Like many, I have perennial nostalgia for things relating to my childhood. I grew up over-participating in that quintessentially American activity — television. And 90 percent of that television in my formative years consisted of cartoons. My Saturday mornings would see my masochistic rise before 6:00 AM and impatient wait through the test pattern and national anthem before some obscure little show like “Camp Candy” would inaugurate the next five hours of flickering oblivion. I watched everything from the supposedly toddler or girl-oriented shows like “Care Bears” or “The Wuzzles,” to early stabs at high fantasy like “Thundercats,” “The Pirates of Dark Water,” or “Conan the Adventurer” with equal relish. I was an animation junkie.
It was an obsession that survived the browbeating onset of “maturity” through eight years of high school and college and has remained to this day. Not only do I still set aside my allegedly high-minded viewings once in a while to take in a good cartoon, but thanks to the DVD era, I can revisit the classics of my halcyon youth. Sadly though, the availability of previously watched (and worshipped) staples of my childhood has led to the heartbreaking realization that old shows like “G.I. Joe” or “He-Man” — so enchanting for younglings — are almost unwatchable from an adult vantage point. Seldom do the classics of yesteryear survive the times in which they were produced, let alone in children’s entertainment — a medium with fickle pretenses, considering that it can be detrimentally manipulated by those concerned with the impressionable effect it can have on its young audience.
But it does happen that, through gutsiness and ingenuity in the writing, a few shows became more than a vehicle for merchandising or the limp clichés rampant in so-called kids’ shows. These animated series were almost always envelope-pushing, often controversial for their darker edge. It was all the more ironic that these shows became almost religiously venerated by their fans, not least of all because their creators had the balls to try complex stories and dark themes and not pander to their (literally) childish clientele by merely opting for comedy.
In the interest of exclusion, I decided to pare this list down not only to animated shows that survived the test of time critically, but also to cartoons whose ostensible audience was young but that, through ambitious and bold presentation of ideas or themes, were still palatable to more mature viewers. I also chose not to include the opposite — shows geared exclusively toward post-adolescent mindsets, which is why you won’t find “The Simpsons” or anything from Adult Swim here. This is a very subjective list of personal favorites, but I tried to choose cartoons whose time has come and gone but that still command enough presence to remain quality entertainment for all ages.
Dungeons and Dragons, 1983-1986 — Only tangentially related to the iconic board game, “Dungeons and Dragons” was one of the first cartoons to present a complicated ethical universe with any success: Six kids of diverse makeup are transported to an ethereal realm and forced to contend with the harshness of the world around them in addition to a pained longing for home. They’re aided by Dungeon Master, a Yoda-like mentor who sends them on quests that are meant not only to aid in their search for home but also to develop their ethical compasses. The premise sounds geeky, but “Dungeons and Dragons” gave much more emotion to its characters than many of its two-dimensional counterparts, and it was perhaps the first to imbue its drama with a sense of gravitas. The fantasy adventures of the children serve not as set pieces that exist for their own sake but didactic explorations that teach them the complicated reality of “do-good” actions, as supporting one another and helping others often resulted in their detriment. This show achieved a remarkably small but ardent cult status, and is finally slated for complete DVD release later this year.
The Legend of Prince Valiant, 1991-1994 — Based on the Hal Foster comic strip, this re-imagining of the Arthurian universe also pushed the boundaries of what should be considered children’s entertainment. The cartoon medium didn’t stop the creators of “Prince Valiant” from presenting the darkness and violence of the legend (which would be pointless without it). The show follows the adventures of the titular prince as he makes the difficult decision to leave home and seek out knighthood in the idealistic realm of Camelot. In addition to its frank presentation of darker themes, this show is notable for its dense and long-running plot arcs, perhaps the first in animated television to really have an intricate continuity.
Batman: The Animated Series, 1992-1995 (Original run) — The dark-drenched morbidity of post-Frank Miller Batman had been made popular through comic books and Tim Burton’s films, but the franchise had yet to successfully translate to a younger audience until this series, created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. Not only was the pair able to replicate the world of Gotham without wholly compromising its darkness, but they gave it a fresh spin by placing the show in a ’50s Art Deco-noir universe of their own making. The show also featured outstanding music (based on Danny Elfman’s film scores) and voice-work, most notably by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, who has made the best Joker to date (and yes, I include Nicholson is this estimation).
X-Men, 1992-1997 — If I had to pick one granddaddy of animated TV, this would be it. Taking a well-known Marvel universe with its unending string of arcs and characters, this show still managed to eke out a strong, cohesive whole without sacrificing much of its enormous canon. The theme of the day: It’s hard being a superhero. In addition to wrangling with monsters, aliens, and super-villains, this cadre of gifted mutants had to contend with a myriad of personal and emotional problems as well as the prejudices of a society that feared them. The show had excellent voice casting, production values, great long-running story arcs, dynamic personalities (including Magneto, one of the best villains in animation), and a relatable sense of ethics. Plus, the action and camaraderie were unparalleled. The stories and characters are enough to hook older viewers, while the superhuman elements are positively addictive to youngsters; from top to bottom, a great show. It’s criminal that this series hasn’t seen a comprehensive DVD release, though bootlegs are available.
