Over the last few years we’ve had some amazing American cartoon shows. If you missed out, here’s a quick run-down (in no particular order) of some of the ones that you just have to try.
Wander Over Yonder:
Network: Disney Channel and Disney XD
Status: Finished (maybe), 2 Seasons (2013-2016)
Energetic, silly, and imaginative with a big heart at its center, Wonder Over Yonder has a lot going for it. The creator, Craig McCracken, was responsible for some of classics of American animation. Shows like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and the original The Powerpuff Girls owe a lot to McCracken and his latest creation is wonderful. With great animation, design, and characters, Wander Over Yonder takes a lot of inspiration from Looney Tunes cartoons like “Marvin the Martian” and “Duck Dodgers” with a retro sci-fi style and slapstick sense of humor. It combines this with a loosely continuing story line and modern animation styles.
Even though the series is named after Wander, the magic-hat wearing, banjo-playing fuzzy orange puppet, the ongoing narrative seems to focus more on the redemption arcs of the bad guys of the series. The show’s recurring villain, the evil magical skeleton known as Lord Hater, is introduced as a villainous conqueror of worlds. As his plans are repeatedly foiled by Wander and his pals, he is revealed for what he truly is: an insecure bully with the mindset of a teenager who just wants attention and for people to respect him. By accident, his obsession with destroying Wander starts to transform him into a reluctant hero and perhaps the only hope for the galaxy when a greater threat, the destructive and cruel Lord Dominator, arrives in season 2. The show has moments of tragedy and loss, but is always ready to introduce goofiness as well as a message of hope to balance it out.
Episodes that display the show’s range from ridiculous slapstick to touching heart-tugging narrative include The Bot, The Black Cube, The Wanders, The Legend, and The Flower. This series just ended their second season and it’s up in the air whether Disney will give it a third. It’d be a pity if they don’t as the show really found its stride in the second season. I’d love to see what they could do with another batch of episodes. #SaveWOY
Network: Disney Channel and Disney XD
Status: Finished, 2 Seasons (2012-2016)
This show is simply one of the best. The animation is fantastic. The characters are lovable and relatable, yet complex enough to keep your interest. The mix of mystery, comedy, and social commentary all work nicely together.
The story revolves around the twelve-year old twins, Mabel and Dipper Pines, who get dropped off for the summer at the strange Oregon town of Gravity Falls. Their great-uncle (“Gruncle”) Stan is their guardian for the summer and takes them in to help him run the Mystery Shack, a P.T. Barnum-esque tourist trap specializing in counterfeits of the weird and occult. Together, they unravel the town’s bizarre secrets, all the while figuring out how to become a stronger family and making cool new friends. There are constant allusions to popular conspiracy theories like aliens, secret presidents, lake monsters, the Illuminati, ghosts, and gnomes. The series rocks at exploring these, making them both hilarious and occasionally terrifying when some of the darker characters get revealed.
I can’t recommend Gravity Falls enough. It’s only two seasons long but the creators wanted it to end where it did and it caps off nicely. There are hidden secrets in every episode, so rewatching the entire series four or five times is completely justified.
Network: Cartoon Network
Status: Ongoing, 3 Seasons (2013-present)
Steven Universe follows the adventures of a magical boy who lives with alien rocks who take on human forms and care for him. They go on adventures while fighting (or more often befriending) the other space rocks that try to invade and destroy the Earth. I had some trouble coming up with a good, short description of the series and I’m not convinced that what I wrote above really captures the feel of the show. I’ve heard Steven Universe described as a combination of Sailor Moon, Adventure Time, and Dragon Ball Z. While there are certainly elements of those series that leak into the show, Steven Universe is unmistakable as its own thing. The show has an emphasis on exploring love in all its forms. Love for friends and family, love for one’s enemies, love for oneself and your body, and romantic love. The exploration of romantic love always seems to skirt right on the border of the censors and makes seems to encourage (and reward) fan shipping, which can be fun. The show can get preachy at times, but it generally does a good job of avoiding being too sappy. The continuing story is interesting and alludes to a great deal of depth and mystery which makes the frequent hiatuses and weird release schedule of the show all the more frustrating.
It’s says something about the music in the show that as I write this, the opening theme (“We are the Crystal Gems”) keeps playing in my head. Steven Universe benefits from one of the best musical scores in animation and the songs do a great job of fitting with the strange, ethereal, yet uplifting atmosphere of the series. A lot of the credit should go to Executive Producer Rebecca Sugar as she not only is responsible for a lot of the vision behind the show but also the musical composition.
The show has a lot variation in animation style and tone, especially in the earlier episodes. Sometimes the animation is gorgeous, with idyllic backgrounds and fluid action scenes. Other times…It could have been better. Regardless, this show is so positive and emotionally engaging that’s few problems are easily ignored.
Network: Fox and Adult Swim
Status: Ongoing, 6 Seasons (2011-present)
A lot of people recommended Bob’s Burgers to me, but it took a while for me to actually get around to doing so. I wasn’t a fan of the art style at all and I waved it away pretty quickly as another Family Guy derivative.
After finally watching it, I can say that the characters and comedy more than make up for whatever made me hesitate to try the series beforehand. The main family is endearing and adorable. You’d have to be made of ice not to get attached to the lives of Bob and his wife, Linda, and their strange kids, Tina, Gene, and Louise. Bob runs his own burger joint where he can come up with puns and reference filled menu items all he wants. Linda and the kids help him run while getting themselves into trouble. Bob is the straight man, who is most often annoyed by all the craziness around him but learns to accept it. Linda is the energetic mother who usually encourages her children to do their thing. Tina is the wonderfully monotone young woman struggling with the horrors of puberty and coming of age. Gene is the preteen musician who is obsessed with farts. Finally, Louise is a lovable brat who is way too smart. They all live in a weird seaside town, where everyone is just a bit off.
It’s an episodic show with only some occasional references to previous episodes. It’s pretty easy to compare it to the Simpsons and Family Guy, but I think the show is more endearing and clever than its comparisons.
Network: Cartoon Network
Status: Ongoing, 7 Seasons (2010-Present)
Where have you been if you haven’t heard of Adventure Time by now? This show has become the archetype for modern cartoons and I’m pretty sure most elevator pitches for new series nowadays start with the words, “like Adventure Time but…”. If you’re not familiar, Adventure Time follows the ongoing coming-of-age story of Finn the Human and his best friend, the stretchy talking dog, Jake. They live in a color saturated wonderland which is really the remains of a post-apocalyptic earth where magic replaced radiation and atomic fire. Throughout the series we learn about all the dark secrets of this seemingly pleasant fantasy world, which often leaves the viewer asking themselves, “how is this a kid’s show?”
The series’ former show-runner, lovable madman Pendleton Ward , was inspired to create the show because his own adventures in Dungeons and Dragons and inserts his own surrealist sense of humor into the project. The animation and story quality can vary heavily from episode to episode. Generally though, the more recent episodes have gotten really depressing with a dark and brooding atmosphere that has become the norm rather than the welcome change of pace that it was during earlier seasons. Even though I think the show has lost some of its energy over the years, I couldn’t leave it out of this list because of the massive impact it’s had on modern cartoons.