Sixteen years before the release of Toy Story and nine years before Pixar’s “Tin Toy” short won an Oscar, The New York Institute of Technology’s Computer Graphics Lab announced plans to produce a CG film titled The Works. Even before movies like Tron and Young Sherlock Holmes could pioneer CG special effects in live-action film, a small group of New York programmers and artists looked to revolutionize the animation industry by creating the world’s first feature-length fully-animated CG film, centered on a pilot and a robot in a world destroyed after a malfunctioning computer accidentally triggered a new World War.
While the film was eventually canceled after seven years of production in 1986, many of those who worked on The Works went on to be hired by the newly-founded Pixar, paving the way for the release of Toy Story. In less than a decade after that, CG effectively replaced traditional animation in Hollywood, inspiring a boon of creativity and the birth of all-new animation studios like Blue Sky and Illumination. Revolutions are contradictions: we raise a single event to a pedestal as though it was a flash-in-the-pan moment of inspiration, and often forget the years of work and the people that brought us to that point.
Looking towards the expansive slate of upcoming animated features scheduled for release in 2022, it’s hard not to think of the story of how Toy Story changed animation, and how we may be now entering a similarly-revolutionary period in the history of the medium. Following the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse at the end of 2018, fans, critics, and industry voices alike were quick to praise the Sony Animation film, particularly for how it blended 2D and CG animation techniques and changed our perceptions of what was possible in animation. Now, as films like The Bad Guys show greater experimentation within the CG medium than ever before, animators are citing Spider-Verse as an inspiration or benchmark for their projects and eager online fans are all-too-willing to oblige in comparing new films to Sony’s animated classic.
To consider Spider-Verse the singular influence of the next wave of animation risks forgetting the projects that brought us to where we are today. On top of independent animated films like Gints Zilbalodis’ Away and others, Disney has experimented with blending 2D and CG since Paperman in 2010, and Aardman from even earlier. Such a narrative also assumes that CG animation is the default and ignores traditional and stop-motion animated projects, as well as films produced outside of America and CG projects from countries like Japan, which have boldly featured more cartoonish interpretations of CG animation, as seen in films like Lupin III: The First.
Artists have never stopped pushing boundaries, but Spider-Verse showcased the existence of a mainstream market for their experiments. That, coupled with more demand for animation than ever as streamers like Netflix invest in the sector, means notoriously-conservative film studios finally have an incentive to raise new voices and experimental animation to the fore. What was once an experiment is now defining the look and feel of modern animation, just as Toy Story built on the work of others to change the course of the medium forever.
And make no mistake, it is new voices ushering in this change at studios both large and small: as Pixar has deviated from its in-house style with last year’s Luca and the upcoming Turning Red, Enrico Casarosa and Domee Shi have made their first jumps to the director’s chair. Even for Spider-Verse, beyond producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, only Peter Ramsey of the film’s three directors had led a feature film before. Of the voices leading its sequel, only Joaquin Dos Santos has prior directorial experience, with Justin Thompson and Kemp Powers making their debut in the director’s chair.
Are we enjoying a post-Spider-Verse revolution? You could certainly argue that. You could also argue that we’re witnessing a changing of the guard, as new creators are allowed to create the animated films they always want to make. Whichever way we look at it, one thing is certain: whether you want stop-motion from streamers or superheroes from Sony, 2022 looks set to be a special year for animation.
Pixar rarely grounds its films in real-world locations, instead choosing to set them in places inspired by the world around us. Luca’s pastel Ghibli-inspired town was inspired by director Enrico Casarosa’s childhood in Genoa while remaining firmly fantastical. Meanwhile, in Turning Red, director Domee Shi has taken to the streets of Toronto for her feature directorial debut.
Like Shi’s Oscar-winning short film Bao before it, the film’s story is inspired by Shi’s relationship with her mother as we follow the relationship of the dorkish Mei and her overprotective mother jostling between the responsibilities of family and the chaos of adolescence. Except rather than simple family responsibility, Mei’s experiences are complicated slightly by the fact she turns into a red panda when she experiences extreme emotions.
The Bad Guys
Based on a children’s book of the same name, The Bad Guys is a heist film about a criminal gang of animals that makes a deal to turn good instead of serving jail time for its crimes. The film visually is a departure from what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks, with clear homages to heist films of the past, from Oceans 11 to Hayao Miyazaki’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.
When talking about the film in 2019, one of the film’s former heads of character animation promoted it as a heist film “almost like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse type… in that it’s going to be pretty stylized and cutting-edge,” something that shows in the film’s initial trailer. It’s an exciting turn for the studio, and it embraces expressive animation and director Pierre Perifel’s roots as a 2D animator in France prior to his work at Dreamworks, making this one of the more intriguing animated films scheduled for 2022.
Director Masaaki Yuasa’s final film at Science Saru before a break after leaving the studio last year, Inu-Oh is being billed as a musical drama set in 14th-century Japan and based on the classic story Tales of the Heike. Blending Ukiyo-e inspired visuals with fluid character animation, the film is centered around the bond between Inu-Oh, a boy born with physical characteristics that lead many to believe he is cursed, and Tomona, a blind Biwa performer, as they perform Japanese dance Noh for the general public.
