Hey look, a completely self serving topic! Don't worry, I don't plan to do too many lists without substance. Bear with me.
Televised animation is something that has seriously grown in the past few decades. While it's still largely considered strictly for children (even the prime time shows, and I'm not kidding) thanks to marketing ploys and general advertising, the introduction of new generations and a huge shift in audience potential thanks to the internet see's that animation and television has received a considerable boom, with creators making something not just because the network wants it, but because they want to make something entertaining. That's right folks, we actually demanded quality for a change, and we're better off for it.
As I get a lot of people asking me my favorite animated works, I thought it would only be fair to give a shout out to the shows- many of which are providing content that actually outclasses the movie based competition. However, I gave myself some rules- it had to be accessible to all ages, and above all, timeless, in order to get onto the list. I feel that those are the shows that will be talked about long into the future, not as a fad, but as a great show that we can all still enjoy. Sure, this let's out the prime time shows, but I feel they're a whole market within themselves.
Remember folks- at the end of the day, I am not an authority on what is the best and what is the worst, simply a student of the subject sharing his passion for the art form by showcasing pieces that inspired him. Feel free to agree and disagree in the comments below, and who knows, maybe you'll end up watching a show from the list you hadn't tried for yourself. Which will make me feel incredibly old.
Without further ado, the top ten animated family shows are listed below.
10. The Moomins
HAHA WAT DA FAWK
Yes, the Moomins. The Moomins is based on the series of books of the same name by Tove Jansson, and frankly, it makes for an incredibly atmospheric show. I read most of the books as a child and of course they were wonderfully strange and adventurous- with a delightful sense of Norwegian humour. However, what the show did was take this to the next level. They chose to create this incredibly oversized world for a very small cast of characters, which seriously added to the scope of the show. I mean on the one hand it was almost Winnie the Pooh-esque, a bunch of cuddly looking animals running around and frolicking while learning life lessons, and then suddenly they'd throw in a terrible tragedy, a sea voyage, or something terrifying like a giant lizard, the Hattifatteners, or an evil imp, to liven up the adventure and visuals. It wasn't afraid to blend the two styles, to balance the oddness with a down to earth attitude shared by some of the characters. Maybe it was because it was actually enhanced by two different forces working behind it- both the original creator and a Japanese studio (and if there's anything CCS knows about Japan, its that it's anime can be messed up beyond belief. Eh, Cinemax???[/in-joke]) It's thanks to this blend that the animation itself is also of rather high quality, with incredible backgrounds to boot.
The characters themselves also lend themselves to a significant amount of staying power for viewers of the show. Depth and development was certainly not something that was prevalent in many of the characters on the surface, but it was the mystery and sense of adventure that seemed to keep them all going underneath. Be it Snuffkin wondering the sweeping countryside or Moominpapa recounting his previous adventures, or cynical characters getting their comeuppance in increasingly weirder ways. However, it was always eventually about the emotional value, and the ties the family had compared to the rest of the world. Anybody who's seen the lonely and formidable Groke, unable to even warm herself by the fire due to her bitterness, understands exactly what I mean.
Perhaps not a breakout show by any means, but you will be very hard pushed to find a show that feels like this one. A must for animators looking to try and stretch their creativity.
9. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
No, I'm not putting this up here as a consolation prize, and not because I'm some kind of obsessive Brony, I genuinely believe the show is good. By no means is it the greatest show on earth, after all, it's still only 9 on the list, and it doesn't make me want to run around in a shirt marked 'Brony and proud'- but it does harken back to a way of making animated shows that many worried we had forgotten- and it does it really well.
People forget that the original MLP shows were, to put it bluntly, rather wretched. Sure, your five year old can sit in front of it no problem, but your average parent will either be put to sleep or run in terror to let their kid take care of it themselves (out back with the rifle). However, the new show was helped because it wasn't manned by a submissive, contractually obligated team of animators, but by Lauren Faust and her subsequent hand picked successors. Already a prolific figure in the animation industry, she wanted to create a show that didn't insult the intelligence not only of watching parents, but also of little girls. It's the 'Riley on marketing' effect, girls shouldn't necessarily have to be forced to watch something that only talks about shoes and handbags, and as the Brony movement proved, men didn't have to just enjoy shows with tits, ass and an assortment of machine guns (not that there's anything wrong with those…). It's one of the few shows where the entire starring cast isn't manacled to their gender, and the writers simply let them go forth as characters. I'm no feminist, but I am a stalwart supporter of writing not resorting to being self conscious about their characters gender.
