good number of this year’s Oscar hopefuls thanks to various streamers, and probably agree that Nomadland was the only “winner” in a quite subdued group. Mank was everything but about the writing of Citizen Kane, and The News Of The World and The Midnight Sky were well crafted but never gripping, although Netflix proved itself again in the series arena with the superlative The Queen’s Gambit. Top of the heap, of course, was Pixar’s sublime Soul, that I was so pleased to see accepted by a wider audience than it might have been, and Onward, which I didn’t love quite so much as many but was still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.
In the absence of great new films, we resorted to looking back on titles from our collection — although none from Thunderbean Animation, for whom 2020 marked yet another annual date missed for an order from a few years back (c’mon Steve)! It was weird not to have our usual audience with us, so I pressed a few furry friends [top right] into action as our viewing mates. It’s quite odd to look left to share a joke with the Pink Panther and Feathers McGraw, but also quite comforting in a strange way! We can’t wait to kick the furries off (although not our big pup who hogs the sofa!) and have real people back to watch classics old and new as we finally make our way through 2021: The Sequel — don’t worry, this one has a happier ending! — and start to get back to the way we were…!
In too many ways, 2020 was defined by a sense of anxiety and sorrow. Finding solace of any kind could be difficult, but it arrived in the unexpected form of the second season of Bluey [right], an Australian toon about a family of talking dogs which might be something of a modern pop culture treasure.
Though aimed at children, it is perhaps even more rewarding for adults, giving us something rarely seen in animation: a show about parenting. Bluey is amazingly funny, deeply empathetic, and allows a surprising amount of tears. Combine that with fluid animation and a ridiculously sophisticated soundtrack, and you have a series which is downright euphoric. Well done, Australia!
Just as heartfelt — and possibly at risk of getting overshadowed by the other Pixar title of the year — was Onward, which might be the studio’s most personal film to date. Elegantly combining the escapism of the fantasy genre with the all-too-real inevitably of mortality, it’s a simply beautiful story of grief and finding seemingly ungraspable closure, balancing its heavier themes perfectly with plenty of excitement and humor. Surpassing virtually all expectations for it, Onward is one of Pixar’s best, and I hate myself for missing out on being able to experience it in theatres.
There were some films I was fortunate enough to watch at the multiplex before everything got shut down, including the absolutely delightful (if not very family-friendly) Birds of Prey [right], a thoroughly entertaining and darkly comedic outing for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn that manages to feel unique amidst an onslaught of other releases from the comic book genre (even if Harley’s iconic cosplay-friendly Suicide Squad outfit is kind of missed here).
Essentially a live-action Saturday morning cartoon for adults, the movie is positively bursting with energy, allowing for its entire cast to shine, including a scenery-chewing Ewan McGregor as the big bad.
On the small screen, Disney’s excellent Elena Of Avalor came to a close with a mostly satisfying series finale (even if its final season was arguably a tad too ambitious for its own good). Also ending was Nick’s Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. An “acquired taste” thanks to its oddball visuals and rapid-fire offbeat jokes, it might actually be a criminally underrated show, with some of the most energetic animation on television today. What a shame its conclusion felt a tad rushed (one gets the impression Nick pulled the plug on it early), but it still got wrap things up with a ton of adrenaline-fueled action and some emotionally rich moments.
Falling into the “pleasant surprise” category was Happy Halloween, Scooby-Doo! [right], a truly charming straight-to-DVD caper that takes everything fans love about the franchise and makes it work for a current audience (plus, the gang gets to team up with Batman’s Scarecrow. How cool is that?!?!).
On the much more mature end of the tube, HBO’s Perry Mason reboot proved to suit the morbid mood of 2020 quite well, with moodily cinematic production values, a terrific cast (including the always great John Lithgow), and a bleak storyline which manages to somehow find the faintest traces of hope in spite of all of its darkness.
There were, as is almost always the case, some disappointments to the year (well, apart from the ones everyone was already going through). I actually didn’t think the mega-budget Dolittle was that bad, though I suppose I can credit that to Robert Downey Jr. making everything he’s in better by default. But even if Iron Man himself wasn’t around for the ride, it would still be leaps and bounds better than the horror fairy tale Gretel And Hansel, in which the biggest fright is how dull it is, and while I appear to be in a minority with the opinion, I found the remake-in-name-only of The Invisible Man to be unpleasant, dumb, and even mean-spirited.
There is no question that 2020 will go down as one of the roughest years in human history. What the pandemic showed me was that we were not the enlightened species we often try to make ourselves out to be in entertainment media. For me personally, things surprisingly weren’t all that bad. I managed to keep working, only ever doing so remotely for just a week or so, and I got around to remodeling my room that had been years in the planning. Still, the pandemic did postpone a lot of things I would normally go out to experience, such as Comic Con and visits to Gallery Nucleus. And yet the fantasy realm would offer some neat content that managed to keep me enthralled against real world troubles.
