Animation consisting of individual, hand drawn panels, photographed and run sequentially as a strip of film has been with us since the start of the film industry beginning with Little Nemo in 1911 and Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. Using that same technique, the production process quickly evolved with studios of artists working together to produce longer and more elaborate cartoons reaching its climax with Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie in 1928. Soon, almost every movie studio had its animation department cranking out short subjects for display ahead of their main features including Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia. But it was Disney who took the next great leap by producing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, a feature length cartoon that became a hit for the fledgling studio.
Such was where the state of animation remained until the next breakthrough took place. It happened when MGM animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera figured out a way to make cartoons cheaply enough to be profitable for television. Pioneering limited animation, they cut corners in the production process by reducing the number of cells per movement and using repetitive backgrounds among other techniques. That way, the two were able to come up with the Huckleberry Hound Show for the NBC television network in 1958. It was a success and soon after, the studio expanded its format into half hour shows until shattering another barrier in 1960 with the premier of The Flintstones on ABC. Following up on that show’s ratings success, the studio produced one classic half hour show after another so that for years, Hanna-Barbera dominated the field of TV animation.
But that begs the question: what makes for a hit animated show? The answer is the same as it is for any medium from novels to movies: a solid plot, well-rounded characterizations, and a good story with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. And in the case of animation, instead of actors who can bring characters to life, good voice artists are a must. With those criteria in mind, as well as longevity, entertainment value, and originality, and a 30 minute format to fully develop those elements, the following list of the top ten best cartoon shows of all time has been chosen.
10) Astro Boy
Created by Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom first appeared as a Japanese comic book character in 1952. The feature proved so popular that it became the subject of Japan’s first animated cartoon show in a style later to be known as anime. Eventually, the show was imported to the United States and renamed Astro Boy. The first Japanese animated show to appear on American television, it would not be the last. A broadcast hit for many years, it became the vanguard for a long list of imported Japanese cartoon shows which were hugely influential among nascent comic book artists who later adopted much of its manga-based art style to their own work.
Warner Bros followup to its successful Batman and Superman animated series, the Justice League (and later Justice League Unlimited) cartoon show was important not only for finally bringing nearly every super-hero in the DC universe to animated life, but for experimenting with a “mythology” format popularized by such live action TV shows as Babylon 5 and X-Files that featured an underlying storyline and/or character arcs that continued from episode to episode, usually climaxing at the end of a season. But even without all that, the show would have to make this list if only for featuring the Question, a creation of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, who was brought to amazing Objectivist life over the course of the series.
8) Top Cat
After the success of The Flintstones, its first half hour show to appear in prime time, Hanna-Barbera followed up with a second show in 1961 called Top Cat. Loosely based either on the 1940s Dead End Kids films or the stereotypical sergeant or officer who constantly connives to beat the military system, Top Cat (TC for short), was the leader of an appealing gang of fellow felines who were constantly on the make for an easy dollar while running afoul of the local establishment in the form of Officer Charlie Dibble. Another breakthrough for Hanna-Barbera on the road to the studio’s greatest success and most disappointing failure.
7) The Jetsons
With the success of the Flintstones in 1960, Hanna-Barbera was quick to strike while the iron was hot, and came out with Top Cat the following year. Immediately after that, in 1962, they did it again with The Jetsons, a space age take on the Flintstones. Like the groundbreaking Flintstones, the Jetsons was based on familiar sitcom style plots woven around a human family consisting of hapless George Jetson, his wife Jane, daughter Judy, son Elroy, and family pet Astro the dog. Also like the Flintstones, many of the laughs derive from clever updates of domestic life to that of the super future along with sometimes dazzling design work in the area of architecture and modern appliances. What made the Jetsons one of the best cartoons ever beyond its well-written plots, human interest, and humor, was its overall sense of design and style that gave the show its unique signature that has delighted viewers ever since.
Again from the mind of Japanese writer/artist Osamu Tezuka, Kimba first appeared in comic book form in the 1950s before being adapted as an animated television show in 1965. The first cartoon show in Japan to appear in color, it was quickly snapped up by American distributors for syndication on US television stations. The show concentrates on the adventures of Kimba the white lion, son of Ceasar, who spends much of his time defending his jungle kingdom from those who would threaten it.
Beyond the basic storyline, the show is notable for its themes of cooperation and responsibility that was influential on a generation of youngsters (and remember, in an era when there were only a finite number of TV stations to watch and no electronic distractions like the internet or computer games, shows like this were watched by tens of millions of kids), who would go on to support such global initiatives as the Peace Corps, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club.
5) Speed Racer
Another creation that began in Japanese comics and graduated to animation in 1967. Telling the story of the Racer family (as they would be known in their American broadcasts), the show’s episodes spotlighted youngest son Speed as he drove the wondrous Mach 5 in any number of challenging and often deadly auto races around the world. Aided by his father Pops, and auto mechanic Sparky, Speed drew solace at times from girlfriend Trixie and headaches from younger brother Spritle and his annoying pet monkey. Beyond the immediate family circle there was also Racer X, a masked driver who made frequent appearances to save Speed from some deadly circumstance. Racer X, as it turned out, was actually Speed’s long lost older brother, Rex. Although only 52 episodes of the show were produced, its stylized action, mechanical design, and fast moving cuts, mesmerized millions of car loving American youngsters who became fascinated by its determined hero.
