Best Animation I Watched in 2022

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest article written by MalcmanIsHere: an Eagle Scout, aspiring writer/animator and advocate for Internet archiving. He lives in the USA, desperately trying to contain a mind that has a ridiculous amount of knowledge and love for animation and comics. If you like what you see here and want more, follow him on Twitter, his Letterboxd, or read his article on the online magazine Blood Knife:]

I should state up front that what I’m listing is stuff I personally liked and deserves more attention for one reason or another.

The works of Victoria Vincent

Victoria Vincent (or “vewn” as she goes by online) is an indie animator I’m relatively new to, but I decided last year I may as well watch her stuff since it’s all up on her YouTube channel, and I can review them on Letterboxd afterwards. Most of them were made for the FXX anthology series CAKE, but a lot, if not all, of them stand on their own. With its very neat dynamic shots at all angles, great use of vibrant colors, and character models that don’t obey symmetry at all, there is a lot of neat stuff on just the surface.

It honestly reminded me a lot of the animated sitcoms aimed at young adults that premiered before a time where they could shine, like Mission Hill or MTV’s Downtown. What especially draws me to her work is the laid back, but almost dystopian energy she captures that appears to be shared by both millennials and zoomers alike. It’s part of why I’m anticipating the Dirt Girls show she’s going to make for the FOX network. (Personal reccs: dead end, Twins in Paradise, floatland, kittykat96, Catapolis)

Mermaid (1964) & Jumping (1984), Dir. Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka has been a major favorite/inspiration of mine in terms of how he draws, all the way back since reading the Astro Boy manga as a child. I never really got into his animated work until last year. What I always liked about the man is how he’s the most distinct example of “cartoony characters dealing with heavy subject matters” (I’m glad people like Genndy Tartakovsky recognize this).

This is something that shines in the short Mermaid, which starts out as what appears to be a very simple romance between a human and a mermaid gradually turns into a psychological struggle for creative freedom against an oppressive government; a great showcase on why something we take for granted like “imagination” is incredibly vital. I even enjoyed the more realistic shorts like Jumping, which is a great example of talking the viewer’s perspective and grabbing them into something they only dream about. Both can be watched on YouTube.

The works of Bob Kurtz

I’ve been recently getting into the work of Bob Kurtz, founder of Kurtz & Friends Animation. I first discovered him through the TV special Edith Ann’s Christmas: Just Say Noël and have been charmed by the style since. It makes me think of a slightly more zanier Schoolhouse Rock! (ironic considering Kurtz also worked on Schoolhouse Rock! Earth and cleanup work for the updated Alabama Power commercials for Louie the Lightning Bug, voiced by Jack Sheldon). Most of his work can be found on YouTube, from gems like his Cartoon Network pilot Major Flake in “Soggy Sales”, to the Drawing on My Mind short he did for George Carlin. 

City of Ghosts (2021), created by Elizabeth Ito

So, City of Ghosts is admittedly one I came late too, I watched it in February 2022, with the knowledge it had been canceled. I still wanted to check it out ever since I put it on my watchlist, as it was another collaboration between Adventure Time alumni Elizabeth Ito and the animation studio Chromosphere, who previously did some additional animation for her Cartoon Network pilot Welcome to My Life (certainly a studio I want to keep my eyes on after seeing what they did for the series Yuki 7!)

It may not seem like much, but the mixture of these models on top of the photo-grabbed backgrounds of real areas in San Francisco is a very calming experience (Ito in one interview with NPR notes people like Huell Howser being partly an inspiration). I’m not too big on watching most shows aimed at the “preschool and/or slightly above that” demographic, especially if the show in question is animated in CGI. Though I’m aware that the following characteristic is due to mandates from higher-ups, too many of the shows seem to have all the characters make as little emotion as possible, almost as if they were sentient porcelain dolls. I really appreciate that this show has some unique stylized character models, while also keeping varied emotions intact.

Ito wanted to make a children’s cartoon that wasn’t as hyperactive as most stuff on TV, and I believe she and her team succeeded. It brought me back to the days of my youth with no cable and nothing to watch except PBS Kids. (heck, one of people interviewed in episode 5, Atomic Nancy, is partly a subject in the short documentary Atomic Cafe, which can be watched on the PBS website right now!)