This is far from a stuffy period piece. The film re-imagines the Noh performers as though they were the pop stars of their era, with Inu-Oh and Tomona the big celebrities of their time. While the film is not set to release in Japan until summer 2022 (and later in the US via GKids), the film has received praise following its world premiere at Venice Film Festival in September. Based on what we’ve seen so far and the news that he is reuniting with long-time collaborators Taiyo Matsumoto (Ping Pong, Tekkonkinkreet) and Norio Matsumoto (Naruto, Keep Your Hands Off the Eizouken!), if this is Yuasa’s final film for a while, it should be worth the wait.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse changed the conversation, and somehow, Sony Animation is about to try and do that all over again. Following the critical and commercial acclaim of the original film, a sequel appeared inevitable — especially following the tantalizing post-credits tease — but what is perhaps most surprising is that not one, but two sequels are on the way over the next couple years.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) is, like the name suggests, just one part of a two-part story continuing the story of Miles Morales. Alongside introducing new Spider-people like Spider-Man 2099 (voiced by Oscar Isaacs), this new film promises a far grander superhero adventure in contrast to the original film’s origin story, centered on the relationship between Miles and Gwen. The initial preview released for the film last month (seen above) suggests that the new-look directorial team is choosing not to rest on its laurels as it further evolves on the boundless creativity of the first film. If this proves to be true, anything is possible for where this story goes next.
The Mario movie
Beyond its bizarre casting, the Super Mario movie remains as sure-fire a hit for Illumination as it looked when the film was first announced in 2018. While the movie will seemingly bring the Mushroom Kingdom to life in animated form under the supervision of Nintendo, very little is known about it at this early stage, aside from the characters set to be involved, with favorites like Donkey Kong, Toad and even Kamek playing a part in the upcoming film.
While the lack of a trailer or even a promo image make it difficult to predict what direction Illumination will take with the Mario movie, you can expect that Nintendo’s involvement will ensure something more akin to the worlds of the video games brought to life than Mario’s previous mixed attempts at making the jump from game to screen.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Netflix has been investing heavily in animation, with long-term investments set to bear fruit starting in 2022. Of the projects that we know of so far, the most exciting of these is undoubtedly Pinocchio, the animated directorial debut of Guillermo del Toro with his long-in-development adaptation of the classic Italian fable. However, other than the knowledge that the film is being produced with stop-motion puppets and is set for release at the end of 2022 via the online streamer, much of the content of Pinocchio is shrouded in mystery.
That being said, the small kernels of information that we do know are enough to make us sit up and take notice. In an interview with Collider, del Toro spoke of how his approach to adapting Pinocchio is inspired by the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, even going as far as saying the two are ‘essentially the same story’. While Disney’s own animated interpretation of Pinocchio is hardly light-hearted, comments like these suggest something far darker and broodier in tone and content, closer to the original fable.
Wendell and Wild
Wendell and Wild is another of several stop-motion animated projects set for release in 2022 by Netflix, and is perhaps most noteworthy for serving as the grand return of Henry Selick to the director’s chair for the first time since 2009’s Coraline.
Working alongside Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Clay McLeod Chapman on the scriptwriting and creative process, Selick oversees a story centered on the titular demons, voiced by Key and Peele, after they escape the underworld as they find themselves in a town where they must avoid the demon-dusting teenage goth Kat. Netflix has leaned into the unique nature of the comedy-horror project with an unconventional online marketing campaign, although it’s hard to know what to expect from the film when it hits streaming later this year.
In projects both large and small, change is in the air. The return of directors like Makoto Shinkai with Suzume no Tojimari bring with them films that stand as departures from their previous directorial efforts, while the rise of stop-motion animation at Netflix is something that should be celebrated, especially in the wake of Laika’s diminishing box office fortunes that appeared to situate them as the last of a dying breed of major stop-motion animation. Netflix’s investment in the medium doesn’t stop with movies either, with a stop-motion anthology series The House streaming from Jan. 14.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle hits theaters this month before The Deer King, another anime film that marks the feature directorial debuts of ex-Studio Ghibli veterans Masayuki Miyaji and Masashi Ando, releases soon after. The Peasants from Polish filmmaker Dorothy Kobiela is a spiritual successor to Loving Vincent as it continues the oil painting animated experiment pioneered by the director with that film.
This is all without mentioning Cartoon Saloon’s follow-up to Wolfwalkers at Netflix (My Father’s Dragon), or Brazilian animator Alê Abreu’s follow-up to his 2013 Oscar-animated film Boy & The World (Perlimps). Alongside Turning Red, Pixar is set to take a turn in a sci-fi genre with a return to the Toy Story universe (of sorts) for a new spin-off called Lightyear. (While the sci-fi genre may appear ready-set for animation, major flops for films like Titan AE and Treasure Planet have made major studios averse to experimenting in it in the past.)
In the realm of TV and streaming, we have fantasy animated series Magic The Gathering and The Legend of Vox Machina (based on the first campaign from Critical Role) at Netflix and Amazon respectively, The Cuphead Show carrying over the game’s 1920s animated influences, Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Sonic Prime and more targeting audiences of all ages.
Animation is bigger and more varied than ever before, with new voices being offered the chance to bring their own perspectives and artistic ideas to the medium in projects of all sizes. People will put this creative experimentation, particularly in major studio productions, to the Spider-Verse effect, but at the core are a cohort of new voices earning themselves an opportunity to make their mark on a storied medium. Many of this year’s biggest movies are coming from first-timers offering new perspectives or approaches to how animation can look and what stories can be told, in what is beginning to feel like a changing of the guard towards a new future.
A Spider-Verse revolution is just one factor in the equation, playing its own small part alongside the people and projects that brought us there, in a grand celebration of what is set to be an incredible year in animation. After all, you can’t have a Toy Story without remembering The Works that went into it.
Correction (Jan. 14): A previous version of this article misidentified the setting of Turning Red. The film takes place in Toronto, not Vancouver.