Animation is a powerful form of media. Most people have a cartoon that sums up their childhoods. They made Saturday mornings worth waking up for and they put that extra spring in your step as you rushed home from the bus stop after school. Today, I’m going to give you my take on the Top Ten Greatest Cartoons of all time.
Spanning the last 112 years, I looked for four major categories when trying to determine what truly makes a cartoon worthy for my TOP TEN. The first, Animation, how can I review a cartoon without critiquing how it looks. Has it withstood the test of time or has the poor quality made it unwatchable? Second, Story, did each episode keep you glued to your TV, or make you laugh, or keep you on the edge of your seat? Most importantly, did it leave you craving the next episode? Third, Recognizability, is it iconic? Has it withstood the test of time remained in the hearts and minds of us, the viewers? Finally, the Intro/Theme Song. To me, the jingle or intro to a cartoon is the thing that really sticks with you. Is the intro skippable? Will that tune stay lodged in your head for weeks?
With that, here is my list of the Top Ten Greatest Cartoons of All Time.
*Disclaimer: I have chosen to exclude all Japanese Anime from this list. Anime is widely regarded as its own category and most definitely deserve its own list*
Number 10: Kim Possible (2002)
Let’s be real for a second, Disney had some amazing animated programming over the years, I mean, they didn’t become the kingpin of animation with subpar productions. For me though, Kim Possible beats out anything else the House of Mouse has put out. The show looked great even when its main characters were leaping and backflipping their way to victory. The character designs, both of the heroes and each of their colorful cast of rogues, were unique and fun.
Each episode juggled the trials and tribulations of Kim and Ron’s demanding superheroics with their average teen problems and in true Disney fashion, the problems Kim faced in her personal life tended to resolve itself while on mission. The show provided excellent action, hilarious comedy, and stellar voice acting. Of course, you can’t forget the theme song. Kim Possible easily has one of the most recognizable and iconic theme songs of all time.
So many of my friends have that as their ringtone and whenever their phones ring it’s an immediate dance party, and with good reason, the song is a bop. For those who don’t know, there’s an entire 2:37 long version of the theme available on YouTube and it’s just as glorious as you’d hope.
While Kim Possible may not be the most iconic cartoon of all time, the reason it made this list for me is because of its positive impact on young women. At the time of Kim Possible’s release, the majority of cartoons featured male characters in the lead roles, and if you looked at more action-oriented cartoons, nearly all of them had male leads. Then came Kim Possible. She showed girls everywhere that they could be heroes just as much as boys could. Kim was intelligent, brave, funny, and at the end of the day, just like any other teenage girl. Ms. Possible made mistakes but she always did the right thing in the end. She was an idol for so many girls and boys alike and for that reason, she takes the tenth spot on my list.
Number 9: X-Men: The Animated Series (1992)
28 years since the premiere of X-Men: The Animated Series and the franchise has had some amazing ups and some serious downs. We’ve seen a few great X-Men films and a lot of incredibly poor cinematic experiences, but for me, none of them compare to the masterpiece that was 1992’s X-Men. Right from the start, X-Men didn’t hold back. The show essentially ripped the pages from the comics and made them move before our eyes. Characters that we read about, grew up with, knew, were moving, talking, and fighting on our televisions screens.
While the animation was spotty in some places (especially in earlier episodes), the voice acting and stories made up for it. X-Men tackled some of Marvel Comics most iconic storylines and, arguably, did them better justice than their cinematic counterparts. X-Men also managed to tie into other Marvel properties long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even an idea. Some of the best arcs in the show occurred when the X-Men crossed over with Peter Parker from Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Not only did X-Men crossover with other ongoing Marvel properties but it also spawned other excellent X-Men cartoons such as X-Men: Evolution and the criminally short Wolverine and the X-Men.
Where 1992’s X-Men reigns supreme over the rest of the Marvel animation catalogue, however, is its theme song. The rock anthem that played before every episode got your ten-year-old self hyped up for an exciting thirty minutes.
Aside from the excellency of the music, I also commend the intro for consistently reiterating the cast to the audience before every episode. X-Men had a large cast of characters and the intro showed you each member of the team, a brief snippet of their powers, and also showed you a few of the antagonists which, to a younger kid is very helpful. X-Men: The Animated Series will always be a part of my childhood and to this day, remains as the best representation the X-Men have seen on screen, making it my ninth spot on this list.
Number 8: Scooby-Doo: Where Are You! (1969) (source: JustWatch)
Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and of course, the loveable Great Dane, Scooby-Doo. A lot of people read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys but when I was a young six-year-old, my go-to mystery fix was the caper solving group known as Mystery Incorporated who debuted in Scooby-Doo: Where Are You! While I was writing this article, I found a few of the original episodes to stream just to make sure my nostalgia goggles weren’t clouding my judgement. Let me tell you, Scooby-Doo is still excellent.
For an animated program that released in the late 60’s, the animation is actually great. The main cast, with their colourful outfits, sticks out amongst the dreary scenery. The villains of the episodes, while obvious in their true identities as an adult, are iconic. Shaggy and Scooby provide countless laughs and the rest of the gang make excellent supporting members with their running gags. You can’t argue that Scooby-Doo is iconic.
