Drawn into 2022: Animation Anticipation

From stop-motion to anime, and fantasy epics to family histories, Kambole Campbell presents our bumper 2022 animation preview (and recaps his 2021 favorites).

LIST: Kambole Campbell selects the next ten animated features to add to your watchlists.

Amidst the general flood of movies that came through in 2021—the proverbial dam having burst after numerous Covid delays across the industry—a wealth of animation stood out even in an abnormally crowded year, and there is so much more to come.

With everything from large-scale fantasy epics to intergenerational family histories and hand-painted adaptations of Nobel Prize-winning literature to choose from, I have narrowed down ten animated features (and a few honorable mentions) for your 2022 watchlists.

But first, a recap of 2021’s best. We finally got to see many of the titles I excitedly previewed in 2020. The Mitchells vs. the Machines continued the work of the Spider-Verse in combining the idiosyncrasies of 2D animation with CG. Pixar’s Luca brought a shorter, more plot-driven pep to that studio’s output.

Patrick Imbert’s astonishing and frequently poetic The Summit of the Gods somehow fit five volumes of alpinist obsession and angst into a brisk, exhilarating feature about finding meaning in one’s life. In our conversation for Letterboxd, Imbert conveyed how he rebuilt Baku Yumemakura’s novel around the emotional arc of an existential crisis, set against the gargantuan, beautifully drawn Himalayan mountains. That one is streaming on Netflix now.

All of the above-mentioned films are on the 2022 Academy Awards long-list, along with The Spine of Night and Cryptozoo, both of whose filmmaker duos we had good chats with (I spoke with Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt and Jack Moulton caught up with Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski).

Flee
Flee

Also on the Oscars long-list—as well as countless 2021 best-of wraps, along with the prize for the year’s Best Feature at Annecy International Animation Film Festival—is Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s biographical, animated documentary Flee, which immediately gives the impression of being ripped from a memory.

Flee’s personal documentary-making astounds in several ways, from the film’s opening, in which people appearing as beautiful-but-faded smears of black and white and grey, with the frame rate lowered to emulate the flipping of pages, a diary even, through to the naturalistic-but-emotive impressions of the interview segments. It’s still in cinemas and so very worth seeing on the large screen, if you can.

My 2021 animation coverage also featured a conversation with stop-motion maestro Phil Tippett, who finally completed his 30-year project Mad God, an impeccably made and completely deranged descent into hell. Also handmade: Aardman Animations’ delightful, felted Christmas short, Robin Robin, which I have written about here.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

Not on the Oscars list, but very high up on Letterboxd’s charts: the long-awaited Evangelion 3.0+1.0, which I have already gone long on for Journal. It took the series’ patented emotional meta-fiction and tokusatsu homage to giddy new heights (including our top 50 of 2021). Elsewhere in anime, the ravishing Violet Evergarden: The Movie was a beautiful cap on Kyoto Animation’s melancholic series of self-actualization.

Many of the above-mentioned films are—at the time of writing—in Letterboxd’s top 100 animated films, and many more will join their ranks this year, including the ten highlighted below. I have seen them all over the past several months at various film festivals, or at least caught glimpses of the works in progress—a special shout-out to Annecy, my favorite showcase of the medium, which gave us a well-run hybrid edition in the middle of last year.

So, watchlists at the ready for my 2022 animation highlights, presented here in no particular order (except perhaps for the first, because it is coming to theaters in the next few weeks)…

Belle

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda / Released January 14, 2022 via GKIDS in both its original Japanese and new English-dubbed versions with IMAX previews from January 12 / Eligible for the 94th Academy Awards

Belle, Mamoru Hosoda’s visually dazzling adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, astonished at 2021 film festivals for those who were lucky enough to see it (me!). It finally opens in mid-January, with tickets for IMAX screenings in select markets on sale now.

Hosoda’s latest work is a grand encapsulation of all of his pet themes going as far back as Digimon Adventure; an exploration of digital identity and absentee parents, tied with his usual melancholy over lost time with loved ones. The teenage anxieties of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time mix with the concerns over parental absence and single parenthood as seen in Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast and Mirai, all in a fantastical version of the digital communities we engage with daily.