The show not only teaches kids morals, as most good shows do, but also works so well quite simply because of how ground-breaking it is in terms of the system. The team working on it push the animation so that it has more life than the average flash cartoon, the writers truly invest themselves in it and ignore that the original intent was to simply sell toys, and, most of all, it turned all expectations of a show called my little pony into something completely different- and thanks to that, many more shows will reap the benefit. Let's face it, in a world where sex and superficial branding sells the latest shows, it's nice to have a show that succeeds purely because of its surprising quality. It's promise for the future, and promise for a bunch of hard working artists.
8. Fairly Odd Parents/Phineas and Ferb
It's a tie breaker! Yes, it's difficult to actually separate these shows because they both effectively took the mould of the Simpsons and family guy and made them available to children as well as adults. But what is it that makes these two so worthwhile- and, as you may be wondering, so tied together?
Both feature kids in the suburbs with their friends, who can practically make and create everything, sometimes fending off their evil older red haired rival and a host of other characters attempting to reveal their secrets (in PAF, it's a little more relaxed in this case.). Both had/have formulas that they used to structure their episodes, both feature a host of pop culture references, and both were/are bitingly funny. Oh, and they both had a taste for musical numbers as well, though PAF wins out on sheer scale.
However, even though FOP has certainly outstayed its welcome, personally I think it's the stronger show. The art style is more distinctive, the music is incredibly classy, the humour's a little bit broader, the emotional ramifications were often perfectly balanced with the zany humour and it tended to be much more fresh in general, not really getting stale until the very last few seasons-after all, we forget just how popular this show was when it first hit the air, and just how many people loved it. PAF is a fun show but it's clear that it's a Disney product- pandering to middle class kids, popular music and not really dealing with any kind of restraint. Sure, it's not a wholly bad thing, but it's clear which show really has the most effort. HOWEVER- Pause for effect- PAF does win out in pure consistency in quality. Even at its worst PAF is at its best, the voice actors doing a fine job, the music is often very short and sweet, drawing upon a variety of styles, and of course, it hasn't yet outstayed its welcome (but give it a few years folks!)
Both shows represent where animation has settled in the 2000's- where it will go is another matter entirely. What matters is that they both make people happy.
7. Top Cat
Even back when it was released, Top Cat was something of a maverick show. It was actually one of the first Prime Time cartoons for Hanna Barbera- placed in the slot usually reserved purely for adults. Hanna Barbera soon found they had something of a cult hit on their hands with older viewers who all fondly remembered watching the show.
And why not? Top Cat is very different to most of Hanna Barbera's other shows. They tended to be much more about HYUCK HYUCK jokes and using recycled characters from sitcoms in order to parody the shows of the day. What made Top Cat so great was that it was more a timeless blend of sophisticated humour, genuinely funny slapstick and engaging and emotionally competent characters, something the other cartoons often neglected (though it did take its voice acting cues from Bilko and its visual cues from the Sting.) Yes, the animation, as in all HB cartoons post Tom and Jerry, was simple, but this was, as with current cartoons, the result of tight deadlines, a long run of episodes and demand, and money constraints. All things considered, they delivered a very well made show, with a particularly strong script.
Top Cat was certainly quite daring in its approach to humour. It made plenty of more adult orientated jokes and subjects, especially considering that the whole shows premise is based on gambling and making a big score. The characters frequently deal with the law in the form of Officer Dibble and the sergeant, fight off gold diggers like honeydew Melon, and also your regular gangsters and thugs. They also weren't afraid to make light of rather more serious themes- death was often something that came up in the show both in gags and plots, and some episodes often focused on the shortcomings of the gang (satire was popular- in one episode, Top Cat is shown a pretentious piece of art made of blotches. When asked what he thinks the message conveyed is, he replies 'don't drink and paint.'). Heck, one episode even had them face fatherhood- both looking after and having to say goodbye to a baby. For all of this, there was always a sarcastic remark or peppy zinger to bring them out of it. It was always about seeing these poor guys finally get a brake and earn their big score, and how the world screwed them over each time for trying.
It might seem old fashioned to some, but this stylish show just had something none of the other shows did- pure unadulterated class.
6. Samurai Jack
Genndy Tartakovsky's a funny soul. Sometimes the stuff he makes is wholesome and really broadly funny. Sometimes he makes weird, weird, weird stuff. But as many will probably agree, nothing he made even comes close to the beautiful homage that is his masterpiece, Samurai Jack.
