2018: An Animated Retrospective

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As frequent visitors of this website can attest, I love animation. Be it the sweeping vistas of Disney, the humanized stories of Pixar, or the hip smart-alecky humor of (insert name of any animation studio that’s not Disney or Pixar), a good animated film can appeal perfectly to young and old alike.

I try to review a few animated films each year, but rarely have I taken it upon myself to do a full retrospective. This year, though, I’m attempting the task – to look back at all the major animated releases of 2018, discussing the year’s successes and failures in the cartoon world.

The piece that follows is generally limited to American films, as well as to those that were granted a theatrical release. (A couple of the entries will bend those rules, and I’ll indicate so while discussing them.) They are ranked from worst to best, because I like to end things on a high note. I also won’t go into as much detail on films I’ve reviewed in the past, but will instead provide links to my lengthier thoughts.

With that out of the way, let’s look back at a dozen of the best and worst animated films of 2018. We start at the bottom with:

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12. Sherlock Gnomes

2011’s Gnomeo and Juliet was benign and pleasant enough, but it wasn’t the kind of film that warranted any sort of sequel. Nevertheless, we got one, and only seven years later. Sherlock Gnomes reunites the garden gnomes of the first film, and adds a few more, notably Sherlock (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as they all team up to solve a mystery and face perhaps the worst rendition of Moriarty ever put on screen.

There’s no earthly reason to put an iconic character like Sherlock Holmes into a gnome-based movie, outside of the pun in his name. And Sherlock Gnomes can’t reconcile its Sherlock half with its Gnomeo and Juliet half, as the leads of the first film are reduced to supporting roles in the sequel. What’s more, the hijinks they get involved in aren’t all that funny, and a pointless musical number by Irene Adler (here depicted as a Barbie doll voiced by Mary J. Bligh) just smacks of desperation. Why anyone thought this film was a good idea is a mystery not even Sherlock can solve.

Streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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11. Duck Duck Goose

Though initially slated for a theatrical release, Duck Duck Goose was quietly pulled at the last minute and banished to Netflix, where it has been unwisely pulled up by many parents who want their kids to watch something other than Captain Underpants. The story centers on a headstrong goose (Jim Gaffigan) who separates from his flock, and reluctantly helps a pair of mischievous ducklings find their way home. On their trek across China (the film is a Chinese co-production), they are pursued by a hungry cat (Greg Proops) who has multiple personality disorder, because why not.

Duck Duck Goose has a few laughs – most involving an elderly turtle voiced by Carl Reiner – but its story hits all the predictable beats, and with little fanfare. It also pushes the limits of crude humor for a PG film; there are gags about pig butts and bird poop, and one scene even contains an erection joke. If you value your kids’ innocence and intelligence, you’ll let them stick with Captain Underpants.

Streaming on Netflix.

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10. The Grinch

Nearly a decade into the filmmaking cycle, Illumination Entertainment has yet to produce a film that rises above average, and too often they settle for those that sink below the bar. The makers of the Despicable Me franchise – which grows more tiresome with each new entry – don’t lack for money, but their films routinely feel stiff and by-the-numbers, aimed at entertaining the most undemanding of young audiences.

The Grinch is no exception. The latest retelling of the classic Dr. Seuss tale features Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (doing an American accent, which rather defeats the purpose of casting Benedict Cumberbatch), and a lot of safe, cute, marketable supporting characters who clearly sold a buttload of toys this past holiday season. Pedestrian CG hurts the film’s attempted slapstick jokes – Jim Carrey’s live-action lead seemed more animated – and the film plays as an uninspired adaptation of the Seussian tale. At least it doesn’t seem intent on trashing the author’s name, unlike a certain film with Mike Myers in a cat suit.

Begins streaming on Netflix this summer.

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9. Next Gen

Okay, so this film obviously owes a debt to Big Hero 6, but – though no masterpiece – it’s still one of the year’s more pleasant animated surprises. The story takes place in a near-future world in which a weapons-equipped robot (John Krasinski) escapes his creators and forms an unlikely friendship with a technophobic girl named Mai (Charlyne Yi).

Next Gen is far from perfect – it’s tonally inconsistent and features a thoroughly lackluster villain – but it’s surprisingly dark and mature for a film of its caliber. It isn’t afraid to explore the more repressive side of adolescence (Mai isn’t as good-hearted as a typical animated hero), and it can get quite violent at times. (Granted, most of the fatalities aren’t human, but it can be a little disorienting to watch so many adorable robots blow up.) The film didn’t receive a theatrical release in America, but it makes for a perfectly fine stream on Netflix.

