New twists on classic characters and formulas and the looming end of a definitive anime kick off a year shaping up to be a big one in contemporary cartoon history. All the while, streaming services are investing heavily in the medium as the pandemic continues and the value of moving pictures that can be produced from a safe distance becomes even clearer. While most of those recently announced projects are still years away, the first few months of the year haven’t been too shabby for cartoons either, with iconic creators making triumphant returns to form, beloved series coming to a close, and a thrilling action movie from one of the biggest studios in Hollywood.
There hasn’t been a more chaotic anime produced in recent memory than Attack on Titan, a show about the conflict between a race of people that can transform into humanoid behemoths capable of inflicting massive destruction — and gobbling up lots of victims while they’re at it. Though it’s always been controversial for its violence and perceived ideological bent, Attack on Titan: The Final Season (which premiered in 2020 but aired most of its episodes so far in 2021) so far feels like an exciting and worthy conclusion to the series. Alliances have radically shifted, and there are new characters who question the evolution of the heroes and villains we’ve followed since the show’s debut in 2013. The result is exceptional, blockbuster serial storytelling from the animation studio MAPPA, which took over from Studio Wit. The series has never been subtle, and criticism of its use of fascist imagery and references to Nazi Germany remains important to serious discussions about its cultural value, but it feels important to state that Attack on Titan has no real winners. Its central commentary is that generational trauma, political maneuvering, and the weaponizing of hate and bigotry leave reverberating, kaiju-size impacts on society. That message has never felt clearer than in this season. –EVB
(Available to stream on Hulu, Funimation, and Crunchyroll.)
Any new series by Craig McCracken, one of American animation’s great design talents and the creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, is a bona fide event in the animation world. But Kid Cosmic ups the ante: As McCracken’s first show for a streaming era, it is also his first serialized series. Kid Cosmic may return to the child superhero trope, but the show is anything but a Powerpuff-style episodic beat-em-up showcase. Patient character development, subtle world-building flourishes, and a willingness to explore just how hard it is to grow up — even with superpowers — makes the series an early standout among 2021’s animation slate. –JM
(Available to stream on Netflix.)
“This commercial dog,” Charlie Brown once said of his dog Snoopy, “is not going to ruin my Christmas.” The Snoopy of The Snoopy Show, though, is not the Snoopy of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but instead a vehicle for flights of creative fancy and joyful exploration of the realm of the possible — which, in cartoons, extends nicely into the realm of the impossible. In an era of endless, and endlessly cynical, reboots, reinterpretations, and repurposing, it’s nice to see The Snoopy Show take the approach of being just plain fun for the sake of it. The series manages to honor the specials of Peanuts past while modernizing the tone of the show just enough to keep things interesting. –JM
(Available to stream on Apple TV+.)
Elizabeth Ito, the creator of City of Ghosts, seems acutely aware of the power that art can hold in a society divided by hate: “Even as we were making it, there was this sense of, We really need this show. Whatever we can make to help us recover,” she told Vulture in an interview about the Netflix show, which feels like a series of dainty skips through L.A.’s diverse and historic neighborhoods and communities. The ghosts in the show represent the living memories and oral histories locked in decades of urban change, and its protagonist Zelda (August Nuñez) acts as a kind of documentarian, cataloguing and explaining that change to viewers. City of Ghosts is an all-ages show, one that at times feels like halfway between Dora the Explorer and Planet Earth. The show’s animation and characters may seem simple, but its stories and background art style is strikingly complex; both reflect the realities of one of America’s richest cultural melting pots. –EVB
(Available to stream on Netflix.)
Raya and the Last Dragon, one of Disney Animation’s best films in years, works as both a lighthearted kid movie and a martial-arts epic. Delightfully interesting minor players like Tuk Tuk (a cross between a giant insect and an armadillo, played by Alan Tudyk) and Sisu (Awkwafina, playing the title’s dragon) support the young heroine, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). Raya looks a lot like Korra from The Legend of Korra and acts like Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa — spunky, capable, and committed to saving a world ravaged by man — but has a passion and sword-fighting savvy that’s all her own. Raya’s fight scenes are the film’s jewels, and they’re wondrous to behold thanks to the dynamic animation, landscape backgrounds that reach for miles, and an art style that owes a lot to Southeast Asian culture. –EVB
(Available to purchase on Disney+, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.)
If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.
More From This Series
- The Best Podcasts of 2021 (So Far)
- The Best Books of the Year (So Far)
- The Best Albums of 2021 (So Far)