At the top of my list for 2020 was Vivienne Medrano. Following up on the success of the Hazbin Hotel pilot in 2019, which got picked up by A24 in 2020 to be developed into a full series, Medrano and her team at SpindleHorse Toons have continued to independently produce high quality animation funded primarily through the crowd-funding service Patreon. These fantastic programs include starting a full season of sister series Helluva Boss [above], the Bad Luck Jack short film to Medrano’s old web comic ZooPhobia, and music videos for Hazbin Hotel and Helluva Boss. Medrano was a shining beacon through the darkness of 2020 and I believe she will shine brighter for years to come.
At the very beginning of 2020, Disney Channel started airing a show called The Owl House [right]. Creator Dana Terrace developed an absolutely fun series that managed, in short order, to build in acclaim and popularity along the lines of Gravity Falls. What started as a nice, interesting premise transformed into a thrilling narrative as the series progressed, set in a bizarre and beautiful world that spun the fantasy genre in fascinating directions, and would be populated with a delightfully diverse cast of great characters that broke from conventions in unique ways. The Owl House was one of the finest shows to emerge in 2020 and I have confidence the series will continue to be amazing in the future.
I am hoping that Onward ultimately does not get lost in the shuffle, because it was too wonderful of a film to not be a stand-out of 2020 for me. I managed to catch it in theaters just before the lockdowns kicked into gear and it was a delightful adventure to behold on the big screen. Onward was bolstered by a really good story, some stylishly beautiful animation that brought to life a fascinating and fully fleshed out world, and a solid cast headlined by the incredible performances of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. Director Dan Scanlon made a film that should be better appreciated than being regarded as a box office disappointment for simply being released during the pandemic.
Critical Role also took a hit as a result of the pandemic. The live stream of animation voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons celebrated their fifth anniversary of broadcasting when they had to pause briefly to figure how to proceed under social distancing conditions. Furthermore, the release of The Legend Of Vox Machina animated series had be to moved out from the scheduled 2020 release. Yet they managed to adapt and continue their exciting sessions while also releasing an official Dungeons & Dragons campaign sourcebook, launching a charity foundation, and developing new internet shows, including an animated program that recaps their current campaign adventures to date.
With many turning to video games as a means of getting through stay-at-home orders, it seemed like a convenient time for the ninth generation of consoles to launch. And Sony’s release of the PlayStation 5 [above] proved to be a wildly successful one. Featuring a great launch line-up that included Astro’s Playroom, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Demon’s Souls, the leap to the next generation of gaming had arrived and was on full display. Visually the games looked absolutely stunning, with improved graphical output that edged closer and closer to the level of high end animated features. I’m hyped for the fun and exciting games that are coming soon to the PlayStation 5!
It was challenging to prepare this article, as I think we all struggled with putting “best” and “2020” into the same sentence. That past year was a rough one. For me, personally, I have to admit that it wasn’t so bad, overall, compared to what many others had to endure; but certainly we have all had to deal with a lot of changes, and made sacrifices of one sort or another during the pandemic.
So, what, in the world of entertainment in general and animation in particular, was I still able to enjoy? Goodness knows we all needed something to distract us in 2020. As theaters sadly closed down, streaming took on even greater importance, and I enjoyed time spent with Disney+, whether watching the shows and movies that I don’t already have on disc, or premieres of new shows and films. The Mandalorian [above right] proved to be, if not exactly groundbreaking, at least a somewhat comforting return to the Star Wars universe, more in keeping with Dave Filoni’s superb animated programs than the ill-prepared sequel films.
Disney’s Mulan was yet another uncomfortable (but slickly made and somewhat entertaining) hybrid of animated film remake and live action muddle. Of Pixar’s two films this year, I heavily favored Soul, finding its deconstruction of the “chase your dreams at all costs” myth to be a bit genius, even if the plot has holes galore.
The fabulous Criterion Channel got plenty of views from me, including their collection of Bill Plympton cartoon films. I got less use out of Netflix, generally, but had strong appreciation for its ongoing production of animated films such as Over The Moon and The Willoughbys. The conclusion to its beautifully done Godzilla anime was disappointing, but the ride getting there certainly made for interesting sci-fi.
On the non-animation side, I think my favorite home video release was the gigantic and glorious Gamera box set from Arrow, which I was lucky to have preordered and paid for before putting my collecting on a pandemic hold. The huge slipcase [above right], which was a quick sell-out, held tons of fun films, plus all the bonus features, English dubs, and swag that Criterion couldn’t get Toho to approve for their Godzilla set. Both Arrow and StudioCanal also put out terrific and much-deserved collector’s sets for the 1980 classic version of Flash Gordon.
The best Blu-ray release for me was naturally The Puppetoon Movie Volume 2, a disc that I looked forward to so much that I volunteered to help out behind the scenes, including writing the press release. And the disc came out gorgeous, too, featuring many excellent restored shorts of George Pal’s wonder and magic. Close to that would be the much-awaited first two volumes of Tex Avery shorts from Warners and, on the independent side, it was good to see Steve Stanchfield polish off a number of long-awaited projects from his Thunderbean Animation label.
