(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)
Animation is for kids…but it’s just not for kids. It is for the kids within the adults. The “children” in children’s animation is both a specific and universal term, aimed toward childlike spirits and open to all. Animation makes characters move, worlds breathe, and the heart dance in ways that live-action can’t.
Welcome to our list of the best animated children’s shows of the decade Many illustrate wondrous worlds, many are rib-crackingly funny, many sing sweet songs, many are dark rabbit holes into weirdness, many test the boundaries of storytelling, and many deliver validation for its young—and old—audience. Their gags, stories, and themes will grow even richer when their child viewers adulthood.
The Amazing World of Gumball
Ben Bocquelet cobbled together a zany masterpiece in The Amazing World of Gumball for Cartoon Network. A blue anthropomorphic cat, Gumball, and his adoptive brother Darwin, an anthropomorphized goldfish that grew legs, go through everyday absurdity in their neighborhood.
An ambitious medium-blender of hand-drawn, puppetry, CGI, stop motion, Flash animation, live-action, Gumball has that snap-of-the-finger subversiveness. It juggles escalating screwballiness, digs at status quo and clichés, and commentary on the eccentricity and ills of humanity. It’s a shame that there was little coverage of the June 2019 series finale considering its (literal) cliffhanger.
Adapted from the graphic novel series by Luke Pearson, a plucky young girl, Hilda (Bella Ramsey), moves away from her beloved wilderness, adjusts to city life, and confronts social dilemmas. With her elf friend on her shoulder and her white deer-fox at her side, she encounters critters and forces that may interfere—or blissfully intermingle—with their day-to-day. Many creatures live in the margins, away from the naked eye of humanity, while many live in plain view and co-exist with urbanized humanity.
Hilda is mythically endearing. I look forward to her next adventure when season two is released on Netflix in 2020. Curiosity lurks every corner, within the library, within the woods, within walls, under the bed, and under the sofa.
A young half-Gem, half-human child, Steven (Zach Callison), is raised by the Crystal Gems, a team of humanoid aliens who protect the Earth. As his Gem powers blossoms, Steven helps his Gem and human friends live their best selves as he learns to fight and capture monsters. He becomes ensnared into a tangled web of loose ends left behind by his late Gem mother.
Crafted with love by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network, Steven Universe is well known for raising the bar in animated diversity, displaying queerness and various body types for female(coded) characters. It delves into class, consent, mental health, war, survivorhood, and toxic relationships with profound grace to the phenomenal score of Aivi & Surasshu. For as many action-packed punches it throws, Steven Universe embraces the idyllic. Enjoying the carnivals, donuts, and sunsets in Beach City is just as important as defeating the monsters.
It’s absolutely one of the most challenging and wholesome science-fiction fantasies and the story carries on in Steven Universe: The Movie and the sequel series Steven Universe: Future.
In Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls, a pair of twins move into their Grand-Uncle’s (or Grunkle’s) cabin for the summer and they find themselves squaring off with the supernatural. Dipper (Jason Ritter) unearths a mysterious journal that indexes all the weird secrets around Gravity Falls.
Dipper, his bubbly sister Mabel (Kristen Schaal), their kooky Grunkle Stan (Alex Hirsch), and other Gravity Falls inhabitants are a riot to hang around with. Exciting reveals and shenanigans are rolled out every episode. Hirsch and his team are also notorious for planting background treasures (psss, watch for the triangle symbol in every episode), toying with fandom’s affinity for theories and predictions.
Gravity Falls is a silly delight that dangles wonders and mysteries as much as it pokes you for fun. Hirsch ended the show on his own terms after two seasons on Disney Channel and Disney XD.
Over the Garden Wall
Created by Patrick McHale, Over the Garden Wall is a haunting Cartoon Network miniseries of 10 episodes. It follows the adventure of two half-brothers, the meek and aloof Wirt (Elijah Wood) and the fun-loving Greg (Collin Dean), as they find their ways through the woods, guided by a talking bluebird, Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), seeking to rid herself of a curse.
The Grisaillesque backgrounds, homely set pieces, eccentric characters, and swooning melodies make an impression. While it ends happily, the ambiguity does stick with you and the enigmas echo long after the final song.
Wander Over Yonder
Craig McCracken’s Wander Over Yonder is an intergalactic delight. A furry orange dude by the name of Wander (Jack McBrayer) and his pal Sylvia (April Winchell) travel around the galaxy to hinder—and pester—the petulant Lord Hater (Keith Ferguson) from imposing evil across planets.
