Drawing Closer

Animation lovers: watchlists at the ready. From action capers to Irish folk tales, in 3DCG or the humble pencil, by manga legends and raucous newcomers, Letterboxd’s animation correspondent Kambole Campbell picks ten new feature films we’re excited to see.

When the gears of the live-action film industry ground to a near-halt earlier this year, animators were still at work. As a medium that, at its most fundamental level, is controlled fully by the imaginations of its creators, this might be the one element of the screen industry that has some kind of ability to operate throughout the pandemic.

Based on previews from this year’s online edition of the annual Annecy International Animation Film Festival, there’s a lot to look forward to that’s still in the works, even now. With everything from blockbuster capers and fantastical alternate histories, explorations of folklore and real human stories alike, we can expect a spoil of boundless and endlessly creative films limited only by the imaginations of those drawing them.

Here are ten animated features I’m specifically excited for, in no particular order (except for the first—fight me if you like, Masaaki Yuasa will always win).


Directed by Masaaki Yuasa / Due to release in 2021

If there’s one new animated film to watch in the next year, make it Inu-Oh (but also, don’t limit yourself to one). Masaaki Yuasa has proven himself time and again to be one of the most exciting and versatile animation directors alive, as well as potentially the busiest. With his studio, Science Saru, this year alone he directed two television series—the fantastic ode to animators, Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!!, and the intense Netflix disaster series Japan Sinks: 2020—as well as the melancholy, romantic feature film Ride Your Wave.

Inu-Oh looks to be just as imaginative and wild as anything else Yuasa-san has made, based on the work-in-progress glimpse at Annecy. Set in fourteenth-century Japan, the film is based on Hideo Furukama’s novel about the legendary masked Noh theater performer Inu-Oh, born with “unique characteristics”, which lead them to cover their entire body. Both novel and film focus on their close friendship with the blind biwa hōshi (lute priest) Tomona, and the success they find together.

“We often think of history as moving in one straight line, but it actually branches off, and people and events in those branches have been forgotten or disappeared,” Yuasa-san said during the Annecy preview. Inu-Oh explores those hidden branches through an anachronistic reimagining of the roots of traditional Japanese entertainment. The main idea: what if the performers of Noh theater were treated like Japan’s pop idols of today? Yuasa-san described the main characters as “kind of like The Beatles” of 1300s Japan.

On credits alone there’s a lot of promise, with the legendary Taiyō Matsumoto— the mangaka who created Tekkonkinkreet and Ping Pong (and collaborated with Yuasa-san on the latter’s fantastic anime adaptation)—lending his eccentric yet elegant designs to the film. The preview opened with minute movements comprised of rough, wide almost painterly brushstrokes, an art style almost completely unlike anything Yuasa-san has done previously.

As it turns out, this is but one way of representing the world of Inu-Oh, through the perspective of Tomona, a Notes on Blindness-esque way of representing how Tomona perceives things. From those small glimpses, Inu-Oh looks to be a beautiful, anthropological piece built with both the same free-form style that characterizes the rest of his work, and perhaps something more classical as well.


Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart / Coming to theaters and Apple TV+ in late 2020 after a September 12 premiere at TIFF

Made and set in Kilkenny, home to the acclaimed animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the much-anticipated Wolfwalkers is inspired by animation’s past, Celtic legend, and the local area’s history. Set in 1650, Wolfwalkers takes place amidst attempts by the English (Cromwell, specifically) to pacify and tame Ireland. Representative of those wild elements the English are seeking to eradicate are the ‘wolfwalkers’—people blessed by Saint Patrick with the power to leave their bodies at night and become wolves during their sleep (Irish werewolves, essentially). The story follows an English girl, Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), who moves to Ireland with her father Bill (Sean Bean), to help carry out Cromwell’s plan to kill the wolves.

Like his previous film, Song of the Sea (2014), co-director Tomm Moore says this new film is based upon a childhood story common amongst those living in Kilkenny. And like his previous films (including 2009’s The Secret of Kells), it looks to be a visual feast, with a mixture of dynamic camera styles, pre-viz work and hand-drawn animation for moments like its ‘wolf-vision’. Moore draws the ideological divide between the English and the Irish into every scratch of pencil, the occupied cities comprised of rigid lines and angular designs, while the forest and its inhabitants are more free-flowing and unkempt.

