Best of 2020: Family Films

18 Dec 2020 BY Maria Cabrera in Film Features

7 mins

Christmas, or whichever way you celebrate the end of the year, is usually the perfect time to catch up on all the films you might have missed throughout it. We have suggested some of our favourite titles from 2020 in our previous blogs on British CinemaDocumentaries and World Cinema, and here we round-up the year looking at the exciting family films that were released in cinemas and on-demand.

Family releases have found audiences through the rise in streaming this year, including the much-anticipated launch of Disney+. With cinemas closed for many months, blockbuster animations like Mulan, Trolls World Tour, Over The Moon and Soul - which will be released on Christmas day - have adapted to the change by finding a home online. Although some of these releases have been met with controversy, they do show that there is huge demand for family-friendly stories and are proof of the excitement films continue to gather both online and on the big screen.

There was also a sense of nostalgia to this year's releases, with the return of Scooby-Doo and crew in Scoob!, a live-action adventure based on a 1990s videogame in Sonic the Hedgehog, and a reboot of the comedy-adventure about a doctor who can speak to animals in Dolittle

Many film releases being delayed or held until next year positively led to some smaller and unique titles garnering some attention within the vast family genre. Away, a dialogue-free and video game-inspired animation, and Wolfwalkers, a mystical adventure by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, both were released in cinemas and received critical acclaim.

Below, each member of the curation team offers their personal highlight of this year:

Away - Chosen by Maria Cabrera

Totally without dialogue and featuring 3D digital animation that resembles the interactive world of video games, Away can take a few moments to get used to as you watch its surreal world unfold. The feature debut of 25-year-old Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis is an impressive visual achievement as well as a story that gently explores themes of belonging, connection and mental wellbeing.

The film begins with its leading and only human character landing by parachute on an ominous island. We are not told why he is there or where he hopes to go, even when he finds a map and motorcycle to travel with, but its hypnotic score (also composed by the director!) leads our attention through his journey to different landscapes as a dark spirit follows him relentlessly. Entirely alone, with only small animals that he befriends along the way for company, his need for connection becomes clear and we root for him even if we do not know where his path may lead.

Wolfwalkers - Chosen by Steven Ryder 

In a wonderful twist that not many people predicted, Ireland has, in recent years, become a recognised leader in animated entertainment. The rise of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (Song of the SeaThe Secret of Kells) has been a big part of this revolution and their new film, Wolfwalkers, is a great example of why it can be so important for art and entertainment to flourish in unexpected places.

Drawing on Irish folklore and gorgeously unique in style, this 1650-set grandiose story follows a young girl in Kilkenny who befriends a wildling the same age as her, soon discovering she is a Wolfwalker who can shapeshift between human and wolf. The layers of storytelling, which focus on history, community and female friendship, are satisfyingly robust for a children's film, but it is the lovingly rendered animation that kept me entranced throughout and left me eager to return to the world of the wolves as soon as possible.

Onward - Chosen by Michael Prescott 

The first of two Pixar titles released in 2020 which, despite its disrupted release (hitting cinemas only a couple of weeks before the lockdown in March, and then returning to the big screen from the summer onwards), is still one of the most popular titles of the year. Landing in the top ten box office titles in the UK, this animated fantasy-adventure tells the story of two brothers (voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) who spend a final-day-of-sorts with their deceased father through a magic spell gone wrong.

Onward has a lot of fun within the world it builds - a set-piece around a bridge is particularly well done - and it notably also includes Pixar's first LGBT character. This film tells a touching story about brotherly love in a way few have done so well since Sing Street, with a fittingly emotional ending. While it may not be up there with Pixar's very best work - a very high bar, admittedly - it provided a welcome piece of escapism in 2020 which was comparatively low on family viewing content. For fans of quests, magic and fantastical adventures, Onward is the way to go.

Soul - Chosen by Joe Ursell

Originally scheduled for a cinema release in November, Pixar's Soul ended up premiering at the BFI London Film Festival, ahead of a full release on the Disney+ streaming service on Christmas Day. The new release date is rather fitting, because there is definitely something of It's A Wonderful Life in this story of Joe, a struggling jazz musician and teacher, seemingly about to have his big break, before a sudden accident finds his soul separated from his body and transported to The Great Beyond. Joe manages to escape and finds himself in The Great Before, a space where souls develop, form personalities, quirks, and traits, before heading off to Earth.

Directed by Pete Doctor, the genius behind the similarly high-concept Inside Out and Up, the premise may sound lofty and rather adult, but the studio yet again prove their ability to produce enchanting animation for young audiences at the same time as delivering something rather profound for an older crowd. 

With two pioneering soundtracks at its heart, the toe-tapping music is a key companion to the dazzling visuals and may introduce a new generation to the genre of jazz. Playwright Kemp Powers is also on board as co-director, and Soul - the first Pixar film to feature an African American protagonist - is an often heart-breaking, but ultimately rather moving examination of being true to yourself, universal anxieties about not fitting in, and the transforming power of friendship. It's also extremely funny!

Maria Cabrera news author image

Maria Cabrera , Curation Officer

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