What’s the difference between action and adventure? Genre gun to our head, we’d say it has something to do with wonder and awe. Whereas action centers on struggle, adventure celebrates discovery. It’s a world never seen before, a treasure buried for centuries, a mystery unsolved for millennia. The adventure film is a journey. It shares more territory with myth and heroic epic than it does with actual cinematic spectacle. And that’s why the modern myth factories of Disney and Pixar turn out some of the best adventure narratives today. This year is no exception. This year will be a hell of a year for animated adventure.
That’s not to say 2020 was without some great live-action adventure films. Though its roots are in sci-fi, Christopher Nolan’s continent-hopping, time-hopping Tenet scratched a long-quarantined adventure itch. Mulan, while not quite the historical war movie we hoped for, managed plenty of large-scale semi-magical journeying. And Bill and Ted was, like, totally Bill and Ted.
So far, 2021 promises to be even bigger thanks to lots of holdovers from 2020 and some brand-new imaginative flicks from the animated myth factories. Here are the top adventure movies of 2021 we can’t wait to see.
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No Man’s Land (January 22)
The adventure of No Man’s Land is that of the chase—a western-inspired boarder crossing. Here the road isn’t toward escape, but redemption.
Nomadland (February 19)
Nomadland features adventure more quotidian and primal. It tells the story of a woman traveling west after suffering economic loss. It’s the kind of adventure that makes another world out of the one we already live in.
Raya and the Last Dragon (March 5)
Let the 2021 adventure animation domination begin. The title contains the basic elements of the plot and the most elemental of western literary adventure: the dragon quest.
Chaos Walking (March 5)
A holdover from 2020, Chaos Walking is the kind other-worldly sci-fi tale we’re happy to call “adventure.” It looks to be a visual spectacle, and in the best way.
The King’s Man (March 12)
Director Matthew Vaughn is king of the modern action-adventure. There isn’t a 2021 movies list we haven’t put this one on, and for good reason.
No Time to Die (April 2)
Of course, before there was the Kingsman franchise there was the OG international spy thriller: 007. Daniel Craig’s final adventure, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, will be a cinematic joy.
Black Widow (May 7)
Marvel is usually a safe adventure bet, and Black Widow looks to be more of the independent character journey film than its most recent star-stuffed offerings.
Free Guy (May 21)
The adventure genre is all about stumbling into new worlds, or, in the case of Free Guy, discovering the one you’re in is actually an open-world video game. And you are an NPC.
Vivo (June 4)
We don’t know much about Vivo other than the fact that it’s Sony Pictures Animation’s first musical. Oh, and it’s written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That’s really all we need to know.
Luca (June 18)
Pixar is headed to the Italian Riviera, which, while majestic, still seems pretty ordinary. Ordinary until you had some sea monsters and Pixar’s special brand of platonic love.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (July 9)
Shang-Chi just lends itself to technicolor action and adventure. Hopefully it’s the kind of bright comic-inspired fun of Thor: Ragnarok rather than some of Marvel’s literally duller productions.
Uncharted (July 16)
Based on one of the best-selling adventure video games, Uncharted finds Tom Holland taking on the Indiana Jones aesthetic of Nathan Drake. Let’s see if Hollywood can redeem itself after Tomb Raider.
Dune (October 1)
Dune will be the most epic film of 2021, and we mean “epic” in its proper mythological, journey-like context. If Frank Herbert’s novel comes even halfway to life, we’ll call it a success.
Eternals (November 5)
Another Marvel movie? Hell yeah. Though likely set on Earth, Eternals promises plenty of outer-worldly fun.
Mission: Impossible 7 (November 19)
Kingsman. Bond. And now Mission Impossible. What a year for the action adventure, oh, what a glorious year.
Encanto (November 24)
A young Colombian girl is born into a magical family. She, however, has no powers. It’s a classic set-up for what will likely be another imaginative Disney epic.
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