Spanish-language animation — along with Spanish-language TV, horror, and cinema at large — is on the rise. Over the last 15 years animators from all over the Latinx diaspora have emerged to tell stories in a variety of animated mediums: traditional 2D animation, 3D computer-generated graphics, stop-motion, rotoscoping, and beyond. And while many of their names aren’t as synonymous with animation as Disney, Miyazaki, or even Bakshi and Bluth, with such an abundance of talented creators in the game it’s high time more viewers became familiar with their work. That said, spoiler alert, there is a Disney film on this list. Gotta give props where they’re due.
Like the Latinx diaspora itself, the movies on this list come from all over the world and tell all kinds of stories — from fantastical dreamland adventures, to horrifying stories of survival, to every coming-of-age beat in between — all styled to their creator’s unique visions. Some are geared toward children, others should never be viewed by a child. But they are all fantastic pieces of work that any animation (or movie) lover should know.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas) (2019) 98%
Set in the 1930s, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a surreal journey through the making of director Luis Buñuel’s documentary Land Without Bread. Following the fallout of his first film, Buñuel is stranded without a project. When a bet backfires, he finds himself traveling with anthropologist Maurice Legenre through the Las Hurdes region of Spain, filming a documentary. Buñuel borrows from its titular director’s life and work, but is primarily based on Fermín Solis’ graphic novel Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas. It’s currently Certified Fresh, with many critics praising its innovative, surrealist imagery, and its ability to do a lot with very little. The Wrap’s Carlos Aguilar said: “The 2D animated rendering of the master filmmaker is more graphic interpretation than faithful portrait, perfect to cruise between reality and the anxiety-fueled nightmares that besiege his sleep.”
The Wolf House (La casa lobo) (2018) 95%
An eerie stop-motion animation that will chill you to your bones, La Casa Lobo is not for the faint of heart. It tells the story of Maria, a woman who escapes a secretive German colony as she takes refuge in a house in southern Chile. Directors Jaoquín Cociña and Cristóbal León shot the film over five years, using 12 different locations in the process, including Casa Maauad in Mexico City, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile, and Upstream Gallery in Amsterdam, Netherlands. All that globe-trotting seems to have paid off in terrifying dividends: Critics agree it’s a viewing experience like no other. La Casa Lobo is an instant folk-horror classic, a terrifying fairy tale bound to stick with you long after the credits roll.
In 1968, a coalition of students from across México came together to push for social and political change. This protest, known as the Mexican Movement of 1968 (Movimiento Estudiantil), provides the backdrop for Olimpia. The film follows three students at the Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) as the school is seized by the military following massive student-led unrest. It’s been hailed by critics for showing a new perspective on the events, drawing comparisons to 1968’s El Grito, the long-banned documentary that captured the protests as they unfolded. The outcome resulted in several high-profile massacres with a lasting impact on the country (as seen in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, set between 1970 and 1971), and Olimpia effectively re-creates the events which ignited the movement. The rotoscope effect adds a layer of reality to the proceedings, while simultaneously giving it an uncanny valley feel that amps up the tension. An important film about an important moment of time, Olimpia is a good starting place for anyone looking to learn more about the Movimiento Estudiantil.