The series is clearly based on the Yojimbo series of films directed by Akira Kurosawa but also takes on visual elements from the spaghetti westerns that sprung from those films. The twist? Tartakovsky set the series in the future. Samurai Jack wonders around the future, lost in a world he doesn't understand fighting the ancient demon Aku. And that's about as deep as the actual dialogue gets- so why is this series so special? Mainly because, like most of Cartoon Network's animated shows in the 90's, it was all about the animation being used to tell the story. Crazy, I know!
The episodes often took on comic book panel shots to express a series of fast movements, but most of the time the series actually just sat down, remained still and actually let you eat up the visuals with your eyes. Everything about this show oozed charm and style, there was nothing here that was churned out by a corporate factory or machine. You could practically see the freaking paint splatter in the artwork, clearly intentional, in the color and edges. It's very difficult not to spout on and on about how good this show looked, but that's just how good the visuals made us feel. It was by no means a serious show of course- the chicken episode is fondly remembered as one of the funniest and yet also compelling episodes in the entire series. Nothings quite as awesome as seeing a chicken kick some weird rat robot things ass. Jack was even able to tell many stories using very little, a particular favorite being when Jack has to fight three mysterious shillouhetted archers in a high tower. I had only seen the episode once as a child, yet it appears it had branded every single frame into my mind so that my re-viewing of the episode was absolutely the same as all those years ago. Magic, I tell you.
Darkly funny, wonderfully framed, and just a beautiful thing to behold. A highly recommended toon.
5. The Powerpuff Girls
Perhaps It's a little mean putting two CN shows up on the list, but really, it's difficult not to appreciate how good this show was. Not to mention, it actually smashed the gender barrier far more effectively than MLP- creating characters who were not only little girls, but also incredibly kick-arse super heroes, and who became popular enough to warrant a movie, many more seasons following, and a Japanese anime adaptation of the show (which was nowhere near as good, sadly, though morbidly interesting at least.)
The show benefits not only from an incredibly well thought out art style, headed by Craig Mckracken and clearly evoking stereotypical Japanese anime motifs with a hint of American 50's sic fi art, it also had an exceedingly creative cast of characters- lets face it, would you ever see a character like HIM grace western shows again, with such a knowingly tongue in cheek sense of humour? The series had the Samurai Jack touch of patience, often letting the gags emerge purely from the animation, and not cramming too much dialogue into a scene where a well drawn moment would do just as well. Both heroes and villains found themselves hammering the fourth wall, preventing the show simply from becoming a typical animated action drama and making it into something much funnier.
Sure, perhaps some of the humour was a little smug- I certainly know that bits of the now obvious Boogie Frights and meet the Beat-alls references went over my head as a kid- but it actually didn't have a bunch of mean characters simply being jerks. Often the solutions and morals were far more practical than typical cartoons, and in the end everything and everyone was in on the joke. Just look at the episode that focuses on attacking extreme feminism, or childrens pre-school shows- something they carried over into Fosters home for Imaginary friends, another very good show. It was a lot less hand-holdy than most Nickelodeon and Disney shows, and in many ways still is. It's a shame that CN then just decided to go weird and non sequitorial with shows such as Grim and Evil- short lived laughs with little lasting power in terms of character and, to be honest, good taste.
PPG even had a rather well made movie, if a little long on action scenes and short on the good stuff (even Mojo's dialogue doesn't get as wonderfully funny as it is in the show until over halfway through) but still proof that this series was absolutely destined for bigger and better things. In my opinion, it still is.
I think it's almost by default that this show gets as high a rating as it does- and it makes complete and total sense. A show that was not only funny and well animated, but also cultured and incredibly subversive. People look back on this with extremely fond memories, and when they re-discovered it as adults, they realized it had pulled them in all over again.
Animaniacs thrives on the influences and well chosen homages it takes its cues from. The Marx Bro's are of course well known comedy icons whose influence has permeated into general animation lore. The Animaniacs simply took their varied, vaudeville act format, dressed it up in a blend of 1920's classic toons and, of course, the later looney toons style, and ended up with a delightful piece of anarchy. Like it's Looney Toon predecessor, the references they chose were often Hollywood-political but totally accessible to kids. In fact I remember liking this show because, even though I didn't understand it all as a kid, I felt that this was a gateway into that world of knowledge and humour. In many ways it was, thanks to the Animaniacs, I actually gained some kind of interest in aspects of entertainment and American history. Okay, so I wouldn't call it educational, but it really did hammer a lot of its references home, then use the characters to give you a nudge and a wink to let you know you could laugh at it all. It's one of the reasons Yakko became everybody's favorite character, because he was the metaphorical foot in the door who knew all the angles and could get the kids in on the action. Honestly, this whole show felt like one great rite of passage.