Streaming on, um, Netflix.

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8. Early Man

Again, bending the rules, as this is a UK film – but it was heavily marketed in America, so I’ll give it a mention. Taken on its own merits, Early Man is a fine film, another stop-motion charmer from Aardman Animations. But compared to Aardman’s earlier works (Chicken Run, the franchise), it falls somewhat short.

The plot involves a brash young caveman (Eddie Redmayne) on a quest to save his tribe from an expanding Middle Age city led by a ruthless governor (Tom Hiddleston). The old vs. new story, which builds to a football-themed climax (the UK’s version of football, not America’s), is entertaining, but – apart from a few jokes involving a messenger bird – it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s worth a look, but given the bar Aardman has set in the past, I was hoping for something more.

Streaming on HBO.

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7. Smallfoot

I wrote about this film when it debuted, and won’t reiterate those thoughts here. I’ll just say that Smallfoot is another of the year’s more unexpected pleasures, a charming film with some nuanced messages – and the songs, while not particularly memorable, serve the story well. And always remember: Zendaya is Meechee.

Begins streaming on HBO this spring.

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6. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

By this point, most folks are either on or off the Hotel Transylvania train, its penchant for manic, Looney Tunes-level humor having divided animation lovers into two firm camps. If you enjoyed the franchise’s first two films, odds are you’ll like the third, which sees Dracula (Adam Sandler) and family set sail on a cruise run by the lovely but malicious Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn).

Like its two predecessors, this latest Transylvania film doesn’t place much emphasis on story, but is instead an excuse for Genndy Tartakovsky to go wild with his animation tricks, and to deliver lots of goofy, off-the-wall jokes from start to finish. And unlike those first two films, HT3 doesn’t run out of energy before the end – its music-heavy climax is among the most enjoyably dumb things in 2018 cinema. With Hotel Transylvania 4 confirmed, here’s hoping this franchise maintains its level of oddball amusement, and retains the great Tartarkovsky at its helm.

Streaming on Netflix.

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5. Incredibles 2

I wrote about this one already, and there’s little need to repeat the finer points of my review. But I’ll clarify that although parts of that review may sound negative, particularly in comparison to the first movie, Incredibles 2 is a highly enjoyable film, and was worth the 14-year wait. Now I just hope we get the third installment before 2032.

Streaming on Netflix.

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4. Ralph Breaks the Internet

I wrote about this one (are you sensing a pattern?), a film I enjoyed quite a lot, even if – again – it didn’t quite stack up to the first. I don’t know how well the Internet references will hold up ten years down the line, but the themes about loyalty and friendship won’t feel dated anytime soon.

Begins streaming on Netflix this summer.

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3. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Apart from the pandering nature of the mid-credits scene (which I discussed briefly here), Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is a fun, charming, often hilarious riff on the current superhero film deluge. Though not as innovative or rule-breaking as the best episodes of the TV series, it made me laugh harder than just about any other film in 2018.

I place it a bit higher than the average critic, in part because I’m still kind of a fanboy at heart, and a lot of the DC Comics references are fun to pick up, particularly on second viewing. A thoroughly enjoyable flick all around.

Begins streaming on HBO March 9th.

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2. Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion film (after the delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox) is a dry, distilled, yet oddly engrossing tale set in near-future Japan, focusing on an island where once-beloved, now-possibly-infected dogs have been banished. More specifically, it focuses on the relationship between one hard-edged dog (Bryan Cranston) and the boy he befriends – and their relationship shines through as the film’s beating heart.

Like all of Wes Anderson’s films, Isle of Dogs tells its story with striking visuals, and the static nature of stop-motion suits his style effectively. The result is an understated and powerful film that stands among the director’s best works. It may not be for all tastes, but personally, Isle of Wes Anderson.

Streaming on HBO.

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1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Fresh off its Oscar win for Best Animated Feature (breaking the Disney/Pixar hold of the past decade), Into the Spider-Verse is poised to achieve even greater popularity on DVD. And that popularity will be well-deserved – as I discussed in my review, Spider-Verse is a cartoon like none other, with a terrific script and spectacular animation.

If you haven’t watched the film yet – well, what are you waiting for? (I mean, apart from the DVD release.) Sony has uploaded the first 9 minutes of the film to YouTube as an appetizer, and those 9 minutes feature more skill and ingenuity than you’ll find in all 85 minutes of that gnome film. Watch it, enjoy it, and celebrate it for what it is – the best animated film of 2018.

Begins streaming on Netflix this summer.

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