And like any good show on PBS Kids, I genuinely learned a lot about the landscape and culture of San Francisco when watching this (I didn’t even know there was a place called Koreatown, let alone that it had a large Latino population). Having long-time residents of the city voice themselves as ghosts while detailing aspects about their life and culture works really great as a metaphor for certain aspects of San Francisco’s culture possibly going away. I would have loved to see what Ito and her team had planned for Elysian Park, Dodger Stadium, and elsewhere. 

In the end, this little show with its measly 6 episodes was able to win 2 Emmy Awards and a Peabody last year, which to me, shows that many people did in fact care about and connect with this show, despite what viewership numbers Netflix might put out to justify its cancellation.

Further reading – a review of the series by FamiliarFacesChannel:

Pantheon (2022), created by Craig Silverstein

Speaking of animated programming that was forced to end too early, Netflix doing a one-two punch cancellation of Inside Job & Dead End: Paranormal Park was bad enough, but AMC canceling the criminally under-promoted Pantheon was a massive bummer on my end, especially when Season 2 has already been finished! Based off a series of short stories from sci-fi author Ken Liu (who also wrote the story that was the basis for Good Hunting, my favorite short from the 1st season of Love, Death + Robots), what starts out as a story about a teenage girl being sad her dad is dead goes into what is probably one of the most thought-provoking science-fiction series I’ve seen in quite a while.

Even before it got canned, I was already planning on putting this show on the list, as it’s a great exploration into our relationship with technology at the current moment; whether it’s the discussion of transhumanism, or more recently, AI art. I was going to write out a whole answer to people that might take a look at a screenshot/clip of this show and say “Why is this even animated?” but then I thought that this blog isn’t for those people anyway.

Basically, there can be certain stories that, let’s be honest, can only be done in animation, especially when it comes to how a world is depicted or how certain characters are…well characterized. All I can say now is, if for some reason you aren’t up for piracy to watch Pantheon (since it got removed from both AMC+ AND HIDIVE), go watch Fired On Mars on HBO MAX while you still can before it gets eviscerated from the Earth.

Brave Animated Series (2021), Dir. Tzu-Ting Yang

On a lighter subject, Netflix got the streaming rights to Brave Animated Series (yes that’s the title) and unceremoniously dropped it on their service back in October 2021 (as of writing, they are also now on an official YouTube channel with subtitles). Never even heard of it, so I put it on my watchlist until finally watching it in February. It’s based on a long-running Taiwanese manhua (that’s what “webcomics” are called in China and Taiwan) that mostly makes jokes and deconstructions of RPGs in general.

From the scanlations I’ve read, this series takes its premise a lot more seriously than anticipated (for one, a child gets decapitated in the first 5 minutes of the 1st episode). It was able to get to me on not just that, but some neat character designs and a decently thought-out world. Worth at least one look, if only for the most insane origin story for why dragons exist. (Speaking of dragons, this is also only the 2nd piece of media I’ve seen where a human falls in love with a dragon and they produce half-dragon half-human offspring; the first being the OVA series Dragon Half).

The Bob’s Burgers Movie (2022), Dir. Loren Bouchard & Bernard Derriman

I started watching King of the Hill this year (I’m on Season 7 as of writing), but before that, I watched the short PSA that was made for the Will Rogers Institute, which contains a lot of simple, but neat commentary on the meddling of Hollywood. I have a feeling this is partly inspired by Mike Judge’s experiences when making Beavis & Butthead Do America. There’s always pressure to take something that was made for TV, in this case a pretty grounded animated network sitcom, and make it bigger and more extravagant than it needs to be. That’s why I’m happy that wasn’t the case for what is generally considered the spiritual successor to King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers

The Bob’s Burgers Movie is an extended episode of the show, yes, but it’s a pretty damn good episode that captures the vibe of the show well, as well as not having baggage that newcomers won’t get. Speaking of vibes, this is probably the one animated film I’ve seen that actually captures the feeling of summer since… I guess Rio?; and it’s not just because the main characters sing a song where they say the word “summer” a lot (forgot to mention this is a musical).

I actually really enjoyed seeing this on the big screen; sure people who don’t watch the show ride on the designs of the characters a bunch, but this film gave me a new found appreciation for how much detail goes into the buildings on the show (as shown off here by this Twitter account). I could say my liking for this show is bias on the part that much of the setting is directly inspired by my home state New Jersey, as well as Delaware, a state where my family spent a good chunk of my developing life vacationing in.