Of course we can't mention the show without mentioning its eventual break out spin off, Pinky and the Brain. While more traditional, the segment was easily one of the strongest sketches on the show with a fantastic comedy duo that has never quite been replicated in the same way since. The other sketches were also great- often parodying Broadway musicals and classic films- but oddly enough it was most of the 'regular' sketches that didn't seem to be quite as strong as a lot of the one off moments. Slappy the Squirrel was perhaps not utilized in quite the way it could have been and went on a little longer than the usual sketches, and Minerva Mink was very clearly dropped like a lead balloon after very short stints. Never the less, the sketches were appreciated just as a wonderful slice of variety that we just don't see in many shows anymore.
Oh, and one more thing- this show has the best music. No other show has come to creating songs anywhere near as well lyricised as this show, and as we know while some of the score was taken from existing songs, some were composed in house by the crew. Each time they orchestrated it, it sounded beautiful, and it was clear that these people understood music in a way that Phineas and Ferb, My Little Pony, Fairly Odd Parents and many more just didn't. The line between what made for the greats off Broadway and the amateur dramatics society, honest.
Witty, crafty, arty and even tuneful. A cartoon that won't be easy to forget for those living in the 90's.
3. Hey Arnold
Perhaps I'm being too biased? I don't know, it would be easy to put this down to nostalgia, evenings sitting with my grandfather laughing at all the same things, or having it on after coming home from school (fuck, I miss that guy.) Then again, so many other shows I adored watching as a kid have melted in quality even with those sorts of memories. Bear with me folks, because I think I may be onto something here. And this one's for you, Jack.
If there was one way to sum this show up, it would be 'blue'. Bluesy music, bittersweet endings, very farcical, blue period drama style humour and of course a sombre, working class setting, certainly not as uplifting as one may expect from your average cartoon. Another thing that set this show apart from most of the others was the subject matter- we're so used today with shows so heavily focused on happy middle class teenage kids getting into hi-jinks and worrying about dating. What was wonderful about Hey Arnold was that it was about a bunch of underprivileged ten year olds having to deal with a harsh world, a world that forced them to grow up before their time and come to grips with their flawed shortcomings- such as the shy, sensitive Helga, who's comical obsessive love for the character Arnold is expressed in extremely angry gestures and a no-nonsense attitude in order to preserve her dignity and security- something many shows don't quite understand or get in the same way. The adults tended to be just as entertaining, with the favorites being Helga's parents and Arnolds Grandparents, two shining examples of eternally funny characters.
The show, however, is also mindblowingly well written. I don't think I've ever seen a show with dialogue as natural as in Hey Arnold, nor so emotional or witty. It's like a Damon Runyon story (you may know his work better under the guise of the musical adaptation of his work, Guys and Dolls), but with the kids taking the place of the adults. They all give each other urban legends as backgrounds, or names like 'stoop kid' and 'chocolate boy.' The show also chose to touch upon material not chosen by other shows- and even when it was, it was handled with a remarkable degree of subtlety, sensitivity, and maturity, not to mention being fine with giving a subject a jab of humour as as well. Mister Simmon's homosexuality, confirmed by the shows creator, is a very good example of how the show didn't try and extensively draw attention to that and instead simply let humour and emotion come from the character. What a wonderful thing it is to have a show that just lets characters be real, without shoving messages down the throats of children. As a result, it was very easy to cry at most of the episodes and to forget that these characters were ever make believe.
Hey Arnold is often cited as a series that needed another chance, perhaps with the characters as teenagers, but I wholeheartedly disagree- one of the reasons this show succeeded was because the characters were immortalized as these 10 year old bundles of potential. It would be rather sad to have to let go of those characters and perhaps it's more insightful that things were realistically left as happy memories. Creator and animator Craig Bartlett has himself expressed these feelings, and to be honest, he's probably right. Believe me, it's for the best.