2020 bad…blah, blah, blah! You lived through it! You already know! You’re visiting a site like this to get away from the the doldrums of real life and focus something that brings you some modicum of happiness for a while. So without further ado, let’s jump in to some of the best animation 2020 had to offer on the big…and small screens.
Soul [right] is a film with lofty aspirations, and it hits the high notes almost every time. I love the ambition Pixar showed in green-lighting a story like this. This is a film that could have gone wrong in so many ways. They took a crazy concept and an idea with a huge scope and made it relatable the same way they always do — by focusing it all down onto a small number of characters we come to care about. The animation is some of the most beautiful and interesting in the Pixar canon. The spirit of New York City is palpable in every scene it is featured in and, like the actual city itself, is filled with life and a wonderful lived in quality that sometimes is hard to capture in computer animation.
Joe and his fellow humans are some of the most detailed Pixar has ever given life to. And the style of the soul counselors deserve special praise. Their Picasso-esque designs were extremely compelling and their animation and movement were a lot of fun. The eclectic music may not always be as immediately hummable as a Newman or Giacchino score, but both the jazzy and the ethereal work just as effectively and help sell the authenticity of each world. Soul will make you think a lot more than it will make you laugh, but the end result is a virtuoso performance — and a reminder about how precious life is and that we should make the most of the time we’re given.
As good as Soul was, my favorite animated movie of the year was Onward [right] — and not just because it’s the last move I watched in an actual theatre! It has all the humor and heart you expect from the best of Pixar, and it’s the strength of the characters that drives it all forward. The brothers at the center of this film are easily the equals of other great Pixar duos like Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, and Marlin and Dory. In fact, outside the parent-willing-to-do-anything-for-their-child dynamic in Finding Nemo, Ian and Barley may be two of the most easy characters to empathize with on that list. In a world of endless buddies-on-a-journey movies, the wizards of Emeryville check every box to ensure this one doesn’t feel the same as the rest.
Pixar has always had a knack for world building. And the mashed up fantasy realm/modern world setting may be not only one of their funnest, but the one with the most potential. Much like the Dungeons & Dragons inspired game it revolves around, the Onward world could be an unlimited canvas where so many other possible stories are waiting to play out. I’m looking forward to seeing future outings in the Onward world…hopefully out in a theatre in our real world!
For my third pick I’m going to go in a different direction than most people making these types of lists have gone. The Willoughbys [below right] is an odd little film, full of contradictions. The story is a dark but sweet. The animation isn’t top notch but it’s very charming. And the characters are dysfunctional but likable.
Just a recap of the basic plot should be enough to pull you in: The Willoughby children want to be adopted by a loving family, the only problem is that they’re not orphans…yet! Yes, it sounds pretty grim, but it’s mostly done in a light-hearted way. While the plot is a bit scattershot, the frenzied feel actually works well with the tone of the film.
What really pulls together the disparate pieces is the humor. It’s a very funny movie, but usually in a way that surprises you rather than just with cliched kids jokes. The animation is styled in a beautiful, craft-y, almost hand-made look that also softens some of the darkness of the plot. And the voice acting, though a little odd at first, really grows on you and helps make the film work. The Willoughbys is not on the same level as the best from Disney or Pixar. But it’s a lot better than many of the things that have made it to the big screen in recent years.
Seriously guys, I know 2020 has been a rough year. I hope you made it through mostly unscathed! Let’s make a pact to step away from all the doomscrolling and spend more time on things that bring us joy this year, whether that’s being out in the sunshine on a beautiful spring day, or sitting in your dark basement commenting on Animated Views articles! Here’s to a better future, starting right now!
Now it’s time to find out what you said in our Readers’ Choice Poll!
Since the very first time we asked Animated Views readers to rank the best animated movies of the year back in 2012, Disney has always led with the most poll wins. But with your pick this year they have to make room at the top, because Pixar has now tied Disney with four annual victories.
Soul was your choice for the best of 2020. It earned a score of 64 out of a possible 100 points. It received 47% of the first place votes and appeared on a whopping (and second best all-time) 76% of ballots.
Pixar also took the second place spot this year with Onward getting 37/100 points. It took 16% of the first place votes and was on an impressive 55% of all ballots. Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers came in third place with a score of 25/100. It had a very respectable 14% of the first place votes and appeared on 33% of all ballots.
Rounding out the top five were Over The Moon scoring 11/100, 5% of the first place votes, and appearing on 18% of all ballots, and A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon with a score of 10/100, 1% of the first place votes, and appearing on 19% of all ballots.
Well, that’s all, folks, from us, for now. Make no mistake, this pandemic is far from over — in many ways, 2021 is already feeling like a “sequel” to 2020 — but in the end it will eventually get better. Just be sure to keep those masks on and those hands washed in the meantime — and don’t pass up the offer of a vaccine (or that all-important second dose!) to do your part in moving forward out of this whole situation.
In the meantime, we’ll hope for a true return to whatever “normality” is by the time we see you for our next annual recap, and wish you a safe (and healthy) rest of 2021!
— Dacey and the entire Animated Views Team.