It’s their ability to pull you in. That sort of magic they have when all the elements of the medium come together. Voice acting, visuals, scoring, and stories, when done as right as these shows do ‘em, can create unbelievable experiences.
And what I find so fantastic is just how many cartoons today actually do craft their own worlds and invite you in. They’re not all perfect or even complex, but these are the shows that really make a case for why cartoons are an art form.
While I could do a top 10 here, I’d rather just geek out over what makes each one unique, because in a lot of ways it’s hard to compare them. So instead, it’s probably easier to divide these badboys up by the genre they best portray.
Now, that doesn’t mean these shows only have one feel to them – in fact a lot of them could qualify for multiple genres – but for simplicity’s sake, let’s do one per show. You’ll see what I mean.
Alright, so not all episodes are action-oriented. Not even a majority. Why put in under the action heading, then?
Well, while a lot of the show deals with the everyday happenings of the park and its crew, RS is undeniably a product of the 80s (and 90s sometimes, too, but mostly the 80s). It’s pretty glorious. Not only do a lot of references to the decade pop up, but a lot of the stories are structured like 80s movies, with very clear goals and stakes. They can build up tension really well in a short amount of time because we know what’s going to happen if Mordo and Rigby don’t win the day. So, even when nothing spectacular is going on, it can still feel like there’s something to lose.
Star v.s the Forces of Evil
This was the hardest one to place. It actually does three things equally well and in pretty much equal proportion: sci-fi, slice-of-life, and of course, action. That said, I went with action for one reason: whenever it does go full-on butt-kicking mode, it kicks serious ass.
This is like if Hotel Transylvania had fighting scenes. The comedy in the show is top-notch, and I always have fun with it, but I so enjoy the idea that a comedy/slice-of-life show like this could also be a magical girl show. That high-octane pace with cross-dimensional battles? It’s the best of both worlds!
Now here’s sci-fi done right. The use the big concepts like aliens and intergalactic warfare to tell very simple, yet profoundly meaningful stories.
Overall, Steven Universe has a very emotional story to tell, and it talks about it all with respect and dignity, but also a tenderness. It’s friggin’ fantastic.
On top of that, the art style – from the flexible character models to the gorgeous colour scheme – sets such a wonderstuck tone for it all. That, combined with the techno/piano background music, gives the show an elegance you might not expect at first glance. It’s heartbreaking, yet soothing. Beautiful, yet light. Just a wonderful world to be a part of.
Wander Over Yonder
This is contender for the most beautifully animated show on television. I have to admit I haven’t personally gotten far into WOY (mostly just because I tend to look for continuing stories in the cartoons I watch nowadays), but the kid in me who used to stay up all night to watch the whole saturday morning line-up on Canada’s equivalents of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network is screaming with joy.
No matter what age group is enjoying it, I’m so glad a show that’s animated like this can exist for kids. The comedy shines with the fast pace of the movements, the expressions are glorious, the colours are so nice to look at, the character models are cute and interesting, and I’ve always said you could stop the show at any point in any episode and get an amazing screen-shot. It’s just a blast to watch.
What can I say? This is a show that deserves the fandom it has and then some, it’s too freaking beautiful. But, beauty aside, what tone does it set with all this splendor? Well, the show’s largely about space exploration – never stopping anywhere for too long and rarely (if ever) returning to the same location twice. The universe feels neverending, and the lovable excitement Wander brings to this already energetic show give its young target audience a feeling of true space-adventure. There’s always another horizon on another planet to find, and awesome life-forms to meet there.
I’ve talked about AT’s world-building before more in depth, so I won’t go too nanners here, but with the constant addition of new characters, settings, ideas, and even animation styles, this show packs a serious punch. It’s really no wonder why it’s gotten as popular as it has.
Yup. From the simplistic, yet hilarious Adventure Time-y lingo to the epic battles with inventive monsters to the AT philosophy, Adventure Time really does feel like the imaginings of a precautious little boy. Like I said for Wander Over Yonder, an expansive world, like the land of Ooo, can really drag you into the show by force.
Avatar: The Legend of Korra
Technically, since it’s finished its run, I probably shouldn’t include Korra, but it’s recent enough to deserve a spot here. Plus, dat unbelievable animation, tho!
Like it’s predecessor Avatar: The Last Airbender, LOK takes inspiration from the more detailed art-styles of anime. So, just like anime, the budget goes into making the world look great, and making sure the battle scenes are well-animated, while keeping low costs on the movements of the characters during most normal talking scenes.
LOK used this to its every advantage. A captivating score and exciting story brought the world of benders back on screen in a satisfying way. Plus, unlike all the other shows on this list, Korra had a higher target audience: teens. That meant a lot of things, aside from the infamous love triangle of the first season. It meant they could tell darker stories, including an entire story-arch where Korra has PTSD and depression, as well as a “tasteful” yet very obvious queer canon couple at the end. Uh, spoilers, btw.
So, while the first show didn’t shy away from darker concepts, either, this one definitely felt like a mature show, while still keeping a feeling of adventure present.
Why watch other shows when you could be watching Gravity Falls? Seriously. This is the question that haunts me.
