(Update 01/12/2021) Since we first published this article, several new features have been announced, one film has been pushed back to 2022, and others have been rescheduled within 2021. We’ve updated the list accordingly.
This time each year, we publish a preview of the major animated features due to come out in the U.S. the following year. The lists are never definitive — release dates are liable to change at the best of times — but this one comes with an extra-large caveat. We simply don’t know how much more damage the coronavirus is planning to wreak on the release schedule.
In fact, attentive readers will notice that eight of the 22 films below were included in last year’s list. The likes of Minions: The Rise of Gru and Raya and the Last Dragon subsequently drifted into 2021, due to production delays and release reshuffles.
The pandemic has also pushed us to broaden our criteria a little. In past years, we omitted straight-to-streaming titles (unless they were produced by the streamers themselves). Now that major tentpoles like Pixar’s Soul are skipping theaters, that rule makes a little less sense. Of the films below, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run has already been converted into a streaming release in the U.S., and others may well follow suit.
In last year’s list, six of the 17 films were sequels or franchise spin-offs. This year, it’s 10 out of 23. Netflix has announced only one original animated feature, down from two in 2020 (although it may very well have another original film or two by the end of year, before ramping up in a big way starting in 2022). Meanwhile, Apple apparently has no follow-up to this year’s Wolfwalkers, its first animated feature.
In contrast, Disney muscles in with five entries, with four of them scheduled to come out in a three-month window. Admittedly, it inherited two of those titles from Fox, one of which is the debut release of the U.K.’s young Locksmith Animation. Elsewhere, anime fans will welcome the first Studio Ghibli release in six years — albeit in new-look cgi. One final note: three films in the list are hybrid productions, included here because they derive from beloved illustration or animation properties.
Earwig and the Witch
Director: Goro Miyazaki Production company: Studio Ghibli U.S. distributor: GKIDS Release date:Early 2021 February 3, 2021 (limited theatrical run); February 5, 2021 (HBO Max)
For the first time in six years, American audiences will get to see a new Studio Ghibli feature in theaters. The story, about a young orphan who’s unaware that she’s the daughter of a witch, marks a stylistic break for the legendary anime studio: this is Ghibli’s fully cg-animated feature, although early images suggest a highly stylized approach. Goro Miyazaki (From up on Poppy Hill) is directing, with his father Hayao credited for “planning.” The film was one of four animated features included in Cannes Festival’s official selection in 2020.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run
Director: Tim Hill Production company: Paramount Animation U.S. distributor: CBS All Access Release date:Early 2021 February 2021
The third Spongebob feature is an anomaly on this list: the rest of the world has already seen it. During the pandemic, Sponge on the Run hopscotched around the theatrical release schedule before landing on streaming. In the U.S., it will come out on premium VOD before ending up on CBS All Access, Paramount’s sister streaming service, which is due to be rebranded as Paramount Plus amid an overhaul of its programming. Reviews of the film so far are pretty mixed.
Tom and Jerry
Director: Tim Story Production company: Warner Animation Group U.S. distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Release date: March 5, 2021 (day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max)
Admittedly, this reboot isn’t pure animation: Warner Bros. is bringing the beloved franchise back to the big screen (for the first time in almost three decades) in hybrid form. The live-action shoot wrapped up just in time before the pandemic hit, and Framestore has since been busy adding cg animation which, it is promised, will be faithful to the cartoonish sensibility of the 2d originals.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date:March 12, 2021 March 5, 2021 (day-and-date in theaters and on Disney+)
Like its sister studio Pixar, WDAS has committed itself to a number of original films after releasing back-to-back sequels. First up: this fantasy epic set in the magical realm of Kumandra, a land inhabited by an ancient civilization — and dragons — which draws on the cultures of Southeast Asia. A reshuffle behind the scenes suggests that the production hasn’t been smooth; the directors have changed, as has the lead voice actor, who is now Kelly Marie Tran. Awkwafina co-stars.
Director: Loren Bouchard Production company: 20th Century Animation U.S. distributor: Disney/20th Century Studios Release date: April 9, 2021
Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox placed a question mark over this (as well as Fox’s other animated features). Rumors that the project had been spiked were dispelled when the House of Mouse placed it clearly back on the schedule. We still know little about this feature spin-off from Loren Bouchard’s hugely popular Fox sitcom, although Bouchard has promised that it will “scratch every itch the fans of the show have ever had.”