That world, which both recalls and deviates from the virtual landscapes of Summer Wars and Digimon: The Movie, is called ‘U’, which protagonist Suzu joins in a moment of loneliness. While insecure about her looks and her social standing in her daily teenage life, Suzu finds a fantastical alternative self in her virtual persona. In ‘U’, partly by accident and mostly through the machinations of her computer-savvy friend, Suzu becomes the popstar ‘Bell’ (“Suzu means Bell, so…” she absentmindedly mutters while creating her new profile, blissfully unaware of the Disney-princess association).

As ‘Bell’, Suzu gets to express a persona she struggles with in the real world (in which she finds herself unable to sing, perhaps restrained by the memory of her mother). It’s through this spiritual relationship that Belle also reveals that it’s more about maternal love than it is about romantic love—but is no less evocative or heart-stirring for it.

INU-OH

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, written by Akiko Nogi and Hideo Furukawa / Released in early summer 2022 via GKIDS

Anime lovers have been waiting a long time for Masaaki Yuasa’s new feature, INU-OH. So long, in fact, that I wrote about it in my animation preview back in 2020, also. We are assured that the film will have an early summer US theatrical release in 2022 and, unlike this time last year, I have now seen the film, so I am happy to recommend it once again.

INU-OH is a giddy reimagining of history through a contemporary sensibility, depicting traditional Noh theater as though its performers were pop stars, as if the protagonists of this picture were like The Beatles of their time. Yuasa’s film is based on the novel Tales of the Heike: INU-OH by Hideo Furukawa, a sort of fictionalized spin-off from the traditional, oft-retold The Tale of the Heike, which Furukawa gave a modern update to in 2016.

Yuasa transforms this historical tale into a rock opera focused on the journey of Tomona and Inu-Oh, who strike up an unlikely friendship and creative partnership as they use their performances to unravel the mysteries of each other’s past.

It’s a lot of movie at once, with some truly wild and even macabre art to go with it. Yuasa reunites with Taiyou Matsumoto (writer and artist of the manga No. 5, Ping Pong and Tekkonkinkreet) on character designs, with Norio Matsumoto (who did incredible, genuinely game-changing work on Naruto) bringing them to life.

There’s a mind-boggling diversity of drawing and painting styles on display, even for Yuasa, oscillating between realism and abstraction, traditional and modern, the macabre and the comical. The soundtrack is a similar mix: electric guitars and contemporary drums sit among the feudal instruments. It’s not all wild anachronisms though, as at times Yuasa focuses on Tomona’s sensory experience of the world, listening to rice being made, the sound of hooves moving through the mud, people going about their lives.

The Deer King

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, written by Taku Kishimoto, Nahoko Uehashi / Released February 4, 2022 via GKIDS

The directorial debut of animator Masashi Ando (Your Name, Tokyo Godfathers) and co-directed with Masayuki Miyaji (Fusé: Memoirs of the Hunter Girl), follows Van, a former soldier once known as the titular Deer King, now captured and seized as a slave. One night, vicious mountain dogs attack, carrying with them a mysterious plague. Van escapes the chaos, helping a young girl who he decides to raise as his own. At the same time, a doctor from neutral territory seeks a cure for the rampant disease.

Based on the Japanese fantasy novel series written by Nahoko Uehashi, the scale of The Deer King and its lore quickly expands from there, and Van’s relationship with his new adoptive daughter and his newfound spiritual connection to nature dovetails with the country’s complex sociopolitical history in a fascinating way.

From Van’s elk steed to the supernatural wolves proving a thorn in the side of Imperial forces, many will be immediately reminded of Princess Mononoke, on which Ando worked as a character designer. The work also bears the aesthetic hallmarks and visual signatures of Ando’s animation and character design work with both Studio Ghibli and Satoshi Kon, from the well-considered history of its decaying kingdom to the nuanced and naturalistic designs of his characters, animated with an incredibly believable weight.

