The 9 Best Animated Series of 2021

The 9 Best Animated Series of 2021
A great year for animated adventures, in the stars, in giant robots, or even right here on earth. (Image: Paramount+, Funimation, Lucasfilm, and Prime Video)

The year 2021 has had a lot of ups and downs, but if it was anyone’s year, it was animation’s. On screens big and small, some of the best things we’ve seen this year have been animated — but TV in particular has been home to some of the best. Here’s our picks for the very best of the year.

Castlevania

Image: Netflix Image: Netflix

It’s had to ride a few ups and downs over its four seasons, but Castlevania brought its time to an end as one of the best video game adaptations around this year with a compelling farewell to Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard. Reuniting the trio after season three kept them apart to frustrating levels brought not just an emotional conclusion to their stories, but a humour and human heart that shined in the face of the series’ monstrous darkness. We know there’s more from Castlevania’s world to come with a new spinoff series on the way, but this was a fitting farewell to the series’ current heroes.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Image: Paramount+ Image: Paramount+

We were thoroughly impressed with the debut season of this animated series focusing on the “lower deckers” of the U.S.S. Cerritos (and its many Star Trek: The Next Generation gags) but were wondering if the crew would be able to keep up the pace in season two. Great news: they did. Not only that, character development and variation of stories were greatly improved. We got to see how our favourite ensigns worked in different pairings, saw how the other half lived by swapping the bridge crew with the lower deckers, and even got a Renaissance-style episode. We also learned far too much about the proclivities of Mugatos and Lieutenants Kimolu and Matt of Cetacean Ops and met another Tamarian (named Kayshon)… who was quickly turned into a rag doll. Mike McMahan and everyone else who makes this unique show deserves a round of applause for a Trek series that consistently delivers on heart and laughs.

Summer Camp Island

Image: HBO Max Image: HBO Max

The Cartoon Network/HBO Max series saw its fourth and fifth seasons drop this year for tons of magical antics. The Julia Pott-led show mixed things up even more this time around by dropping more standalone episodes — including a delightful A Quiet Place riff — and letting Oscar and Hedgehog take the back seat, like in the delightful “Shave A Little Off the Wheel” and “Pepper and the Fog.” But this wouldn’t be Summer Camp Island without the wonderful witchcraft and myriad of magical happenings. Highlights include Oscar spending a day under the sea and getting a crash course in parenting, Hedgehog’s discovery of her witchy family tree, the friends’ meeting with the Jersey Devil, and anything Suzie does.

Invincible

Screenshot: Amazon Studios Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Even if you’d never cracked open a single issue of Image’s Invincible from writer Robert Kirkman, artist Cory Walker, and colorist Ryan Ottley, Amazon’s recent animated adaptation of the series made it easy to dive into Mark Grayson’s Silver Age-inspired world of caped superheroes and alien invaders. Much as the show aimed to make fans of the original series proud, Invincible put the effort into forging its own distinct identity separate from the comics, and telling a story that did one of the stronger jobs of bringing a familiar comics premise to the small screen in breathtaking detail.

Star Wars: Visions

Image: Lucasfilm Image: Lucasfilm

It’s hard to overstate how good the nine-part animated anthology series Star Wars: Visions was. It’s not just because it allowed several of Japan’s best anime studios to give each of the nine shorts their own distinct but dazzling look. It’s because it also gave those studios free rein to tell truly unique stories in the Star Wars galaxy. Whether they were starring twins on either side of the Force, a sabersmith targeted by Sith, or the first droid to become a Jedi, Visions was the breath of fresh air that the franchise desperately needed. Hopefully, future Star Wars movie and TV series creators will take note.

SSSS. Dynazenon

Image: Studio Trigger/Funimation Image: Studio Trigger/Funimation

Trigger’s follow up to the 2018 critical darling SSSS. Gridman had a lot to live up to, and Dynazenon delivered a touching, energetic, and loving tribute to the world of tokusatsu to make itself every bit the worthy successor to its sister series. Full of kinetic, gorgeous action and equally intimate character work and bonding, Dynazenon’s smart expansion of the worldbuilding of its predecessor was a treat to watch unfold, and a great example of how to continue what felt like a perfectly complete story without undermining what came before.

Godzilla Singular Point

Screenshot: Netflix Screenshot: Netflix

Godzilla’s cinematic exploits this year may not have been quite so fun as they could’ve been, but at least on the small screen he returned with a weird, fascinating, and wonderful form in Singular Point. Fans may have grumbled (and we did a little, too) at how much of the show was given over to weird science rather than the King of all Kaiju himself, but Singular Point offered a compelling slow burn of a mystery, which made the time time it eventually brought Godzilla to bear all the more satisfying. With its world established, we’ve got high hopes for what’s next for Singular Point, but in the mean time, it’s good to see the Big G back in fine animated form. Plus, Jet Jaguar forever.

Rick and Morty

Screenshot: Adult Swim Screenshot: Adult Swim

We got multiple anime homages. We got riffs on Captain Planet and Aquaman. We got an episode filled with Smith and Sanchez decoys. We got (another) extended feud with the President of the United States. We got a hat-tip to Hellraiser (plus karaoke). We got identity quests, portal fluid going where it definitely should never go, and accidental incest babies floating in space. We returned to the goddamn Citadel… and we almost made it to Boob World. And never once did we think, “Aw jeez, after five seasons this show is starting to lose its spark.” Rick and Morty then, Rick and Morty now, Rick and Morty forever.

Arcane

Image: Netflix Image: Netflix

It took years to make, but Fortiche’s stunning origin story for some of League of Legends’ beloved champions in Arcane also managed to create one of the most visually stunning animated series of the year, offering a painterly window into the techpunk world of Runeterra. Crafting a tragic story of separated sisters that was compelling even without any familiarity with the massive online game to be hooked by, Arcane’s sumptuous looks and intimate, slick animation created a spectacle well worth sitting down with this year.

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