Gargoyles, 1994-1997 — In a similar vein to “X-Men”, but with a unique universe that pulled together various cultural and Shakespearean mythologies, “Gargoyles” represented another example of success in pushing the envelope of traditional “kiddie” shows when its creator, Greg Weisman, had the balls to deal out complicated narrative and character plotlines alongside a strong sense of ethics. What was perhaps most remarkable was that said envelope in this case belonged to Disney. “Gargoyles” had everything from mythical monsters to Arthurian legend, science-fiction technology, and time-travel, and yet somehow dealt out these outlandish fantasies without seeming dumb. Weisman wrote and produced two excellent seasons of the show before Disney took the reins for a horrid third without his involvement; generally this last season is ignored by anyone with taste. The show’s rabid fanbase has continually propagated interest, and a comic book series by Weisman has attempted to pick up where the canon left off.
Daria, 1997-2002 — Who would’ve thought that a “Beavis and Butthead” spinoff would have been worth anything? “Daria” has the distinction of being the only (sort-of) female-oriented show on the list; it’s also one of a select few aimed specifically at teenagers. But regardless of its target demographic, this was one of the most relatable shows for high schoolers in or out of animation. Its humor was sharp, its characters memorable, and its dilemmas familiar. Daria became one of the better mouthpieces of Generation Y, and also stands, in my opinion, as the only good thing to come out of MTV in 25 years of broadcasting shite.
Rurouni Kenshin, 1998-2000 — Well, this is going to be a contentious one. Most of the people I know loathe anime. Indeed, Japanese animation as a whole seems to either be loved or utterly reviled by Westerners. I counted myself among the haters until the work of Hayao Miyazaki (though largely unrelated to mainstream anime) perked my interest, which led me to discover this excellent series, and I’ll contend that even the most fervent anime atheists should give it a shot. The story follows Kenshin Himura, a peerless samurai who served as an assassin, aiding in the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunnate. After revolution’s end, he renounces killing and wanders Japan for a decade before settling in Tokyo, the new capital, and amassing a small entourage of friends for the first time in his life. Kenshin’s disavowal of lethal violence dominates his present characterization, but his bloody reputation and legacy continue to dog him. Even though many may find the peculiar tropes of anime off-putting (some battles last the span of several episodes, with the characters endlessly explicating the proceedings), the show still utilizes great storytelling across an epic, historically astute background, with one man’s redemption as the centerpiece. And that’s a great story no matter the medium.
Futurama, 1999-2003 … ? — What I initially thought was just a Simpsons sidebar by Matt Groening eventually became a great show in its own right. Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen crafted a hysterical little universe around one dolt’s accidental foray into the future — a world that allows for endless riffing and Groening’s trademark jocular sarcasm. But instead of simply resting on its comedic laurels (which would’ve been fine), the show took a more serious turn as it neared cancellation, tingeing it with additional depth; great comedy, in the most classical terms, has always been 49 percent maudlin. It’s a testimony to the show’s enduring popularity that it seems to have been resuscitated in the form of DVD movies due to popular outcry. And man, is it funny.
X-Men: Evolution, 2000-2003 — Not a great show, but a good one, and lots of fun for X-Men devotees. It doesn’t quite measure up to its older brother (found above), but it does succeed in areas that its predecessor did not. For one, it’s aesthetically superior. For another, it transports the action to a high school setting, transposing much of the superheroics to a backdrop of adolescent turmoil, which is what the comics were all about in the first place. The relationships between the characters aren’t quite as complicated and involved as the ‘92 series or the comics, but the sense of friendship and camaraderie is heightened in excellent action sequences and its dorm-like setting of a bunch of kids living in and goofing around in the X-Mansion. The show also manages to juggle a huge number of characters relatively well. At the end of the day, “X-Men: Evolution” wasn’t outstanding, but it was a fun and highly identifiable reinvention of a familiar world.
Teen Titans, 2003-2006 — In a similar vein to “X-Men: Evolution” this DC counterpart went relatively short on characterization and heavy on action, but still managed both effectively. Produced by the same team that did the aforementioned “Batman,” this show had a distinct look and feel, with a wildly dynamic animation heavily influenced by anime, but was still distinctly American. “Teen Titans” used a fairly simplified formula: good guys fight bad guys every episode, with only occasional continuity, yet its presentation was fresh and inventive enough that it never felt boring. The action was fun, the characters likable, and the humor spot-on. And that’s what cartoons are all about.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / Phillip Stephens
Guides | November 27, 2006 | Comments ()