The Peasants

Directed by Dorotoa Kobiela, script adapted by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman from Władysław Reymont’s novel / Release expected in 2022

From the producers of Loving Vincent, a film made unique by its oil-painted rotoscoping technique (every frame a painting, quite literally), Dorotoa Kobiela’s follow-up feature The Peasants returns to this technique for what looks like an even more ambitious project. This time around Kobiela is the sole figure in the director’s chair, with Welchman taking more of a back seat to help manage production.

At their 2021 Annecy preview, the two mentioned skepticism about “painting animation” but felt that the response to Vincent was positive enough that they wanted to try again. After first looking at horror films, they ended up looking at Władysław Reymont’s four-volume Polish novel Chłopi (The Peasants), a Nobel Prize-winner that “reads so vividly” that to Kobiela it invited the painted form.

A scene from the live action shoot that informed the painted animation of The Peasants. 
A scene from the live action shoot that informed the painted animation of The Peasants

The story takes place over a year in a single village, divided by seasons embodied with distinctive styles, each inspired by Polish impressionist painters. Production challenges include a live-action shoot for reference, the process of animating it later, and the task of condensing a 1,000-page ensemble story down to something more manageable, with a single protagonist. Still, the scale already looks much more grand than the intimate drama of Loving Vincent.

Princess Dragon

Written and directed by Jean-Jacques Denis and Anthony Roux / In French cinemas now, no US release date announced

From Jean-Jacques Denis and Anthony Roux, Princess Dragon is something of a classical fairy tale about a dragon who can’t have children, and an abandoned child, Bristle. The story came from a personal place for Roux, inspired by real-life issues he and his wife experienced (but also, “don’t worry, it’s done now, it’s in the past”).

Much like Wolfwalkers (Cartoon Saloon’s influence was all over Annecy last year), the divide between the natural and civilized worlds exists in every pencil line. Bristle’s appearance shifts based on who she encounters, moving between human and reptilian, often resembling a big ball of hair (again, calling to Wolfwalkers’ wolf-girl, Mebh).

Even a brief glimpse of Princess Dragon tells us the film looks gorgeous, with vivid, natural color in its depiction of the world. The film’s vision is based on childlike impulse, and some of that simplicity comes from early concept animation that emphasized what the team called “sober rather than exuberant” movement, keeping it natural while maintaining the flexibility you’d expect of a 2D-animated work. Through all this, it seeks to examine the societal positioning of children, choosing to embody their point of view (“We didn’t want to meet anyone halfway”).

Perlimps

Directed by Alê Abreu / Release expected in 2022

Perlimps is the long-awaited next project from Brazilian animator Alê Abreu, best known for the incredible, Oscar-nominated The Boy and the World. The story (formerly titled Voyagers of the Enchanted Forest) is one of warring kingdoms—the militaristic and technologically advanced Kingdom of the Sun, populated by wolves, against the more “Romani-like” and spiritual Kingdom of the Moon, ruled by bears—with an enchanted forest lying between them.

Two characters, secret agents from opposing sides, find themselves lost and are forced to collaborate, isolated and cut off from their nations. The Boy and the World tackled deforestation from an economic and anti-capitalist angle; Perlimps appears similarly environmentalist, but perhaps more spiritual.

Perlimps was perhaps the most exciting preview out of Annecy, and a delightful insight into Abreu’s unique processes. Backgrounds begin from random color smears done with paint, which are scanned then folded into scenery with digital brushes, as Abreu continues to manipulate texture and space. That blend of control and spontaneity extends to Andre Hosoi’s score, using sounds from his own body, drumming on his legs or cheeks and mixing it with electronic melodies.

Perlimps is a bright-looking film, every scene awash in a prism of vivid tones, without being overstimulating. Idiosyncratic from top to bottom, it is Abreu’s first film working with other animators. Alê handled the animation of the two main characters entirely by himself, while the other animators each took a character, and it’s immediately striking how distinct they feel from each other. Sony Pictures will distribute the film.