Moore cited the rough charcoal lines of Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as one influence on the Cartoon Saloon animators’ approach; the way that Robin is drawn gradually changing along with her worldview. Cartoon Saloon is yet to make a bad film, and Wolfwalkers looks like it might be the company’s most beautiful myth yet.

Stay tuned to The Letterboxd Show for an interview with Tomm Moore.

Over The Moon

Directed by Glen Keane / Due on Netflix, late 2020

The feature directorial debut of animation legend Glen Keane, early glimpses of Over The Moon look utterly bonkers. A long-time character animator for Disney, having worked on almost all of the studio’s animation output since Pete’s Dragon in 1977, Keane looks to be bringing his vast array of talents to his first feature film. The trailer alone shows off a vast blend of styles, from the 3DCG (three-dimensional computer graphics) and more realistic lighting that we’ve come to expect from Disney animation, as well as the more textured, hand-drawn work the director cut his teeth on.

The story itself sounds wild, though it starts out simple enough: Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is enraptured by her parents’ stories of a goddess living on the moon. After her mother passes away, Fei Fei begins to believe the story is true, and decides to build a rocket to get there. There’s also a hint of something living there. Whatever the answer is, I’m curious to see it, and with a star-studded cast that includes the likes of John Cho and Sandra Oh, how could I turn it down?

Lupin III: The First

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki / Released in select territories; wider release due late 2020

Takashi Yamazaki’s Lupin III: The First, the first 3DCG-animated Lupin III feature film, looks rather incredible. It’s the latest in a vast, 50-year history of anime based on the manga from the late Kazuhiko Katō (known by the pen name Monkey Punch). Despite that long history, the Lupin III franchise has always managed to resist being made obsolete; part of its ongoing appeal is its ability to continuously adapt to new contexts and styles while retaining its simple charms, and The First is no different.

The film announces itself in the same way as ever, the iconic ‘Lupin III’ theme blaring over a flashy title sequence that builds off familiar iconography, as well as moments from the franchise’s history. It revels in the style of old-school caper the show continues to embrace, taking delight in the exploits of a modern-day gentleman thief who announces his robberies with calling cards.

Even with the new and unfamiliar animation style, Lupin III: The First feels like a classic Lupin III tale, taking the story back to the 1960s (the decade during which the character was created), and even putting its main character back in his classic red suit. Each character design translates surprisingly well to this mode of animation—Lupin’s gangly frame, as well as the unique appearances of his compatriots Goemon, Fujiko, Zenigata and Jigen (who looks bizarrely attractive in this—although, to be fair, “everyone in this movie is f—king sexy” according to Letterboxd member London. Accurate).

Yamazaki does well to avoid the often sterile feeling of 3DCG animation by having these characters all move like the cartoons they’re based on (for starters, a long-running visual gag of Lupin leaping straight out of his clothes). It might take some adjustment (which for me, only really lasted up to the opening credits) before it becomes fully dazzling. Lupin III: The First might be the most exciting action caper of 2020, in any medium.

The Legend of Hei

Directed by Mtjj / Released in China late 2019; international release TBA

Rivalling Lupin III: The First for most flamboyant animation on show at Annecy was The Legend of Hei, a feature-length prequel to the Flash web cartoon The Legend of Luo Xiaohei by Chinese artist Mtjj (real name Zhang Ping).

The series tells the story of the spirit Luo Xiaohei, who takes the appearance of a small black cat before being adopted by a young girl. The film’s story focuses more squarely on the cat, Xiaohei, who transforms into a man and goes on to live in the forest, his carefree existence soon interrupted by the discovery that humans are beginning to encroach on that territory as their cities expand, and technological progress puts the two worlds increasingly at odds.

As the film explores more of Xiaohei’s origins, the thick, clean line-work and cute art style disguises a much grander, epic conflict at play, realized in some wildly animated fight scenes. (“Starts off small and adorable, then expands into an epic conflict on an Akira scale,” writes Tasha Robinson.) The 2D-animated film allegedly took five years to produce, Mtjj saying in an interview that the complete film, at 100 minutes, required more than 70,000 drawings—or around twelve per second.

