My curated list of animated shows (part 1/2)

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Published on 16 May 2024 by Andrew Owen (7 minutes)

I thought a list of animated shows would be a relatively quick article to write. I was wrong. There’s no way to do it justice without taking at least a brief look at the recent history of television animation. I’m going to skip animated films entirely because they deserve their own article. And I should also note that although the 1990s is my formative decade, aside from MTV’s “Liquid Television” animation showcase (which is the reason I saw “Grinning Evil Death” before I saw “Tin Toy”), it passed me by. In fact, I only got back into watching animation during the pandemic.

In the 1970s, most of the shows I watched were made by Hanna-Barbera. Growing up in Wales, this included older shows that were now in syndication like “The Flintstones” (loosely based on “The Honeymooners” and the longest running animated show until “The Simpsons”), “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” (loosely based on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”) and “The Yogi Bear Show” (whose titular character was named after baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra).

The standout show of that decade for me is “Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman” which in its original Japanese version is the first show I’m aware of that includes a non-binary character (albeit in the role of villain). But at the time, I only saw the heavily re-cut American version ("Battle of the Planets").

The 1980s

I probably consumed more animated media in the 1980s than in any other decade since, and there are three shows from that era whose writing I think still stands up today:

Ulysse 31

1981-1982 • PG • 25m

This joint French-Japanese co-production is a retelling of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” set in the distant future with a rock opera soundtrack. From the intro, it is the 31st Century. Ulysses killed the giant cyclops when he rescued the children and his son Telemachus. But the ancient gods of Olympus are angry and threaten a terrible revenge:

“Mortals, you defie the Gods? I sentence you to travel among unknown stars. Until you find the Kingdom of Hades your bodies will stay as lifeless as stone.” —Zeus

Shirka, the ship’s computer, reports that the way back to Earth (and Penelope) has been wiped from her memory. Accompanied by the robot Nono and brother and sister Noumaïos (Numinor) and Thémis (Yumi) who Ulyesses also rescued from the cyclops, the story leans heavily into the source material. In fact, if you’re looking for a way to introduce your kids to the ancient Greek epic, you can’t go wrong here.

Dungeons & Dragons

1983-1985 • PG • 30m

Thanks to “Stranger Things”, the tabletop game this show is based on is having something of a resurgence right now. The premise is that six kids are transported to a fantasy realm after riding a magical rollercoaster at an amusement park. There they have adventures under the tutelage of Dungeon Master as they try to find their way home. There’s something of a “The Breakfast Club” feel about the characters, although the show predates the film. Bobby is the hot head (John), Diana the athlete (Andrew), Eric is the princess (Claire), Presto is the nerd (Brian), Sheila is the shy girl (Allison). The sixth character, Hank is the popular kid. Because the show launched after its toy line, it includes the toys, but the toys don’t include the main characters. Although Hank is nominally the leader, it’s an ensemble show and in 1986 Tonia Gayle Smith was nominated for the Young Artist Award for her portrayal of Diana (possibly the only black female lead animated character of the decade to be voiced by a black woman). The animation was done by Marvel Productions, up until that point best known for future meme material “Spider-Man”. The show was canceled before it concluded, but writer Michael Reaves script “Requiem” was produced as a radio play and in 2020 a fan-made episode was constructed based on it and existing animation from the show.

Robo Story

1985 • PG • 13m

Created by Michel Pillyser and Bernard Kessler for production company Bélokapi, this series of 52 short episodes follows the adventures of Myrtille (Blueberry in the English translation) on a green planet inhabited by two factions of robots. She ends up there after boarding a space shuttled primed for launch to retrieve her pet dog Louffi, who accidentally triggers the launch sequence. She ends up with the peaceful Robos (Robots) but the shuttle is captured by the warlike Rotors (Wrigglers) commanded by Retorblanc (White Wriggler) who in turn takes orders from megalomaniacal computer Vénéré, Robomécanicien (Revered Reverence). Unlike the Rotors, the Robos each have their own distinct personality. The influence of Star Wars is unmistakable, but with the colors of the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader reversed and the computer substituting for the emperor. I even recall a scene where the face of Vader is briefly shown in the sky similarly to James Earl Jones’s other father figure Mufasa in Disney’s “The Lion King”. But perhaps I imagined it. The animation is primitive by modern standards, but the serialized storytelling, dark themes and Dominique Laurent’s sweeping score set it apart from contemporary shows.

The 1990s

This decade changed television animation forever. In 1992, Betty Cohen and Ted Turner launched the Cartoon Network, a cable channel showing animation 24-hours a day. In 1988, Turner had acquired the back catalog of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists and in 1991 added the library of Hanna-Barbera. In 1993, the network began airing original programming with “The Moxy Show”. Animators who made a name for themselves on the network include:

In 1991 Nickleodeon premiered “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and in 1993 “Rocko’s Modern Life”. Although its best known show from that decade is “SpongeBob SquarePants”. MTV also started showing original animation, such as Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butthead” which my undergraduate course director thought was the greatest animated show of all time during its original run. My personal favorite was Peter Chung’s “Æon Flux”, a cyberpunk drama that was made into film starring Charlize Theron in 2005.

In 1990 Warner Bros. created “Tiny Toon Adventures”, its first animated television series. It also produced “Animaniacs” and its spin-offs “Pinky and the Brain” and “Freakzoid!” (later cameoing in “Teen Titans Go!”). But there is one show that stands out for me:

Batman: The Animated Series

1992-1995 • PG • 23m

This groundbreaking show’s influence on animation in general and the DC universe in particular can’t be overstated. Creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm drew on Max Fleischer’s 1940s Superman shorts and Tim Burton’s Batman films. It introduced the characters of Harley Quinn and Detective Renee Montoya. It developed the character and rewrote the backstory of villains including Clayface, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy. And it was the first appearance of long-running Batman and Joker voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Conroy, who later played a live action Batman in the Arrowverse’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover, was the first to play the caped crusader with a different voice from his alter-ego Bruce Wayne. Hamill is regarded by many as the definitive Joker. The show’s signature style was called “Dark Deco”, where backgrounds were painted on black paper, with the darkest sections left unpainted. A number of other DC shows followed, but they never bettered this.

The 21st century

While compiling this list I realized that many great shows are conspicuous by their omission. However, I’m only including the ones I’ve actually seen, and hopefully these include some that you might have overlooked. Also, I ran out of time this week. So there will be a part two. The 2010s is recognized in some circles as the start of the cartoon renaissance, but there is one show from the previous decade that deserves a special mention.

Invader Zim

2001-2006 • PG • 24m

I discovered Jhonen Vasquez’s show thanks to the 2019 film sequel “Enter the Florpus”. I am surprised that a Nickelodeon show that included the titular Earth invader removing a child’s eyeballs, albeit off camera, didn’t attact more controversy during its original run. But its dark humor, writing, animation and art style were a hit with critics and it won an Emmy Award for outstanding individual achievement in animation. Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was a storyboard artist and art director on the show. Rebecca Sugar, creator of “Steven Universe” created fan fiction and art for it when she was a teenager.