Nayola

Directed by José Miguel Ribiero, script adapted by Virgílio Almeida from the play A Caixa Preva (The Black Box) by Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto / In post-production, release expected in 2022

The feature directorial debut of acclaimed Portuguese director José Miguel Ribiero takes place in two timelines, depicting three women across two generations of one family, in the past and the present. This story is divided aesthetically as well as temporally, the animators experimenting with their visual approach between the two settings.

The past (wherein a teenaged Nayola searches for her missing husband) is being made in 2D. The 3D-rendered present concerns Nayola’s daughter Yara, a socially conscious rapper, who is menaced by both the police and a mysterious figure wearing a jackal’s mask. The divide isn’t quite as simple as that, however, with surrealist dream sequences between both settings, while the whole film is constructed through an expressionist lens—starting from photography, and then warped into strange shapes. The character designs are a beautiful and beguiling personification of African art, the shapes of masks and statue busts inspiring the form of the characters’ faces.

Nayola illustrates the dilemmas of Angola’s civil-war period with authenticity and precision, taking an inclusive approach to those in front of and behind the camera. At a work-in-progress preview, Ribiero displayed a sensitivity to getting things right, with interviews featuring the Angolan actresses involved, consulting on translating the dialogue into Kimbundu, and providing input on various cultural nuances. (Ribeiro also mentioned that a version of the film adapted for the visually impaired will be released in Portugal.)

Mars Express

Directed by Jérémie Périn, written by Laurent Sarfati and Jérémie Périn / No release date announced 

A woman chases another across the ledges of skyscrapers on Mars, hesitating to follow above an intimidatingly long drop between two buildings. She makes the jump, crashing into the balcony and struggling to lift herself up. That’s the extent of the completed cuts shown from the upcoming cyberpunk sci-fi thriller Mars Express, but it is exciting to see the frantic nature of handheld live-action camerawork applied to the rough-hewn, sci-fi look of this animated feature.

The film follows cop Aline Ruby, as she searches for a young woman, first presumed missing, pursued by a number of different parties for the information she holds. The story is somewhat opaque beyond that setup, but some storyboards showed a Ghost in the Shell-style mix of futuristic investigation and techno-corporate dystopia. First-person views of heads-up displays embedded in the eye, cybernetic enhancements, humans physically interfacing with computers via cables plugged into arms, temples and necks—it all feels reminiscent of Oshii’s seminal anime film.

Mars is conceptualized as an entire planet with its own sociopolitical history, rather than a singular outpost. There are networks of tunnels and caverns, Mars’s red deserts terraformed into lush green fields with suburban houses, the buildings and vehicle designs recalling the retrofuturist sleekness of Syd Mead’s work. The character designs are stark and fashionable to match, contrasting with strange, alien-like creatures and robots designed like the warped silhouettes of humanoids. There’s a lot going on—between robot murders, mysterious labs and fascinating speculative sci-fi, this is one to keep an eye out for.

The Siren

Directed by Sepideh Farsi, written by Djavad Djavahery / No release date announced

Set during the Iran-Iraq War, specifically the siege of Abadan—a conflict that a title card from the filmmakers notes “left almost 1.5 million dead, injured and missing from both sides” —⁠The Siren is told from the point of view of young Omid as he looks to survive the clash between the Abadanis and the invading Iraqi forces.

Directed by Iranian filmmaker Sepideh Farsi and still in production, The Siren may yet be a way off, but what little of it I saw at Annecy is lodged in my memory. In the preview footage, we see Omid riding his motorcycle across the desert (in this particular art style, the shot of the isolated protagonist was reminiscent of Gints Zilbalodis’s Away) some time after the siege, then cuts back to his memories of it as he looks to find his friends and escape the city.

We see visions of Omid’s daily life slowly being stripped away with each new bombing, as deep blues and greens and more complex hues are overridden by blocks of red and black. Art director Zaven Najjar has flattened the backgrounds into an art-deco style, resembling old travel posters with single-tone colors, and simple character designs to match.