Ron’s Gone Wrong
Directors: Jean-Philippe Vine, Octavio Rodriguez Production company: Locksmith Animation U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: April 23, 2021
Like Bob’s Burgers, this is a title Disney inherited when it bought 21st Century Fox. Unlike Bob’s Burgers, this tale of an 11-year-old boy who befriends a malfunctioning robot is aimed squarely at a family audience. It is the first release from the U.K.’s Locksmith, which has positioned itself as a producer of high-end cg features on lower-than-Hollywood budgets. Animation comes from DNEG’s young feature animation division.
Director: Hamish Grieve Production company: Paramount Animation U.S. distributor: Paramount Pictures Release date: May 14, 2021
Paramount’s latest has gone through multiple titles, directors, and release dates, but the premise has stayed the same throughout. Based on Rob Harrell’s graphic novel Monster on a Hill, the film is set in a world where humans train monsters to fight in professional wrestling tournaments (WWE Studios is a co-producer).
Spirit Riding Free
Director: Elaine Bogan Production company: Dreamworks Animation U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: June 4, 2021
Dreamworks’ second sequel of 2021 is a belated one: the hand-drawn Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron came out way back in 2002. Netflix revived the franchise in 2017 with a series, Spirit Riding Free, that has run to 11 seasons and drawn a whole new fanbase of young girls. This film continues the adventures of 12-year-old Lucky Prescott, who befriends a wild mustang named Spirit. Like the series, it will be cg-animated; Dreamworks is reportedly pursuing a lower-cost production model, as it did on 2017’s Captain Underpants (which cost under $40 million).
Director: Kirk DeMicco Production company: Sony Pictures Animation U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing Release date: June 4, 2021
This long-gestating musical comes with one of the year’s most enticing storylines: “A capuchin monkey with a thirst for adventure — and a passion for music — makes a treacherous passage from Havana, Cuba to Miami, Florida in pursuit of his dreams to fulfill his destiny.” We know little beyond that, other than that Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) has written 11 songs for the film. With Oscars for Hair Love and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse under its belt, SPA is on a roll; here’s hoping this film pushes the visual envelope as as far as Spider-Verse did.
Director: Enrico Casarosa Production company: Pixar U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: June 18, 2021
Pixar continues its run of original features with this, a coming-of-age story set in Casarosa’s native Italy. The director is a veteran story artist at the studio, and previously directed its Oscar-nominated short Luna. His upbringing on the Italian Riviera informs the story of Luca, which follows the friendship between two boys, one of which happens to be a sea monster, over the course of a summer.
Minions: The Rise of Gru
Director: Kyle Balda Production company: Illumination U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: July 2, 2021
The Rise of Gru is both a prequel and a sequel within the highest-grossing animation franchise of all time. Narrative chronology places it between 2015’s Minions and the Despicable Me trilogy (2010, 2013, 2017); if Minions revealed where the gibbering yellow henchmen came from, this film provides an origin story for the villain who becomes their commander. It was delayed by a year after the pandemic temporarily shut down Illumination Mac Guff, the company’s Paris studio.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
Director: Malcolm D. Lee Production company: Warner Animation Group U.S. distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Release date: July 16, 2021 (day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max)
Nineties nostalgia demands it: a follow-up to the hybrid basketball comedy is on its way. Taking over the Michael Jordan role, NBA star LeBron James gets lost in a universe inhabited by Looney Tunes and other well-known Warner Bros. characters. Spike Brandt reprises his role as animation director, and the Looney Tunes’ designs will reportedly tend toward the Chuck Jones era.
Hotel Transylvania 4
Directors: Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska Production company: Sony Pictures Animation U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing Release date: August 6, 2021
With each Hotel Transylvania film to date grossing more than the previous one, a fourth installment was inevitable. There’s no real word yet on where this film will take Dracula and his hotel for ghouls, although Selena Gomez, who voices his daughter Mavis, has been upped to executive producer. Spongebob veteran Drymon and story artist Kluska, who worked on the last two Hotel Transylvania films, are making their feature directorial debuts. Tartakovsky, who helmed the first three films, will write and executive-produce.
Paw Patrol: The Movie
Director: Cal Brunker Production company: Paramount Animation U.S. distributor: Paramount Pictures Release date: August 20, 2021
Paw Patrol, the preschool phenomenon about a pack of problem-solving pooches, has already spawned stage shows, video games, and a merchandising empire. It’s a wonder that a feature didn’t come earlier. Don’t expect big surprises from this film, which once again pits the dogs and their owner Ryder against the nefarious Mayor Humdinger. Kim Kardashian West leads the voice cast.