Speed and scope is its game. Wander Over Yonder zips at the speed of a pinball ricocheting off bumpers. Unfortunately after two seasons, Disney canceled it in 2016.
The Dragon Prince
A promising debut show by Wonderstorm that landed on Netflix in 2018, The Dragon Prince is a cel-shaded Tolkien-esque fantasy in a land of magic, dragons, elves, and humans. Two young human princes, Callum (Jack De Sean) and young Ezran (Sasha Rojen), uncover an intact dragon egg in the castle. Bewildered by the revelation that history had deceived them, the children enter an uneasy alliance with a young elf assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows) to return the egg to its rightful place in hopes of resolving centuries-long tension between the magical and human kingdoms.
Other than the vibrant characters, a complex war narrative, and a sweeping score by Frederick Wiedmann, it does what great fantastical stories do, tantalizing the viewer with the process of magic. There’s a particular sequence in season two where a character interacts with an image in the mirror, absorbing the pantomime and mystery.
Under the visionary eye of Charlie Bean, the world of the 2012 Tron: Uprising is hardwired with the stylish ambitions like the franchise films it is spun from. Flourishing with rushes and skyscrapers of cyberpunk neon, Uprising flashes with the fullest potential of cel-shaded animation in all its scope and a sleek network of chrome circuity.
In the digital world of the Grid where human-like programs reside, a tyrannical force occupies a peaceful city. A bereaved local, Beck (Elijah Wood), assumes the role of a masked savior in hopes to inspire other programs. Then he encounters the Grid’s presumed-dead guardian, Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), who trains him to take his place.
The mentorship between Tron and Beck, Beck facing the highs and lows of being a savior-in-progress, and one supporting character’s growth into a revolutionary highlighted the development of Beck’s intended rebellion. While the season one finale ended with an inspiring micro-revolution with wider implications, Beck and Tron’s desired citywide rebellion never came to fruition when the show was woefully canceled after one season.
But all 19 episodes are something to experience. (Curiously, as of now, only 18 episodes are found on Disney+.)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
A reboot of the 1985 Filmation She-Ra cartoon of the He-Man universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix boasts a charming bunch of characters.
The young orphaned Adora has been raised by the evil Horde all her life. But once she glimpses the outside world, she realizes that everything she has been taught is wrong. Then she encounters a magical sword which imbues her with special powers and a Chosen-One persona of the She-Ra warrior. It’s up to Adora and her friends to stop the evil Horde.
With a sensitivity and shameless queerness not unlike Steven Universe, Stevenson wrote She-Ra with an all-encompassing care for the heroes, the villains, and those struggling in the in-betweens. She-Ra is bursting with a rainbow of lessons about friendship and communication. Adora endures a compelling Chosen One arc, one wrought with anxiety and burdens, and her journey evolves into refreshingly darker take on her Chosen-One status by the fourth season. The show is also noteworthy for the heroine’s chemistry with her former-friend arch-nemesis Catra (AJ Michalka), a tragic and toxic figure who is given numerous chances to cast off her toxicity but always digs herself deeper into the pit in her upward climb to villainy.
We owe this show to the likes of Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall. Boundary-breaking in is boundless nature, Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time emits a chill vibe even when dancing at the edge of the abyss. Adventure Time is one of those cartoons that blows raspberries at formalities and freewheels into insanity. It throws low-brow gags like fart jokes but can engage in a bizarre sophistication, spiraling into themes of war, apocalypse, mental illness, and trauma.
A human boy, Finn (Jeremy Shada), and a stretchy talking dog, Jake (John DiMaggio), venture in the land of Ooo, going on quests, interacting with Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) of the Candy Kingdom, fending off—or learning to feel empathy for—the Ice King (Tom Kenny), and discovering new corners in the weird wide world.
At its lightest, Adventure Time is a goofball narrative, with episodes where candy citizens run amok, Abraham Lincoln rules as the King of Mars, or the heroes travel to the underworld to bring a plant back to life. But it hits the hardest in its frank ruminations about mortality, the cycle of life and death, how immortals like Marceline the Vampire Queen cope with those who fade around her, and how existence sneaks its way into continuation even when one is long gone from the world when mementos and statues are desecrated beyond recognition. And yet, for as heavy as this show gets, it never loses its lightness.
Honorable Mentions: Legend of Korra, Craig of the Creek, We Bare Bears, Infinity Train
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