Wendell & Wild (2022), Dir. Henry Selick

In an interview the webcomic website The Nib did with American author Ta-Nehisi Coates, he states that “Who people see as a protagonist is integral to who they believe can and cannot be human in the world”. Basically, when it comes to media with non-white protagonists (in this case black protagonists), there is a conversation consciously going on regarding their place in life, even if it’s fictional.

I bring this up because, before, during, and after watching the film Wendell & Wild, I was thinking about how this was the third time I’ve encountered a movie that, based primarily on aesthetic, had a black lead for something that typically wasn’t a black lead.

The first time I felt this was when watching Sorry to Bother You in the theaters, as it not typical for films that are very weird and surreal in nature (something akin to Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy) to have black leads.

The second time was seeing the trailer for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu and being pleasantly surprised by how Justice Smith was playing a character who was originally white in the video game the film was based off of, even if the film technically fits into the category of “CGI/live-action hybrid film where cartoon character hangs out with studio-mandated human protagonist” (I mean it when I say “if you swap the races of the human leads in films like the 2011 The Smurfs film or Sonic the Hedgehog to anything other than Caucasian, nothing would fundamentally change about those films except how CERTAIN people would perceive them”).

This time, we have a film that is, ironically, very Burtonesque in its world and coloring. It’s no secret that there aren’t many widely-available animated films with non-white leads, let alone stop-motion animated films. I say all of this because when determining who will be the lead of a film is a politically conscious decision, whether people like it or not.

But Wendell & Wild isn’t JUST good to me because it’s a film that has a black lead, while many other films that are aesthetically Tim Burtonesque don’t. All the character models are very abstract, but inventive, and it’s neat seeing how they place off each other and their surroundings; the designs of the characters being partly inspired by their voice actors was a nice touch. It’s also rated PG-13, and we could use more of those in the animation world. 

I’ve read and heard criticisms of Wendell & Wild that the film itself is overstuffed, that the story is hard to follow or etc.; and while maybe I can get where these people are coming from (even if it feels a bit Pixar-brained on their part), I can imagine the thought process going through Henry Selick’s head. This is the first film he’s directed and released since Coraline in 2009, and it’s not like he’s getting any younger. Who knows how long The Shadow King will take, and for all we know, Wendell & Wild might be the last film he directs; so I can imagine he and his team wanted to insert as much stuff visually and thematically, thus making a layered if messy film, rather than a neat, but standard one.

Npt to be too “political” here, but I really liked reading up on how part of the plot was drawn a lot by Henry Selick’s wife, Heather, who is an advocate with at-risk youth and special needs kids while approaching topics like the school-to-prison pipeline and Kat’s character in general. I genuinely appreciate it when a piece of media tries to touch on issues like this, especially when there are so many stories (whether intentionally or not) are written like they don’t exist. Ultimately, I recommend a double feature viewing of this and Entergalactic.

Gobelins’ 2022 shorts

Every now and then, I try to watch a bunch of shorts put out by the students at the Gobelins school in Paris. At Gobelins, the short films by these students are usually team efforts, so you have 5 or so people working together focused on making the project. This certainly depends on the school and what they require, since compared to the USA, many animation programs in the US require each student to direct their own short as sort of a capstone project (SVA, CalArts). You might still get help from other students, but they can’t focus fully on contributing since they have to make a short too.

When choosing short films to watch, most of the time it’s from past years like the short Good Job!, but this year had a really neat varied selection laid out. There were shorts that felt very Yellow Submarine-esque like Au Revoir Jerome! and Funeral at Nine; and then there were others that felt more grounded like Magnifica and Last Summer. I still need to get through them all (one short in particular, Vulvina Queen of Ecstasy, is so sadistically horny it had to be uploaded on their Vimeo account before being taken down; one can watch it on Catsuka Player here) but I wanted to give a personal shout out to the short Gloire Amère 40000.

I don’t consider myself an avid RPG player or fantasy nerd, but I am deeply familiar with the tropes, and this short captured something within me emotionally. With its lush backgrounds and landscapes, contrasted with character designs that look like they came out of a “How to Draw Manga” guide from the mid-2000s, it spoke to my core on the passage of time and things from your life not being the same.

