Since I’ve had the ability to do so, I’ve been shouting the same dang thing from every couch, desk chair, and barstool upon which I perch: Give animation a chance! It is, without fail, the most inspiring visual medium—the work of creating something out of nothing, translating dreams into reality, and making the fantastical relatable. Nothing feels more exciting to me than an especially successful animated work for these reasons. It’s cinema at its purest, finest, and most fun.
But animation is regularly passed over by quote-unquote “mainstream” critics, who are largely hoity-toity adults who can’t fathom spending time watching that cutesy stuff for children. Never mind that films like L’illusionniste and Grave of the Fireflies are among the most heartbreaking in history, or that The Simpsons is the world’s most consistently funny sitcom. Interpreting what’s in your mind’s eye into something tangible—er, visible—is child’s play, compared to the heavy-duty work of having human beings make faces at a camera.
OK, that’s unfair too. The real winner is the one who loves art of all kinds. And since only one animated work made it onto The Daily Beast’s Obsessed other best-of lists this year (*grumble grumble grumble*), it’s my duty to celebrate and honor all the rest. I am but one person, which means not all of your favorites made it on here. (I promise I’ll get to Mob Psycho 100, Primal, and The Bob’s Burgers Movie ASAP!) These six animated movies and six animated shows may be qualified separately, but they should be seen as equals with the greatest live-action stuff of the year.
THE SIX BEST ANIMATED MOVIES OF 2022
Disney gave Pixar’s first and best film of the year the short shrift; instead of releasing this charming, novel comedy in theaters, it went straight to Disney+. At least that meant no one had any excuse not to watch it. Domee Shi’s debut feature stars one of the most likable new characters in recent memory: Mei, whose awkward preteen struggles are made manifest by a family curse. When women in her family get emotional, they turn into giant red pandas. It’s a literal conceit, but it’s also an adorable, comic, and ultimately touching one. Few movies are this shamelessly personal—Shi, like Mei, is a first-gen Chinese Canadian woman, whose nerdy obsessions made her stand out among her peers. But that visually expressive personality is one of Turning Red’s most exciting strengths, along with its extremely good (and funny) soundtrack.
Watch on Disney+.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio
There was never any doubt that Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio would be the best of the three (?!) Pinocchio adaptations to come out this year. But it didn’t have to be this good: melancholy-but-funny, heartwrenching-but-heartwarming, Pinocchio stands apart from its forebears. Its impressive stop-motion animation, which completely revamps Pinocchio from a humanoid puppet into a sentient tree, makes every moment a surprising treat to watch. There’s a trademark strain of darkness underneath this story too, thanks to Del Toro adding a fascism subplot. But ultimately, this is a striking, stunning, wonderful reimagining of Pinocchio that we didn’t know we even needed. Just watch the scene where the homesick puppet sings a mournful ballad to his papa Geppetto and tell yourself we don’t need another Pinocchio movie.
Watch on Netflix.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe
This is the second Beavis and Butt-Head reboot in the last decade—these numbskulls spring eternal. But even if Beavis and Butt-Head’s schtick is pretty one-note (they share a single brain cell), they somehow always make endearing leads for all kinds of weird adventures. Do the Universe throws the obnoxious metalheads into a space mission and then the future, aka Galveston, Texas, 2022. In their effort to get back home to 1998 Galveston, they take a tour of the present day. Beavis and Butt-Head go to a gender studies class. Beavis falls in love with Siri. The boys have to repair the rift in the multiverse. It’s silly stuff that all, somehow, hits just as well as it did nearly three decades ago. The beautiful 2D animation also looks like it traveled forward in time with the boys, dusted off and given a nice new sheen.
Watch on Paramount+.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood
Rotoscoping is controversial among some animation circles. The art of animating over live-action footage has generated strong opponents and proponents both—perhaps none more notable than Oscar-nominee Richard Linklater, who’s employed rotoscoping several times now. His latest feature is the lovely memoir-on-film Apollo 10 ½, the story of a fourth-grader who secretly becomes the first man to walk on the Moon. Or does he? The trippy realism of the visuals helps to tell this uniquely fantastical tale, which is as grounded as it is spacey. Linklater is infatuated with intimate storytelling, which is why the true heart of Apollo 10 ½ is on Earth, not space. This is a nostalgic portrait of the suburban summer of 1969, made extra special with its entrancing animation.
Watch on Netflix.
Inu-Oh is the best musical of the year. This queer fantasia, the latest from auteur Masaaki Yuasa, tells the story of two 14th-century musicians who challenge societal convention to find fame. It’s a rock opera set against a period backdrop, a constant soundtrack paying homage to classical Japanese art forms and contemporary bands. As we follow outcasts Inu-Oh and Tomona’s journey to turn their disabilities into strengths—Inu-Oh has missing limbs; Tomona is blind—we’re as arrested by the high-energy performances as their audiences are. But their growing fame is both a blessing and a curse. As it propels us toward a devastating finale, Inu-Oh ratchets up the glorious color, fluid motion, and explosive set designs. This is animation at its most curious, bewitching finest.
Watch or rent on-demand.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
I was skeptical that a decade-old short would work as a full-fledged feature. But the 90-minute Marcel the Shell is wonderful. The beautifully animated Marcel, the work of painstaking stop-motion animation integrated within live-action footage, remains as lovely and lovable as he was in his YouTube shorts. And the self-referential narrative—this is a story about what happens after Marcel becomes a viral YouTube star—gives the film a surprisingly touching backbone. Marcel the Shell turns out to be more than just a cute comedy about a talking shell’s life among men; all these years later, it’s become a powerful meditation on loss, grief, family, and change.