The Boss Baby: Family Business
Director: Tom McGrath Production company: Dreamworks Animation U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date:March 26, 2021 September 17, 2021
McGrath returns to direct his sixth feature at Dreamworks. Family Business is a sequel to The Boss Baby, the 2017 comedy that became a surprise box-office smash and spawned a franchise. Ted (Alec Baldwin), the precocious infant star of that film, has grown up and is now a hedge fund CEO; cue the entrance of a new boss baby, this one voiced by Amy Sedaris.
The Addams Family 2
Directors: Greg Tiernan, Laura Brousseau, Kevin Pavlovic Production company: MGM U.S. distributor: United Artists Releasing Release date: Halloween 2021
No sooner had last year’s The Addams Family opened to a strong first weekend than MGM announced and dated this sequel. The poster — already released — pre-empts any cynicism with its tagline: “A sequel. How original.” Initially slated for October 22, the film is now merely being marketed only as a “Halloween” release.
Clifford the Big Red Dog
Director: Walt Becker Production company: Paramount Pictures, Entertainment One U.S. distributor: Paramount Pictures Release date: November 5, 2021
Since first appearing in the pages of Norman Bridwell’s kids’ books in the 1960s, Clifford the giant red Labrador has never really gone away. The character has inspired a PBS animated series and direct-to-video episodes, and remains the official mascot of publisher Scholastic. This cgi/live-action hybrid marks his second feature outing (the first was the fully-animated Clifford’s Really Big Movie in 2004). Long in the works (initially at Universal), the film sees Clifford, his owner Emily Elizabeth, and her Uncle Casey go on the run in New York City.
Directors: Byron Howard, Jared Bush Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: November 24, 2021 (unconfirmed)
Disney teased this much-anticipated film at its Investor Day, with a short clip that gives a flavor of the Colombian setting (see below). The teaser gives nothing away about the plot, which follows “a magical family [who] live in a magical home.” Howard and Bush were, respectively, a director and a writer on 2016’s Zootopia, a huge critical and commercial hit for WDAS. The irrepressible Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved with the music.
A note on the release date: Disney’s recent release schedules have reserved November 24, 2021 for an untitled animated feature, and the Investor Day presentation committed to a fall release for Encanto. We’re assuming the film is now sitting in that slot, but the studio hasn’t confirmed this.
Director: Garth Jennings Production company: Illumination U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: December 22, 2021
The first Sing, a cheery musical comedy about a band of animal would-be singers, grossed a tidy $635 million in 2016. It ain’t broke, so Illumination isn’t fixing it. The sequel reunites Jennings and the cast — which includes Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane — for a second outing that sounds very much like the first: this time, the characters are taking their musical acts to the big city. The sequel was knocked off its summer perch when Minions: The Rise of Gru was delayed (see above).
Arlo the Alligator Boy
Creator: Ryan Crego Production studio: Netflix Animation, Titmouse U.S. distributor: Netflix Release date: 2021
Upon learning that he is from NYC, a boy, who is half human and half alligator, decides to leave his sheltered life in the swamp and search for his long-lost father. This original Netflix animated feature is a hand-drawn musical, and will be followed by an animated series, I Love Arlo, that will pick up where the movie ends. The franchise was created by Ryan Crego (executive producer, Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh; supervising director, Sanjay & Craig).
Director: Chris Appelhans Production studio: Sony Pictures Animation (U.S.), Base Animation (China) U.S. distributor: Netflix Release date: 2021
This film has the unique distinction of also appearing on our 2019 and 2020 lists of animated feature releases. Its release in 2021 seems pretty secure, now that Netflix has picked it up. Experienced visual development artist Appelhans writes and directs this original story, set in contemporary China, about a boy and a dragon who can make wishes come true. The voice cast stars Constance Wu and Jackie Chan, who is co-producing through his company Sparkle Roll Media. The film is the first product of Sony Pictures Animation’s new international initiative.
Director: David Silverman, Raymond S. Persi Production studio: HB Wink Animation (China), Cinesite (Canada) U.S. distributor: Unannounced Release date: First quarter 2020
Since moving into feature animation production in 2016, vfx shop Cinesite (The Addams Family) has kept busy. Extinct, for which its providing animation, is financed by Chinese producers China Lion Film and Wink Animation. Cinesite’s Montreal studio is handling the production. The film has strong Simpsons credentials, both in the form of its directors — Silverman and Persi — and its writers Joel H. Cohen, John Frink, and Rob LaZebnik. It tells the story of furry donut-shaped animals called Flummels, who travel back in time to save their species from extinction.
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