The show has remained relevant in some iteration since its creation and while most of those don’t hold a candle to the original some of the series and some of the films are great. If you haven’t checked out Mystery Incorporated it’s a great, modern, and slightly darker, take on the franchise. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island and the live action films (don’t even start with me, Sarah Michelle Geller as Daphne is an absolute queen) further solidify Scooby-Doo as one of the animation greats.
Even now, in 2020, Scooby-Doo is returning to screens with the new SCOOB! Movie allowing the next generation to fall in love with the cowardly pup just like we did. Let’s just hope that this new version has as catchy of a theme song as the original.
Number 7: Looney Tunes (1930)
Ah, Bugs Bunny, the one who started it all. I really don’t think you can have a list of the greatest cartoons without Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes set the bar for making its viewer laugh.
Growing up in the 90’s I fell more into the Space Jam age of Looney Tunes (no regrets by the way), but I have so many memories of my dad sitting me down and showing me the classics. What I really respect about Looney Tunes is that when I watched it with my father, not only was I enjoying the zany humor of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote, but my dad was genuinely laughing at the jokes put there for adults too. Sure the slapstick was great for a ton of laughs, but Looney Tunes was also coy, there was always a wink and a nod put in there to make sure mom and dad had a good chuckle too.
At first, I honestly couldn’t remember what the intro sounded like, and that bothered me. I knew it was catchy and I knew it was in my head somewhere, but for the life of me, I simply couldn’t remember it. That said, the moment I heard it, it’s been ingrained in my mind since. That rhythmic melody has wormed its way into my head to the point where I think I might become a Looney Tune myself. While some of the jokes haven’t necessarily aged too well, the overall comedy and heart of the show still loves on strong. I popped in a DVD of Looney Tunes’ greatest hits while writing this segment and was wiping away the tears of laughter within seconds. For those of you who haven’t experienced the classic shorts, I highly encourage you too, especially in these times when we could all use a good laugh.
Number 6: The Simpsons (1989)
You didn’t really think we could make a Top Ten Cartoons list without including the Big Daddy of them all did you? Well, honestly, at first I did.
The Simpsons had an absolutely incredible ten season run. I recently rewatched the series while stuck in quarantine and looking for a pick me up. I started from the very first episode and I was hooked all over again. The comedy was witty, the jokes made me laugh out loud alone in my house. Every character (and that’s a lot) had their niche and tickled my funny bone in their own special way. That said, around season thirteen, I found myself beginning to lose interest. The jokes weren’t as funny anymore and a lot of the characters had devolved from the classics that they once were. That was EIGHTEEN seasons from where they are now.
With The Simpsons glory days behind them, I struggled in deciding to put them on this list. I thought that a show should be reviewed based on the entire series and since I really couldn’t bring myself to continue, I thought, “Is The Simpsons really deserving of a Top Ten spot?” Well, you’re reading this, so you obviously know that the answer is yes. The fact is, when The Simpsons was good, it was good. Seasons 2-10 are some of the best television ever. The animation steadily improves while the comedy soars. The stories, while they progressively get zanier with each season, still feel about as realistic as realistic gets in the world of the Simpson family.
What I applaud The Simpsons for however, is not only having an ear worm of a theme song but also incredibly catchy songs within many of their episodes. “Who Needs the Kwik-e-Mart”, “Canyonero”, and “We Put the Spring in Springfield” are just a few of my favourites. Just to ice the cake, The Simpsons easily takes the top spot for the number of incredibly guest stars. If you haven’t played the try to guess the guest star game while watching episodes, I urge you to do it (Meryl Streep threw me for a loop).
Number 5: Justice League (2001)
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who appreciates how excellent this show really was. Justice League does for DC what X-Men: The Animated Series did for Marvel. It brought together some of DC’s most iconic characters and gave them a new dimension. It showed the creation of the Justice League and brought them together as the team that the world didn’t know it needed. Each character brought their own spark to the series allowing it to shine in so many different ways. What made the show intriguing is that it didn’t pander to its audience. Justice League delved into some very dark themes with death being at the forefront of many of its episodes. As the show aged, it took on even more interesting topics and explored how a “heroic” team such as the League would be viewed by the little people.
Justice League made you think while also exposing you to some excellent action, witty banter, and some of the best versions of these superheroes that we’ve ever seen. The theme song incapsulates the grandeur and action you’re in for while doing a similar job to X-Men, showcasing its main cast. Justice League really had something for everyone and allowed boys and girls to find role models in each of its characters while genuinely being entertained for twenty-two minutes. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do, whether you’re a DC fan or not.
Number 4: Animaniacs (1993)
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 90s and can’t shake the feeling that something is missing from your soul, well, you’ve found it. Animaniacs is enjoyment at its purest. In fact, I think I enjoy watching it more as an adult than I did as a kid. As an adult, I notice so many off the cuff jokes that soared over my head as a kid. Now, I can’t help but burst out into tears of laughter.
