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5 Animated Films That Surprised Us This Year

Welcome to The Top 5, where every week, we list five things for a given topic. These topics can range from “5 Things We Liked About The Power Rangers Teaser Trailer” to “5 Things We Want (Or Don’t Want) In Ben Affleck’s The Batman.”

Of course, because everyone has an opinion, there is sure to be some disagreements, which is why, despite the title “The Top 5,” very rarely are these actual “best of” articles. Instead, they’re meant to provide entertaining insight, and to stir a discussion, and give everyone a chance to speak their mind. 

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Now, on with today’s topic!


As a fan of animated flicks, I have to say, 2016 left a pretty great impression on me. Not only did we have an amazing number of animated films hit theaters this year, but most of them were actually a lot better than they had any right to be. On the foreign front, you had movies like Your Name and One Piece Film: Gold getting released to much fanfare to their respective niches (anime snobs and shonen fans, respectively), but here in the states, we also had our fair share of fun films that either managed to succeed on a box office level, or on a critical level (In an ideal scenario, films do both, but that isn’t always the case).

So today, in advance of the release of Disney’s Moana, we’re here to take a look at five mainstream animated films that hit U.S. theaters and managed to exceed expectations either at the box office or with critics.


“It’ll be cute.” That’s probably what I would have said if you’d asked me, in advance of its release, what I expected the Disney’s Zootopia. Cute. Maybe even funny. Probably funny. Despite Disney’s recent string of successes, the trailers for this animated flick didn’t really do much for me. There seemed nothing particularly unique about animals dressed as clothes, and the later trailers set to the poppy Shakira song “Try Anything” seemed like a sad attempt to pander to the mainstream. 

Would I see it? Of course. I didn’t expect it to be terrible, but nor did I expect it to be the layered film I ended up getting. Rather than rely on the typical idea of audiences merely accepting that these animals all live in harmony with one another, this film leaned heavily on the fact that it’s unnatural. In a world divided by race and class, Zootopia ended up being a racial commentary I didn’t expect to get. While I wouldn’t call the film subtle, I respected the fact that it tackled this issue head-on, and didn’t pull its punches simply because it was perceived as a kid’s movie.


Pixar, ya sons of bitches, you did it again. You went and made a sequel that we can actually care about. They did it with Toy Story 2 & 3, they did it with — to a lesser extent — with Monsters University, and when they decided to return to the well with Finding Dory, I still expected the worst. Granted, they hadn’t exactly filled me with confidence with the likes of Cars 2, but with itscore creative talent returning for Finding Dory, I had every right to be positive.

Yet as positive as I was about the film, no one could have expected it to hold up as well as it did. While Dory won’t be winning any originality awards, it was still a solid execution of a beautiful story. Even if it didn’t make as big of an impact as Finding Nemo, audiences came out to the film in droves. When all said and done, the film managed to crack $1 billion at the box office, securing its spot behind Toy Story 3 as the worldwide highest grossing Pixar film to date (domestically, it blew past Toy Story 3, locking down the number 1 spot).


Here we have the outlier of the group. Kubo and the Two Strings only managed a meager $69 million in worldwide box office gross. With its budget set at $60 million, I think it’s safe to say that this was a film that lost LAIKA a decent amount of change. So who’s to blame here? Was it the marketing of the film, the visuals, or was this just a story no one really caredto see?

While we may not ever know the answer, Kubo still managed to be a justification for LAIKA’s existence, despite its financial shortcomings. Sure, Disney, Dreamworks, Illumination, and Pixar are all doing amazing work, but LAIKA is the only one out there putting out these gorgeous, hand-crafted stop-motion films. Not only are these movies visually unique, but the storytelling they offer is a welcome complement to the usual stuff we get from all the other major studios. They take risks that more high-risk animated films dare not take, and given the relatively low risk in its budget, I hope Kubo‘s poor performance won’t discourage LAIKA from the path they’re currently heading down.


It’s not everyday that we get an R-rated animated film with a $19 million budget. Given the fact that theatrically-released animated films in the U.S. tend to be aimed at either young kids or general audiences, releasing something with an extra edge seemed like a risky prospect. Could we expect moviegoers who don’t see cartoons to actually pickup a ticket for a film sporting comparatively simplistic, crude, and childlike animation?

It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. While you can likely thank the name of such stars as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Kirsten Wiig — along with plenty of other Judd Apatow alums — I’d say a lot is also owed to the solid script. While the movie could have rested solely on its shock value, it managed to wrap it all in a surprisingly thoughtful story. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly seem to please a good enough number of moviegoers to make it a worthwhile investment.


Like Angry Birds before it, Trolls was a movie that screamed “cash grab.” And let’s face it, it was. Trolls was made because the toy company wanted an excuse to release new toys and promote them heavily. Luckily, we live in such a conscious society, that studios usually aren’t able to throw feces to the wall and call it a movie anymore. Sure, occasionally they do, but when they do, audiences rarely indulge in their practice.

Regardless, Trolls still could have been a big mess. Between its pop culture references and barrage of childish physical humor, there was certainly enough working against the film. However, all that was overshadowed by its genuine heart, gorgeous animation, and catchy renditions of both pop and original songs. I dare you to listen to “Get Back Up Again” and not feel your heart grow at least one size. While the movie didn’t necessarily kill at the box office in its opening weekend, word of mouth has seemed to do it some good in successive weeks. It may not end up profitable in its theatrical run, but given its weak start, I’d say it held in pretty darn well. Plus, who knows, it may have made some of that up on the toy end of things.

Do you agree with this list? What animated films surprised you this year? Let us know in the comments down below!

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