The most recent episode, Not What He Seems, was so satisfying in everything it set out to do, paced so well, littlenightwing and I absolutely couldn’t believe the run-time was only 23 minutes – it felt like a movie, and a flipping fantastic one at that.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, clearly, because I should be talking about the enchanting mystery aspect of GF. Like Alex Hirsch, the show’s overlord, once said, it’s a cross between The Simpsons and the X-Files, with one heck of a continuing story that never stops giving us questions to wonder about and conspiracies to sniff out. It even hides codes for the viewers to follow along with, creating a theory-making community that’s just as paranoid, yet intelligent as they come. Its unbelievable how well this show sucks you in.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
I promise I’ll be quick. I know the fandom makes some uncomfortable, and I apologize, but the show itself is quality and deserves its praises sung, just like the others on this list.
While they’re not always on adventures, it’s almost like if Lord of the Rings had an all-female cast. It’s been called High Fantasy before, meaning it has a huge lore of history along with its fantasy setting (not mention a world filled with creatures from all sorts of different mythologies, like Greek, Aztec, etc). When it goes big, it feels grand. When it stays small, it feels like I’m in a sleepy town like Hobbiton; with the show entering into its fifth season, it’s getting even more obvious that Equestria is definitely a land worth exploring.
Over the Garden Wall
Short, sweet, and magical: just how I like ‘em. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s only ten episodes, if you have yet to check it out, it’s a story that’s well worth your time.
This one was hard, too, because there’s a very strong mystery element all-throughout that almost made me want to switch its place on the list, but the way the story’s paced – and, I’ll admit it, the fact that Elijah Wood voices Wirt – made it pretty impossible for me to avoid the fantasy category.
The art direction in this mini-series adds so much to the atmosphere it’s stunning, as well as the gentle horns backing it up on the soundtrack. It really feels like you’re venturing into a dark forest, a strange and unknown territory that may very well be dangerous. Even horrifying.
You’ll have to be patient with it, because it uses a fantasy pace: slow for the journey and building up to more plot-oriented parts. But, with the forest theme, and style choices from Americana folklore, this is a series that screams October, which is ironically when I’ll be screaming Over the Garden Wall from now on.
The Amazing World of Gumball
Where Gumball shines is where a kids show should shine. It’s comedy. With it’s multiple-art style approach, and wacky, out-there theme song, Gumball sure is an oddball of a show thank I’m here all wekk. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first glance, but a few things have won me over.
First, the the characters. The two brothers and their non-conventional family are what it’s all about, and watching Darwin and Gumball bond is very sweet.
Second, the episode The Shell. ‘Nuff said, because oh my GOD, was that cinematic af and beautiful.
Third, screw your normality, the Amazing World of Gumball does what it wants.
Fourth, the background is done with beautiful photography, and with the cartoons to contrast it, it almost feels like we’re watching home movies.
The heart is undeniable. From the get-go, this show doesn’t let up with how charming it is, which makes sense, because pretty much the whole feel of the shows mirrors the feel of Clarence himself.
Clarence’s world is a friendly one. It’s not like things can’t go wrong- I mean they almost always do, but I don’t know, there’s something about the show that feels just as eager to include everyone and have a good time doing it as Clarence is, and let me tell you, that’s a really likable thing to do. Especially when it means including gay couples, because teaching kids about that is just rad. Rock on, little buddy.
Oh, and the simple, yet pleasing art style matches this really well, too. Like Clarence drew it himself.
Oh again, and by heart, I don’t mean heart in the way Steven Universe means heart (this is why I couldn’t make a top ten list). Because the show mirrors Clarence so much, it takes on his attitude toward the harsher realities in his life, and it’s a very innocent and comforting one.
I have to acknowledge the controversy with the creator, but only to say that the creator has been punished and doesn’t work on the show anymore. The show doesn’t support that type of behaviour, and neither do we, so everything’s good.
Phineas and Ferb
Now, this is an impressive show. Creating new worlds to explore is so imaginative and cool, but writing so many seasons of a show that’s this formulaic, and still keeping it fresh? That takes a lot of ingenuity.Almost Phineas and Ferb levels of ingenuity.
I couldn’t imagine this show as anything but a Disney Channel show. Gravity Falls is it’s own entity, which is rad, but P&F has that classic light-heartedness, that well-meaning goodness that’s just so admirable.
Phineas especially captures this Mickey Mouse-esque spirit. Ferb brings his own brilliance to the show, as do the rest of the cast, but Phineas in particular really gives the show a hopeful feel.
And you know, the art style matches the quick, clever humour with geometric shapes, and the simple colour scheme keeps with that bright atmosphere I was talking about earlier.
I have to admit, it’s not my personal favourite, but I didn’t want to exclude the fandom.
If I had to guess at the overall feel of a show I haven’t watched that much, (bad idea but) I’d say it’s probably just the goofiness. Maybe there’s something more I haven’t seen, which is totally possible, but that seems about right. Taking everyday problems and looking at them in the silliest, goofiest way possible. Not a bad thing.
All that said, we have so many wonderful worlds to visit today, so many adventures to have and mysteries to solve and characters to spend time with.
I feel like we’re in some kind of cartoon renaissance- but that’d probably go to the 90s, huh? Well, then we’re in the cartoon Age of Enlightenment, where it’s the thought and care that these teams put into crafting their worlds that makes the difference.