This short film reminded me a lot of an animation I watched back in my teens, “The World Is Saved” , which itself is a music video a group of people IGN got together to make for a Danny Wiessner single.

Sprite Fight (2021), Dir. Matthew Luhn

It might seem weird to have a liking to a short film whose main goal was to show off the Blender program but screw it. I enjoyed Sprite Fight. I guess lowering the frame rate had something to do with it, as indie animator Doodley explains in this video. I also enjoyed seeing what a writer like Matthew Luhn has up his sleeve outside of his work at Pixar.

The June Archive and Restoration Project (2022-present)

The June Archive and Restoration Project comes across as an account on Twitter and YouTube that is appears to be dedicated to archiving popular online animations that were created using the now-defunct Flipnote Hatena software for the Nintendo DSi; in actuality, it’s a series of digital horror videos acting as a ARG for the audience that grew up on these videos. I find these to be very creative and present a somewhat existentially horrifying precedent; the fact that it’s becoming harder to archive media we love, specifically stuff that we previously thought would live online forever, like flash animations or webcomics.

I know that can be weird to say, especially in this instance when the media mostly amounts to stuff like Mario & Friends Playing The Office Theme or fanmade music videos for DJ Earworm’s Blame It On The Pop, but it’s the truth. I’d even say this is something I’d want for a project like Come and Learn with Pibby! to take genuine notes from.

Vulo Lives! (2022), by Jason Steele

And now for the toughest sell. 

Vulo Lives! is a series created by Jason Steele (AKA FilmCow of Charlie the Unicorn fame) where an entity called Vulo the Face Borrower (themselves a parody of VRChat avatars) runs a talk show where they interview various guests, all of which just happen to be pre-existing cartoon characters. What separates this more-scripted variant of the “talk show” from the livestreams on Twitch appears to be the puppet segments at the end of each episode called “Relno the Storykeeper”, where a mystical creature tells the audience spooky stories with a funny twist.

I find it hard to find myself recommending online material that can be accurately categorized to crude and/or absurd parodies of recognizable IP. It’s not that I don’t have reasons for enjoying media like the Bobbypills-produced Les Kassos, Lowbrow Studios’ Sonic for Hire, or even the “pleasantly surprised to see is still ongoing” How It Should Have Ended series started by Daniel Baxter and Tommy Watson; but expressing those reasons could make someone like me vulnerable for folks to question my tastes. It all just comes down to preferences in the end (was never big on Mr. Boop, but I get why people like it).

If you were to ask me point blank why I like Vulo Lives!, it’s almost like a version of Space Ghost Coast to Coast that is spitting in the face of copyright (every episode even opens with Vulo introducing the guest first by the company their owned by); taking these icons of pop culture that will most likely outlive all of us, and giving them these thoughts and hobbies, as if they live in our dystopian world. It’s honestly sort of affectionate half the time, at least to me (you can tell Steele knows a good deal about the IPs each character originates from). I also still find FilmCow’s style of dry comedy and giving characters weird voices funny after all these years.

If you are amused by anecdotes like Sonic the Hedgehog giving the details on one of his eco-terrorist ventures, or Queen Elsa spilling the tea on how the entire plot of Frozen II was just a cover up to distract the public from something far more sinister, I think you’ll have a good time with these videos.

The End (2022)

There are a lot of things that I want to say about The End, the short film made by former Blue Sky animators using company assets as THEIR way of ending things on their own terms; but, all of that will happen in an essay at a later day (hopefully before Nimona comes out). All I’ll say is I and many other people got many conflicting emotions from something we didn’t ask for, and for the better, especially considering the events that played out in the animation industry for the rest of the year.

There is other stuff I wanted to recommend like Maya & The Three and Danger & Eggs, or even short films like Affairs of the Art, Above the Brain 2, Pandiculation and Krasue, but I either don’t really have much to say about them or I’m saving them for a future write-up. Also, this list is longer than I originally anticipated, so I’m stopping it here. 

Seeing that this is my first entry on this blog, I wanted to make a first good impression; it’s partly the reason why this took so long to make and submit, not just because I thought of making this back in December, but for how folks who come across this blog will perceive me and my tastes. There’s all this constant thoughts I have regarding making the right word choice or picking a good image to give an idea for what I’m supposedly recommending. It’s just all so intimidating. The other reasons are being occupied with work and school. I hope this was a fun endeavor for whoever read this.

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