With its gentle score and clash of the spiritual world with the modern, the environmentally conscious work of Studio Ghibli comes to mind, as does the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender (perhaps the most popular consideration of East Asian spirituality in the West, especially with its resurgence of popularity thanks to Netflix). The Legend of Hei enjoyed an extremely lucrative run in China in late 2019 thanks to the original cartoon’s sizeable fanbase at home. No news yet on who will pick the film up in the West.

ON-GAKU: Our Sound

Directed by Kenji Iwaisawa / Expected to release late 2020

Rotoscoped by hand over a period of seven years, the independently produced anime ON-GAKU: Our Sound has a rather appropriate match of creator and subject: a film about amateur musicians made by amateur animators.

Director Kenji Iwaisawa adapted the film from Hiroyuki Ohashi’s cult manga, and there’s a charm to the rudimentary style of its art, the plain faces of its characters resembling the designs of something like ONE’s Mob Psycho 100, while also matching that show’s deadpan, oddball sense of humor. The laid-back voice acting only adds to that effect, as main character Kenji and his cohort’s obvious excitement flattened into a consistently amusing monotone.

It’s not quite a classic tale of underdog artistry, as the group never really gets better, but the film embraces the primordial noise that emerges whenever they pick up an instrument. Iwaisawa takes the characters seriously, showing their raucous and unconventional performances with complete sincerity. “Loved the deadpan humor and appreciated the message about how art can act as an impetus for positive change in our lives,” writes Dan.

Passion, companionship and collaboration is what’s most important to Our Sound. It’s a deeply weird film, but one filled with great ambition and visual wonder, increasing in boldness as it goes. The different styles of coloring and expression that emerge beyond its initial palettes are radical enough to catch anyone off guard.


Directed by Michael Rianda / Releasing in most territories in October 2020 (October 23 in the US)

Connected is the next step for Sony Animation as it moves in an exciting new direction (the studio recently stated that it would be green-lighting more animation aimed at adults). Produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, off the back of their immensely popular film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Connected is imbued with the same kind of idiosyncrasy and innovation that made Spider-Verse a mega-hit.

From first-time feature director Michael Rianda, best known for his work on TV’s Gravity Falls, Connected is a family-road-trip-AI-apocalypse movie, based on the bizarre chemistry of Rianda’s own family. Formerly known as The Mitchells vs The Machines, the film looks at the push and pull between technology and human relationships, and how different generations respond to the ongoing changes in how we interact online and personally.

While this isn’t animated “on twos” (where each frame of character animation holds for two frames of background movement) as Spider-Verse often was, Connected also attempts to maintain a ‘drawn’ quality in its art. Characters move fluidly, but with clear outlines drawn from simple shapes. There’s also a strong contrast between the lived-in detail of human habitats versus the stark minimalism of the domain of the robots.

Thankfully the clips from the film don’t look nearly as finger-wavy and luddite as the trailers might suggest. (They appear to take the Boomer point of view that technology unequivocally ruins everything, but we know it’s more complicated than “screens bad”). In any case, it looks like the beginning of an interesting run for Sony Animation, and I’m keen to see how it turns out.

The Summit of the Gods (Le Sommet des Dieux)

Directed by Patrick Imbert / Due to release 2021

Le Sommet des Dieux distinguishes itself in this list by being the one most firmly grounded in reality, but it’s by no means less wondrous. Based on Jirô Taniguchi’s five-volume manga Le Sommet des Dieux—itself based on the 1998 novel by Baku Yumemakura—the story starts with the question of whether George Mallory died going up or coming down the summit of Mount Everest on June 8, 1924. 70 years later, Fukamachi, a young Japanese reporter, stumbles across a camera potentially belonging to Mallory, and embarks on an adventure of his own with his friend Hasu Joji.

In close collaboration with the mangaka Taniguchi-san, who passed away during development, director Patrick Imbert seeks to replicate his art style, which was more aligned with that of European comics than traditional manga, with less exaggerated and highly detailed line-work. The team also looked outward from Taniguchi-san’s art, to the character designs of works such as Hiroyuki Okiura’s Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, as well as his 2011 film A Letter To Momo, and the films of the late, great Satoshi Kon.