Watch or rent on-demand.
THE SIX BEST ANIMATED SHOWS OF 2022
I don’t blame people for not knowing that this show exists. AMC+ is out here doing its best, but it’s pretty far down on the list of popular streaming services. But Pantheon is worth at least getting a free trial for. The sci-fi drama tackles heady topics of ethics in technology, as two teenagers become keyed into a conspiracy at the company their parents work for. As the story becomes increasingly complicated, it never becomes weighed down by technobabble. Instead, Pantheon prioritizes its characters above all else. Even if teen protagonist Maddie’s dad lives in a computer as an “uploaded intelligence” (it’s all part of that conspiracy), Pantheon ensures that he feels just as human as everyone else. The naturalistic, witty dialogue helps.
Watch on AMC+.
Bee and PuppyCat
Bee and PuppyCat’s jump to Netflix has been more than a half-decade in the making. While Natasha Allegri’s chaotic take on classic magical girl anime worked well in short-form YouTube videos, a half-hour runtime sounded like it may burst from our heroine’s manic energy. Not the case—the greatly expanded Netflix season allows for Bee and PuppyCat to expand its boundaries. This is no longer just a show about a lazy weirdo twentysomething, Bee, and her adorably bratty pet dog-kitten-alien-guy, as they take on odd jobs to pay the bills. It’s also about their weirdo friends and neighbors, including their little British boy landlord, who claims that his own pet is Puppycat’s betrothed; a pair of former wrestlers-turned-bickering roommates, one of whom magically becomes pregnant; and Bee’s best friend, who struggles in culinary school. These mundane activities are made exciting with an unpredictable energy and heavily anime-inspired visuals—the rare non-Japanese show to really nail that genre’s style. It’s a fun homage to shoujo shows of our childhoods, with Allegri’s influences laid bare all over the place. Bee and PuppyCat’s chill vibes are also always funny, in the way that your most random friend always makes you laugh the hardest out of nowhere.
Watch on Netflix.
Undone (Season 2)
The first season of Prime Video’s Undone, a rotoscoped gem from the creator of BoJack Horseman, didn’t necessitate a follow-up. Alma is convinced that she has the power to travel back in time, which could help her stop her father from dying. The final moments of Season 1 leave us with the image of Alma waiting to see if she has, indeed, brought her father back. It was a beautiful ending—which Season 2 threatened to undermine. But even though Undone immediately answers the question of whether Alma’s powers are real with this second season (they are!), it finds new energy from putting that reality to work. With Bob Odenkirk getting to do more wonderful work as Alma’s newly revived dad, the season becomes another family-focused mystery about reckoning with the burden of trauma. Undone’s loose play with reality is perfectly communicated through its elastic look—another great example of the wonders of rotoscope.
Watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Pop Team Epic (Season 2)
Pop Team Epic is the weirdest show I’ve ever seen, and I’m so glad it suddenly received a second set of episodes after a four-year break. There’s no real plot to this surreal, absurd, incredible comedy: Each episode features two big-headed girls, Popuko and Pipimi, in a variety of over-the-top sketches. Sometimes they host an educational kids show. Sometimes they engage in combat. Sometimes they’re superheroes. Sometimes they’re dating sim game characters. Sometimes they’re in live-action for some reason. And when you think an episode has come to an end after 11 minutes, just wait—the show then replays the entire episode with virtually no changes, except that Popuko and Pipimi suddenly have deep man voices. Pop Team Epic’s nearly indescribable flexibility needs to be seen to be believed, and then it needs to be watched and rewatched and rewatched again.
Watch on Crunchyroll.
Arguably the most high-profile anime release of the year, Chainsaw Man belies its true nature with its bloody, gruesome pilot. While this is a show about demon hunters protecting Japan from a plague of grotesque monsters, it is also about a horny teenage boy longing to touch a girl’s boob for the first time. There’s a charming sense of black comedy to this otherwise fantasy-tinged horror show, as our homeless hero Denji acquires a begrudging found family while carving bad guys with the chainsaw he has for a head. After all, his real motivation is a sweet one: He wants to avenge his dog, which combined with Denji’s soul to save his life. That’s where his chainsaw powers come from, so every brutal kill is actually in honor of his poor, cute, murder machine puppy. It’s handsomely animated in a way that many weekly anime releases just aren’t, thanks to a self-assured sense of style borrowed right from the manga. Chainsaw Man is a delight, if you can get past all the gore.
Watch on Hulu and Crunchyroll.
Adult Swim has the strongest clarity of vision of any television brand out there. There’s an undeniable, immediately identifiable Adult Swim sensibility that all its greatest shows share: a distinct visual style; fearlessly funny comedy; and a sinking feeling that the entire show is going to fall apart before your eyes. Rick and Morty might be the apotheosis of this slacker ethos, when it comes to Adult Swim’s animated content, but Smiling Friends is the first new Adult Swim show in a good while that arrived so similarly confident. Pim and Charlie are employees at a bizarre business that promises to make clients smile. The only kinds of people who require the services of these Smiling Friends, though, are absolute monsters: suicidal, bloodthirsty, murderous, horny, and everything in between. The show has a lot of fun plunging Pim and Charlie into horrifying scenarios, in which their own lives always appear to be at stake. With shifting animation styles, occasional live-action, and instant sense of humor, Smiling Friends has become sit-back-and-relax TV of the kind only Adult Swim can produce—that is to say, the kind that won’t really let you relax much at all.
Watch on HBO Max.