Guillermo del Toro, director of the upcoming stop-motion Pinocchio adaptation. — Photographer… Mandrake the Black/​Netflix
Guillermo del Toro, director of the upcoming stop-motion Pinocchio adaptation. Photographer… Mandrake the Black/​Netflix

Pinocchio

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, adapted from Carlo Collodi’s fairy tale by del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Patrick McHale and Gris Grimly / Release expected in late 2022

Finally, this is the year of (the already much-adapted) Pinocchio, as Robert Zemeckis, who has already proven himself a master of the live-action/animation hybrid with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, brings the tale of the wooden boy with a lie-detector for a nose to Disney+ in the fall of 2022, with Tom Hanks (of course) playing puppet-master Geppetto. However I cannot tell a lie: that’s not the Pinocchio I am most excited about; for instead it is Guillermo del Toro’s feature-length, stop-motion version of the Italian fable, a movie that has been in and out of development hell, and is finally due to hit Netflix late this year.

This will be—somewhat surprisingly—del Toro’s animation debut, but we’re in safe hands, considering his graceful command over the fantasy genre and CG animation in the mecha throw-down Pacific Rim. Inspiring even more curiosity is his indication in an interview with Collider that his take on Pinocchio will draw heavily from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, saying “essentially, that’s the same story”. He also revealed the film will be a musical set in fascist Italy during Mussolini’s uprising. Along with that wild combination, and considering that Patrick McHale of Adventure Time and Over the Garden Wall fame is on adaptation duties, we can expect a healthy dose of the macabre in this take on the classic tale.

The crew’s bona fides are deep with this one. Alexandre Desplat (who gave Isle of Dogs that mighty percussive score) is composing, LAIKA regular and former Aardman DoP Frank Passingham is on cinematography, and del Toro shoulder-tapped Anthony Elworthy to lead the stop-motion team. Elworthy is a New Zealander with an impressive filmography in stop-motion and claymation, bringing an organic charm to films such as Isle of Dogs, My Life as a Zucchini, Coraline, Corpse Bride and Kubo and the Two Strings. In his home country he leads animation on the feelings-positive children’s TV series Kiri and Lou (currently in production on its third season and confirmed for a fourth), as well as Taika Waititi’s debut feature, Eagle vs Shark.

Poupelle of Chimney Town 
Poupelle of Chimney Town 

Honorable mentions

The above picks give you a lot to look forward to already, but there are several more worth mentioning. A fantastic family anime pick that has just opened in US theaters is Poupelle of Chimney Town, which earned praise throughout 2021 festivals for its unique aesthetic. Also heading for (as yet undated) release after a year on the festival circuit is Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s beguiling Archipelago, exploring the boundary between person and landscape.

A range of animated short films are worth seeking out. My highlights last year included Mom, Affairs of the Art, Peel, Easter Eggs, The Mark of Emi, My Little Goat (from Tomoki Misato, who also made Pui Pui Molcar, an adorable miniseries about guinea pigs that are also cars, and very worth checking out on Netflix). Not to mention numerous features including the ambitious Absolute Denial (about which I’ve heard good things).

There is also Where is Anne Frank?, the new feature from Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir), and the documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, both having played at Cannes and various other fests. From the Loves Animation film festivals held in Scotland and Sheffield, the indie anime Summer Ghost and slice-of-life homage film Looking for Magical Doremi appear to have been standouts.

Beyond those fests, there are even more anime features to look forward to: Atsuko Ishizuka and Madhouse’s original anime Goodbye, Don Glees!, as well as the ravishing-looking fable The Girl From the Other Side, which boasts a unique art style in its first-look trailer.

And there are still more to come, with big guns such as Domee Shi’s Pixar feature debut, Turning Red, and Wendell & Wild, a stop-motion collaboration between Henry Selick and Key & Peele, set in hell. The wonderful Nora Twomey of Cartoon Saloon is bringing a new adaptation of My Father’s Dragon to Netflix and, at some point, we will have Hayao Miyazaki’s post-post-retirement project, How Do You Live?. All of these sit high up in the community’s most anticipated animated films for the coming year(s). Going into 2022, we’re truly feasting!

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