I think last year — more than ever — we saw different styles of animation and a fair amount of praise going to more mainstream films like Pixar’s “Turning Red” and “Lightyear,” and other studio productions like “Minions: Rise of Gru” and “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio.” However, we need to give praise to some underrated but equally heartfelt films released in 2022. If you have not seen any of these films, please watch them. Like, right now.

PSA: I am doing this list based on when I watched these, not on which ones are best, so don’t come at me for the order.

“The Sea Beast,” July

 “The Sea Beast” — an overlooked gem — was released in the summer of 2022 on Netflix. I absolutely loved everything about this film. This magical movie explores life at sea, mixed with monsters and brave hunters, proves how complicated war is, and explores what defines a hero. Our story centers on a young Black, orphaned girl Maisie, played by Zaris-Angel Hator, whose parents died on a monster hunt. She stows away on the ship “Inevitable” with the famous Captain Crow, voiced by Jared Harris, and his team of hunters including Jacob Holland, voiced by Karl Urban, and Sarah Sharpe, voiced by Marianne Jean-Baptist. Jacob befriends Maisie when the two become shipwrecked, and they both realize that the Monsters are not as dangerous as they seem. While a seemingly simple plot, one of the most important themes the film touched on was respecting animals and species — that we may not be familiar with — and their right to exist, as well as anti-hunting which is really important to me as someone who cares about animal rights. Overall this film is an inspiring and gripping adventure-filled tale. 

“The Bad Guys,” April

 Dreamworks is best known for “Shrek,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Kung Fu Panda,” but their most recent film, “The Bad Guys,” is one of the best comic animated films I have seen in a while. The film, based on a graphic novel series of the same name by Australian author Aaron Blabey, tells a fun and hilarious story about crime, stereotypes, and goodwill.  Dreamworks has been a bit of a laughing stock when it comes to animation, but the fast-paced and action-packed film has a striking difference in tone and lessons. It follows a crime squad: Wolf, voiced by Sam Rockwell, Snake, voiced by Marc Maron, Tarantula, voiced by Awkwafina, Shark, voiced by Craig Robinson, and Piranha, voiced by Anthony Ramos, attempting to prove they are model citizens with no urge to be cunning. The film stands out to me, because it almost humanizes the ‘bad guys’ while clearly emphasizing that stealing is wrong. Observing that we should not always judge so quickly allows us to grasp how nuanced decisions can be in real life. The film is a great basis for conversation around implicit bias and stereotypes, especially for children, while not failing to add a classic-Dreamworks great laugh.

“Fireheart,” February 

Another amazing, yet extremely underrated, animated feature is “Fireheart” which came out in February 2022 on Hulu. This amazing film follows 16-year-old Georgia Nolan, voiced by Olivia Cooke, in her journey to follow her dreams and become the first female firefighter in early 20th-century New York. Georgia runs into plenty of problems, from her father’s lack of validation to failing to meet social expectations. When a mysterious string of arsons hit the great city, she finds a creative way for her talents and voice to be heard. The film has a large focus on gender. The closing credits end the film with a tribute to the real-life female firefighters in 1982 who worked for the fire department in New York. As a young woman who often finds herself in male-dominated environments, this film explores gender roles and proves that women are just as talented and strong as men. It is not only an emotional journey of the pursuit of equal rights, but also brings up important topics about adoption, family, and empathy. One of the main takeaways, of course, is to not play with fire.

“My Father’s Dragon,” October

Lastly, the film “My Father’s Dragon” is Netflix’s adaptation of the 1948 Newbery medal-winning children’s book of the same name. The story follows a boy named Elmer Elevator who is a runaway and meets a fantastical dragon named Boris. Though the film has very little resemblance to the book, it is a beautiful story. The animation is particularly unique as it is produced by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon — known for “The Breadwinner” and “Wolf Walkers” — and is hand-drawn. Our lead Elmer — played by Jacob Tremblay — is a bit unhappy despite having a loving family, so he runs away. On his journey, Elmer discovers a Wild Island and a friendly baby dinosaur, Boris. The film cultivates the vitality of imagination through Elmer’s courage to save Boris and provokes conversations about how to deal with fear as he deals with threats of other animals and environmental disasters. The idea is more gentle, but it still makes an impact on questioning why rising sea levels are a threat to the earth.

Although all these animated films are very different in animation style, and in the stories they tell, they each share family-friendly values and unique storylines that have not been explored before and prove that animation is cinema.