2. Batman, the Animated series
Now here's a series that had it all, and I mean all! It's easy to dismiss it for some thanks to the fact that it stars a super hero, and apparently it's cool now to be against heroes, but honestly, thanks to Christopher Nolan's recent boost in the characters popularity, this series has a perfect home with everyone and anyone. A show with romance, action, drama, suspense, humour, and even incredible emotional depth, all topped off with the same animation and artistic competence that served the Animaniacs creators. Finish it with the fact that it takes its cues both directorially and visually from classic films from the 40's, and honestly, who could say no?
Many people claim it was Tim Burton or Frank Miller who reinvented the Batman lore- and actually, err, they did, but they both took on very specific visions that weren't necessarily the quintessential Batman. Yet ask anyone what they think that was, chances are you'll find that this is the series they remember as being their personal Batman. There's plenty of iconic imagery to cement that fact, but what also helps is how it takes absolutely everything from all the history of the character before it, puts in a blender and collects the juiciest bits in a very sizeable number of episodes.
Yes, it's true that the depth of this show is staggering. It's very difficult to imagine what Batman was like before this show, especially in terms of its rogues gallery- sure, we KNOW what it was, but without this existing as well? Even characters like the Mad Hatter and Clayface were turned into recognizable characters by this show, and it even turned goofy characters like mister freeze into tragic figures with compelling problems. That's very telling when an animated show is actually much more well made than anything from the comic books. It also benefited from a sensational voice cast- Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy in particular actually portraying not cartoon characters (ironically the only real cartoon character on the show was Bruce Wayne) but fully developed people with real voices.
What really sets is apart is simply how it's a show that learnt from the best. People will always say that we should move forward and ignore the past, but I feel that improvement isn't possible unless we learn from the methods that worked. Batman took a huge amount of Frank Capras ethos in storytelling, character development via cinematography and straight up symbolism, and of course wrapped that up in his well chosen beats of humour and grandiose, the mundane meeting the macabre. As a result every episode feels like its own short movie, and is all the better for it. Paul Dini also proved himself to be less a badass writer of action and much more of a melancholic soul with a great sense of emotional weight. It's a damn shame he's not writing any Capra-esque movies, as sadly in a world that craves action, there's little call for them.
Super Heroes have since tried to replicate the magic this show emanated, and while some have come close, none have ever truly succeeded. Well done boys. Have a drink on me.
1. Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Avatar is just phenomenally good.
No really, even its successor, featuring a female heroine and a 1920's jazz age style, my favorite period of time ever, hasn't even come close to the pure magic that this series emanated. This is largely helped by a few factors- 1, that it was extremely well written and natural, 2. that the show was in every aspect a perfect fusion of eastern and western sensibilities, and 3, that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Avatar was special in that it didn't focus on the hero becoming all super powerful just because it was all about saving the world- it instead focused on the moral ramifications of exactly what 'winning' might actually mean. Would the world praise him as a hero, or rise up and treat him as a killer for destroying the bad guy? Is death really a solution? Some disagree that the option actually chosen was wrong, but the series was always about metaphorically exploring the issue and how one must go about making such a decision. You'd have to watch it yourself to see how it was applied.
In any case, it was a story that, while it always kept the main goal in sight, did well in focusing on the little details. The experiences our young hero went through and the people he met genuinely changed his character by journey's end and grew him up into a being beyond his years. His cast of supporting characters also underwent a great deal of change as the series went on, which included two of the greatest female roles of all time, Katara and Toph (even Korra hasn't outdone them yet.) They even included some great humour, but not without balancing it against some well constructed pathos. Tales of Ba Sing Se remains one of the most emotional moments in animated television and features a home truth that echoes the flaws of so many societies before it. Filler episodes were used to generate growth, not simply to provide more moments for the show.
But really? It was simply about the people. Hey Arnold and Batman also share this trait- sure, movies are great for leading men and women taking on singular threats, but the great thing about a series is that you can share out the love and the heartbreak amongst the case and build a whole world to love. The characters were never stock types, each being beautifully flawed and rather endearing, and hell, they actually felt like kids and adults as we know them in the real world. Their romances and actions were never pitch perfect which made it feel so much more potent, and nobody outside of season 3 (sorry) was allowed to get away with anything as so many other shows let them do. Just typing it is making me space out and feel happy to be alive again, I'm really not making that up. So Imma wrap this up before I start singing. It's 3AM here after all, people need their beauty sleep. Like me. Cause I'm not that pretty.