Coco (2017) 97%
A celebration of music and country, Coco is widely known in the U.S. as an English-language film, but the Spanish-language version of the film is one of the few dubs that is widely beloved (next to the epic Spanish language dub of The Lion King, of course). Coco was the first film released by the studio to feature an exclusively Latinx cast, and cast members including Gael García Bernal, Alfonso Arua, Sofía Espinosa, Luis Valdez, and Carla Medina were able to reprise their roles for the dub. Doubly helpful was everyone doing their own singing. The radio version of main heartbreaker “Remember Me” was sung by Mexicana folk singer Natalia Lafourcade and US pop star Miguel, both of whom were already up to the task of singing en Español. Because the story already takes place in México and deals with culturally specific beliefs and celebrations, there’s little about the movie’s content that reads as phony, helping it become the highest-grossing original animated film in México. That, and releasing it just in time for Día de los Muertos. Whatever language you watch it in, Coco is a celebration of Mexican life, culture, and music that’s perfect for viewers of all ages.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados) (2017) 94%
Based on co-director Alberto Vázquez’ graphic novel, Birdboy takes place on an island devastated by a massive factory explosion that has left half its land toxic, the water fishless, and our hero Birdboy possessed by a demon. After spending years isolated from the rest of society, Birdboy’s life is forever changed when Dinki, a young mouse from an abusive home, finds him on her journey to freedom. Their attempts to escape the island are undermined by a ruthless police force determined to find and capture Birdboy — dead or alive. You know, just your basic coming-of-age story that tackles ecological disaster, drug abuse, and the dangers of religious extremism. The 2016 Best Animated Feature winner at the Goya Awards (and a Rotten Tomatoes off-the-radar staff pick), Birdboy was hailed by critics as an oddball triumph, heavily praised for its striking animation — at once whimsical and terrifying — and ability to find hope inside its dark world. If the themes didn’t make it obvious, Birdboy is definitely not for younger viewers (though anyone old enough to Tweet is likely already familiar with the abject terror of living in a world on fire and may find it, sadly, #relatablecontent). Those equipped to wade into this dreary world may find themselves leaving with a little more hope than they ever could have imagined.
Virus Tropical (2017) 78%
Virus Tropical is a black-and-white piece of animated perfection based on Colombian-Ecuadorian cartoonist Power Paola’s graphic memoirs of the same name. Paola, the youngest of three siblings and by far the strangest, can’t seem to figure out how to fit in a society that demands compliance. It’s an exploration of identity, a coming-of-age story rich with self discovery. The film’s animation is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, sketchy in the best sense and full of imaginative imagery born of Paola’s particular worldview. It’s a joyous, melancholy ode to growing up and learning how to be yourself against all odds.
Underdogs (Metegol) (2015) 67%
Football (or, as Ted Lasso would call it, soccer) fans will find much to like in Metegol, a charming 3D animated feature known in the U.S. as Underdogs. The film follows Amadeo and his beloved foosball table, whose figurines have suddenly come to life. Together, they must defeat an evil bully who is determined to destroy them. Though director Juan José Campanella is better known for his live-action filmography, which includes The Secret in Their Eyes and several episodes of AMC’s outstanding Halt and Catch Fire, he works well in the animated space. The camera work is fluid, and though it has some of the shortcomings of lower-budgeted CGI, it’s never distracting to the story. It’s geared toward younger audiences, but it moves quickly enough, and once the jokes start rolling even viewers may find themselves chuckling along.
Wrinkles (2014) 93%
Most animated features feel like they’re geared towards young people, and it’s even rarer to find animated films that take on the complexities of aging. Writer Paco Roca’s Arrugas (adapted from his comic book of the same name) explores the lives of elderly people living in a retirement home. As newly admitted Emilio becomes acquainted with his new surroundings via his charming roommate Miguel (who may or may not be a bit of a kleptomaniac), it dawns on Emilio that he is not simply here because he is old; he has early onset Alzhemiers. The recipient of the 2014 Goya Award for Best Animated Feature, Arrugas doesn’t sugarcoat much, which can make it a bit difficult to watch. But with a charming cast of characters, warm humor, and endless insight, it’s a bittersweet meditation on life and love. Unfortunately the original version of the film isn’t currently streaming in the U.S., but if you’re curious you may be able to find the English dub, which features Martin Sheen and George Coe in the lead roles.
Anina, adapted from a novel by Sergio López Suárez, tells the story of young Anina Yatay Salas, the girl with the triple palindrome name (thanks, dad). After a fateful sandwich-related mishap, Anina and her arch nemesis, Yisel, receive a punishment so strange it nearly breaks Anina’s wild spirit. It was submitted as Uruguay’s entry for Best Foreign Language film for the 86th Academy Awards, and though it wasn’t nominated, remains a lovely feat of 2D animation from director Alfredo Soderguit.