Batman: the Animated Series, produced for Warner Bros by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, wasn’t the first time the DC character had been featured as an animated character. It was, however, the best interpretation of the character by far in any medium except the original comics and a handful of later films. Convincing execs at Warner Bros that their show could be done using lots of basic black in its art style, Radomski and Timm proceeded to create a dark, almost film noir world for the caped crusader to inhabit and though some episodes missed the mark, many more captured the brooding atmosphere, psychologically disturbed villains, and the BruceWayne/Batman dichotomy featured in the best of the character’s comic book appearances. Running from 1992-1995, the show was a breakthrough for half hour cartoons making it possible for serious, adult-oriented shows to prosper in the years to come.
Warner Bros’ followup to its highly successful Batman series, Superman: The Animated Series, adapted many of the tropes featured in comics by writer/artist John Byrne who was hired by DC to update the character for the 1980s. The format enabled the creators of the show to humanize Superman by giving his Clark Kent alter ego a larger role in many of the stories. Beyond that, art style and animation for the show was top rank with heroes and villains well delineated in character design and voice casting. And then there was the beginnings of the mythology concept with running themes and plots particularly once Darkseid was introduced as the perfect Superman villain.
That thread led to the justly famous episodes featuring the death and funeral of police Sgt. Dan Turpin, a lookalike for comic book legend Jack Kirby, creator of Darkseid. The overall success of both the Batman and Superman shows led to a Justice League feature that exploited the mythological and guest star aspects of the latter which then led to Warner Bros’ program of direct-to-DVD, movie-length animated films.
Perhaps the most important animated program since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Flintstones television show marked a sea change in the way animation was perceived by the general public and paved the way for all other half hour prime time animated shows to follow. Before the Flintstones, cartoons were considered kiddie fare for the most part (even Warner Bros ‘toons with their winks and nudges to more knowing adults in the audience) but afterwards, more and more adults began to accept the notion that they could be entertainment for all ages.
If it had been shot as live action, the Flintstones would have been a successful sitcom in the 1960 fall TV schedule but then, the FX budget wouldn’t have been able to handle the demands of the scripts. That made animation essential to its production. The fact that care was taken by Hanna-Barbera that its characters be convincing enough to draw viewers in to the show’s fantastic conceit, that of a world as civilized as their own but for its prehistoric setting helped immensely in its acceptance.
The first animated show to appear in prime time, it proved popular enough to remain on ABC for six seasons while along the way presenting history’s first pregnant animated character. Throughout its half dozen years, the Flintstone family grew and evolved just like real people even as Fred, Wilma, Pebbles, Barney, Betty, and Bam Bam grew in the hearts of viewers until they became national institutions.
1) Jonny Quest
It was on television for only a single season, but those 26 episodes were choice, offering their prime time viewers with perhaps their first exposure to the wonders and diversities of the world they lived in. And in 1964, that world was a good deal smaller than it would be only a few years later after an unpopular war and government scandal would force the scales from people’s eyes. But in its time, the adventures presented by the show’s cast in such exotic climes as Tibet, Brazil, Antartica, and China couldn’t be anything less than exciting. And through the magic of animation, there was no limit to what could be shown or where its characters could go.
Created by comic book artist Doug Wildey who produced an action packed demo reel later used during the show’s closing credits, Jonny Quest began as an adaptation of popular radio character Jack Armstrong before Hanna-Barbera changed the assignment to make it an original production. What Wildey came up with would advance television animation, and animation in general, even further than simply his idea for the show’s format, which was to be science/adventure with devices and action that might exist in the near future.
For the first time, an animated show produced for television would be played straight with no funny animals or sitcom style situations with characters designed, drawn, and animated as realistically as possible. What resulted was the Quest family that included privileged government scientist Dr. Benton Quest, his ‘tween son Jonny, bodyguard Race Bannon, and adopted son Hadji. Together with lush, painted backgrounds, meticulously-designed hardware, believable personalities, strong plots often involving secret armies and even a recurring arch enemy, supporting characters like the Pasha Peddler and Jade — a mysterious Eurasian adventuress who shared a history with Race — and just the right dash of humor, it all made for a potent brew sure to intoxicate young and older viewers alike.
Adding immeasurably to the mix was a musical score by Hoyt Curtlin that effectively underlined the action in both light-hearted and dramatic scenes. Unforgettable too was the show’s professional-level title theme with its pounding percussion intro that yielded to a light jazz interlude. Aired on ABC at 7:30 p.m., the show was perfectly positioned for instant success. Unfortunately, good ratings and critical appreciation wouldn’t be enough to save the show from cancellation. Production proved too costly for Hanna-Barbera and so Jonny Quest ended after only a single, legendary season. That brief exposure, however, doesn’t prevent the show from earning the top spot in any list of half hour cartoon shows. In every area of production, it was superior to the competition both on television and film (with the exception there of full vs limited animation).
Jonny Quest represented the apex of serious and entertaining animation production that remained unchallenged for decades until the debut of the Bruce Timm-produced Batman and Superman franchise. But even there, Jonny Quest wins by more than a nose due to its more down-to-earth, realistic format. By almost any measurement then, Jonny Quest is simply the best half hour animated show of all time.