From what I saw at Annecy, there’s something of a mix between what Imbert calls the “documented detail” of Taniguchi-san’s work and simpler design for the larger urban spaces. To accomplish this, the studio draws its traditional 2D using modern techniques, such as “movie-style” framing—locations and interiors created in 3D software and then overpainted for detail, identity and authenticity.

The Summit of the Gods also seeks to recapture the detailed and subtle realism of Yumemakura-san’s depiction of George Mallory, with low-key voice performances conducted in shared sessions; recording movements and hiring a boom operator to make the sound more akin to live action, perhaps even more natural. Though production has already been long, the studio had thankfully pre-empted the long delays of Covid-19, so let’s hope we get to see the film with our own eyes, soon.

Sirocco and the Kingdom of the Winds

Directed by Benoît Chieux / Scheduled for 2022

An original fable from animation director Benoît Chieux, Sirocco and the Kingdom of the Winds is still very much in the midst of production, with an expected release in 2022. It looks captivating; a surreal tale set in an imaginary kingdom with delicate and clearly defined artwork, about a being named Sirocco, a despised figure with the power to control the wind, who is forced into solitude by the denizens of this world.

The dream kingdom resembles a Spirited Away-esque land, with its own hierarchy and bizarre set of rules, mundanity mixed in with visual wonder. Flying crocodiles, living houses and strange humanoids populate it, and the main characters, a pair of girls named Carmen and Juliette, turn into cats themselves. All are drawn with wavy lines, soft colours and fluid movement, the surreal presented with an inviting rather than foreboding air.

Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0

Directed by Hideaki Anno and others / 2020 release delayed; keep an eye on the official Twitter account for a new date

Hideaki Anno is set to bring his earth-shaking Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise to a close, again, with the fourth instalment of his ‘Rebuild’ series of films, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0. Delayed for almost a decade now (the previous instalment came out in 2012!), and delayed again by Covid-19, the film looks to close out a grand rewriting of the original series that shot Anno-san and former studio Gainax to fame—“Bye Bye, All of Evangelion” the tagline reads. But we’re gonna have to wait a while longer to bid this final farewell.

Made with co-director Kazuya Tsurumaki (who has served as director with Anno-san since the original series), the first ‘Rebuild’ film, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, seemed to be a fairly conventional remake, updating the visuals and score with more modern techniques. The story starts the same: the isolated, depressed and self-loathing teenager Shinji Ikari is forced by his absentee father to help fight the mysterious, giant, alien ‘Angels’ by getting in an equally mysterious big robot called an Evangelion (“Eva” for short). He finds no self-fulfilment in this, and if anything, the close contact with other people only seems to push him further into himself. So far, so familiar.

However, the second film, Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, veered completely off the rails in the best way possible, destroying audience preconceptions. The line between sequel and remake was fascinatingly blurred, and only continued to get weirder with Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, as the story landed in completely unfamiliar territory, altering its characters beyond recognition while adding entirely new characters in the process. It’s now almost impossible to predict what 3.0 + 1.0 will be. The only footage available so far was a wild ten-minute clip in which the Eiffel Tower is wielded as a weapon by an Eva. We were this close.

Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea (2019).
Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea (2019).

There are almost too many gifts, even just from Annecy alone, to describe at length. A couple more worth mentioning: Anja Daiman’s musical comedy The Island looks fascinating for its reclamation of the colonialist story of Robinson Crusoe; and Yuta Murano’s first anime feature Our Seven-Day War promises plenty of plot twists amidst the actions of rebellious youth. A range of beguiling short films were also on display—a selection helpfully compiled here by Letterboxd member Iknow.

Outside of Annecy, other films are finally arriving, virtually or otherwise—such as Gints Zilbalodis’s peculiar and quiet Away, and Ayumu Watanabe’s beautiful and surreal Children of the Sea (with music from none other than Joe Hisaishi!). Though not all animation is comfort food by default—it is simply a medium, after all—it’s reassuring knowing that animated films are able to continue, in some form, through the pandemic.

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