Chico & Rita (2012) 87%
Chico & Rita has more than enough music and energy to keep you dancing long into the night. It tells the tale of the titular Cuban musicians whose passion for their craft is matched only by their love and adoration for one another. Winner of the Goya Award for Best Animated Film, Chico & Rita’s unique animation style flows as freely as the jazz music at its center. Each frame seems to dance to the beat, the camera pushing and pulling as fluidly as it would in any live-action film. It’s truly a wonder to watch unfold, which is probably why — in addition to being the first Spanish language title ever to receive a nomination for Best Animated Feature at the 84th Academy Awards — Chico & Rita is currently Certified Fresh. Una carta épica de amor a Cuba y su música, Chico & Rita is one for the ages.
Gordo, calvo y bajito (2012)
We all get a little insecure sometimes. In Carlos Osuna’s Gordo, calvo, y bajito, Antonio Farfan firmly believes all the misfortunes of his life can be traced back to three things: He is fat, he is bald, and he is short. When a fatter, shorter, balder man arrives at his office, Antonio must face the facts: Maybe the problem isn’t his looks after all. Maybe it’s him. It’s a moving film, with simple rotoscoped animation capturing Antonio’s mental gymnastics as he attempts to unlearn everything he knows about himself and become the person he was always meant to be.
When the stars start disappearing, orphan Tim must find a way to save them, lest he and all of Nocturna be forever stuck in the dark. Nocturna’s animation is gorgeous, a spiraling dreamland that recalls the beauty of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but with computer-generated graphics. Though the story is aimed squarely at young viewers, this timeless tale of courage in the face of adversity and finding light in the dark will resonate with audiences of all ages. A visual feast filled with fantastic characters and brought to life by an impressive voice cast, including Imanol Arias, Nocturna is well worth a watch.
Fierro (Martín Fierro, la película) (2007)
Director’s Liliana Romero and Norman Ruiz’ Fierro is an animated adaptation of José Hernández’ epic poem, Martín Fierro, an important cultural touchstone figure for Argentina. It begins with young Fierro living with his family on their ranch, whose existence is upended when he is drafted to protect the Argentine border from Indigenous hostiles. When Fierro becomes disillusioned with his position, he defects and joins the Indigenous cause in a story of corruption, freedom, and justice. The characters in the film were all designed by Roberto Fontanarrosa, an Argentinian cartoonist and writer who sadly died before the film’s release. The film’s 2D animation is Newgrounds-esque, which works well for Fontanarrosa’s characters. The static backgrounds (often simply of expansive sky) add a sense of space and place to the provincial setting, and a surreal quality to Fierro’s moments of introspection. It’s a fitting adaptation that lives up to both its source material and the late cartoonist who helped create it.
Una Película de Huevos (2006)
You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, but what if the egg had a say in becoming breakfast? That’s the dilemma for Toto, a talking egg who is snatched from his hen-mother just moments after being laid to be processed as food. After being sold to a household with a very egg-hungry cat, Toto is determined to get back to his mother with the help of some friends, and become the rooster he was meant to be. Una pelicula de huevos was the first feature from Mexican animation studio Huevocartoon Producciones, and was so well received in Mexico it still holds its place as the 10th highest-grossing film produced in the country. Though it never received a theatrical release in the U.S., it hatched two sequels (including 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure) and even spawned a video game. The animation is fairly simple (think WB Saturday morning Cartoons in their heyday — not the most exciting, but it gets the job done), so the real draw is the humor. The film is an extension of shorts created by Rodolfo Riva Palacio and Gábriel Riva Palacio, who also helm the feature. Though the feature-length version’s humor is toned down for younger audiences, there are still traces of the short’s double entendres.