Yakko, Wacko, and Dot are some of the most lovable, funny, and cute characters in all of animation. Their slapstick comedy is great for kids and their witty (and often times very dirty) jokes are a laugh riot for adults. The animation is excellent and colourful. Who could be surprised by the all praise, after all, it was created by the man, the legend, Steven Spielberg. The man knows his stuff.
The intro to Animaniacs is funny even before the show starts and the tune is incredibly catchy. Couple that with some hilarious and intelligent musical numbers and the show is really something unique. The Warner siblings also had a great supporting cast that each dabbled in their own unique form of comedy. When I say this show was great, it’s an understatement, Animaniacs even had a segment spin off; Pinky and the Brain (one of my personal favorites). With a remake in the works, I’m very much looking forward to welcome the Animaniacs back into my life and enjoy a lot of great laughs.
Number 3: Spongebob Squarepants (1999)
The Meme Lord himself. No cartoon list would be complete without Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob is an entity. Somehow a show about an anthropomorphic sponge and his friends (which include a sea dwelling squirrel in a scuba/astronaut crossover outfit) has remained at the peak of animated excellence for the twenty-one years. Like the Animaniacs, Spongebob owes its popularity to its adult friendly humor. Spongebob’s antics may make the ten year old inside of you laugh, but his oblivious comments and sly asides will cause an outburst of laughter in any unsuspecting adult. Truly, I believe that is the key to a great animated program. If a cartoon can appease both the child its directed and the parents forced to watch it, it’s going to be a winner. That is where Spongebob Squarepants excels.
The little yellow sponge tops the charts of most recognizeable cartoon characters both for the quality of his program but also for the incredibly unforgettable theme song. Even to this day, if anyone asks “Are ya ready?” I will uncontrollably shout back, “Aye, aye, Captain!” and if that person doesn’t respond, “I can’t hear you!” then I know they aren’t my friend.
Number 2: Batman: The Animated Series
Masterpiece. Honestly, I could end my segment on this show with just that word and I would suffice. Batman: The Animated Series is peak television. Not just peak animation, but peak television. The animation was incredible, the score was phenomenal, the voice actors were next level. Tim Conroy and Mark Hamill are still the voices I hear whenever I think of Bats or the Joker. With four well deserved Emmy’s under its belt, Batman: The Animated Series is a juggernaut.
What I feel sets this show apart from the other comic book sourced programs on this list is that it reinvented the mythos for the better. Batman turned characters like Mr. Freeze from a joke into one of Batman’s most iconic rogues galleries. It CREATED Harley Quinn. Batman: The Animated Series has defined how we see and how we will see Batman and everything that comes along with him forever.
I appreciate it more as an adult but that’s not to say that I wasn’t completely enamoured by it as a child. I wanted be Batman. After every episode, I wanted to know more about him, about his rogues, about Gotham. Episodes like “Mad Love” and “Heart of Ice” will forever be ingrained in my memory and the memories of so many others for creating stellar television. To me, there is only one animated series that tops Batman and its only by the tiniest margin.
(source: IMDB) Fairly Odd Parents: Another great Nicktoon that I actually preferred to Spongebob as a kid. That said, the fast talking and hilarious commentary weren’t enough to top the juggernaut of the sponge in brown pants.
(source: IDMB) Family Guy: Like The Simpsons, Family Guy’s glory days are behind it. At the end of the day, the high points of Family Guy don’t compare to the peaks of The Simpsons.
(source: IMDB) South Park: When it’s good, it’s really good. Personally I find that, overall, a lot of the episodes are forgettable with a core few being iconic.
(source: Twitter, thedragonprince) The Dragon Prince: The Dragon Prince had me hooked from the first moment. However the series is far from over. After all, they could Game of Thrones us with the ending and then boy, would I look foolish.
Number 1: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Water, earth, fire, air, long ago those four words latched onto me and anchored me through the most exhilarating television experience to date. Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily one of the best things you will ever watch. It has heart, humor, and action and delivers it all through the most amazing, three-dimensional cast of characters. You’ll remember that I excluded all Anime from this list as I felt it deserved the genre deserved its own list. Avatar is American made and is widely regarded as a cartoon and not an anime.
And what a cartoon it is. Avatar is a test of adversity, it is constantly putting its characters through turmoil and hardships that they have every right to fail, but they don’t. Team Avatar persevere. They continue on despite their shortcomings. They may be lost, or insecure, or blind, but that doesn’t stop them. To me, Avatar: The Last Airbender is perfection. Every episode leaves you wanting more. Avatar doesn’t tip toe around its more intense subjects like many cartoons then and now tend to do. It doesn’t treat its intended audience like clueless children. Avatar tells you a story and it leaves you begging for more at the end of each chapter. Where so many cartoon characters stay the same to keep a level of consistency for a younger audience,
Avatar allows its characters to grow. Aang and his friends mature and learn after each episode. While the core tenets of their personality remain, they become better people throughout the course of the show. I could talk about the excellency of Avatar for pages upon pages but I’ll leave you with this; if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch it more than any other on this list. The characters and stories will change you and make you a better person for watching it.