It’s become so common to collectively consider the '90s to be a decade of creative stagnation that at this point, mocking it feels like beating a dead horse. But for all the flack the decade’s acquired over the years, it did give the world some incredible works of entertainment which are hard to overlook. And for better or for worse, a fair few of these advancements came in the realm of children’s cartoon programing. Animation giant Cartoon Network was born in 1992, shows like Animaniacs and Family Guy set a new bar for the type of humor cartoons were allowed to get away with, and of course Bruce Timm and Paul Dini practically reinvented the medium with the creation of the DC Animated Universe.
But the problem with being entrenched in a highly paradoxical era means that people are going to be predisposed to forget about you, out of sheer shame if nothing else. As such, there are some hidden gems in ‘90s animation that, despite being recognized as great in their time, have since dropped from public consciousness and been forgotten at the wayside of culture’s highway. But these shows were some of the best of their time and deserve a little respect.
15 SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
The DCAU will never be forgotten and Batman: The Animated Series is almost universally accepted as one of, if not the, greatest cartoon of all time. But it’s immediate spin-off, Superman: The Animated Series, never quite ascended to its predecessor’s level of acclaim. Though it introduced a fantastic voice cast and several prominent DC characters which would later become vital to the franchise, there was no real defining aspects of the show.
B:TAS had established a new respect for animation, a golden boom never before seen in the genre. S:TAS didn’t squander that good will, but was seemingly incapable of adding anything to the universe’s mystique. It wasn’t until Justice League that the animated world would be expanded in such a way again, this time egged on by a powerful group dynamic. Though S:TAS was a good show, it was eclipsed in a shadow it just couldn’t escape from.
14 EARTHWORM JIM
The most logical explanation of Earthworm Jim is that it was the result of a bar bet. Someone told a Warner Bros exec that they couldn’t make a show about a worm and the executive promptly told their friend to hold their beer. Earthworm Jim, a show about a sentient earthworm granted powers and limbs by a super suit, lasted two seasons on Kid’s WB. The show had a sense of humor that rested somewhere between adult crass and clever creativity.
It’s easy to see how its fourth wall breaks and personal asides may have influenced the likes of Deadpool and in a way Earthworm Jim paved the way for that unique brand of comedy. Animation wise, it used heavy shadows and shallow lines to make characters stand out. But history is a fickle thing and people are more likely to remember the Earthworm Jim video games than the show.
13 CAPTAIN PLANET AND THE PLANETEERS
One a certain level, everyone remembers Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The eco-friendly superhero show was a pop culture phenomenon both for its sincere message and its over-the-top corny presentation. Its iconic catchphrases have become relevant pop cultural references and Captain Planet himself is even returning to screens in the show OK K.A.! So you may be wondering why it’s included on a list of forgotten ‘90s cartoons if it’s so memorable.
Here’s the thing: everyone remembers Captain Planet, those elemental power rings, and that poor kid who got stuck with ‘heart’ powers, but does anyone remember a single individual episode of the show? At this point, the show itself has been so overshadowed by its own parodical place in pop culture that the messages of the episodes and the actual plot of the show have long been forgotten.
12 SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED
From the get-go, Spider-Man Unlimited had just about everything working against it. Airing in 1999, it was almost immediately overtaken in the ratings by the debut of Digimon and the resurgence of Pokemon’s popularity. It lasted only a few episodes before being cancelled, which is a real shame because the episodes that did air were the seeds of something great. The show started in medias res and threw Spider-Man into a space adventure with John Jameson.
The unlikely duo traveled to a counter-earth to battle human animal hybrids because that’s Spider-Man’s main motif. The animation was retro but stylized and borrowed elements from the laudable X-Men cartoon as well as the DCAU. Unfortunately, Spider-Man cartoons have never really raised to a level above ‘meme-able’ and Unlimited is no exception.
11 PINKY, ELMYRA & THE BRAIN
Steven Spielberg’s slew of cartoon shows left a lasting impact on the cartoon medium, the legacy of which still lingers today. Among them was Pinky & the Brain, a show about a pair of lab mice who constantly try and fail to dominate the planet with increasingly wacky and creative schemes. The show was so wildly popular that it spawned a spin-off. Warner Bros. wanted to develop the popularity of Elmyra Fudd, a character from their show Tiny Toons, so they stuck her in a program with Pinky and the Brain.
Though apparently Spielberg supported the addition, writers were embittered with having to inject a new character into a formula that clearly worked. The energy and creativity of Pinky & the Brain was still there, but the mean-spirited jabs at Elmyra ruined the show’s tone. It didn’t last and has largely been ignored since it’s cancellation, maybe for the best.
10 BUCKY O'HARE AND THE TOAD WARS
How this one flew under anybody’s radar is a mystery. Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars was a bombastic and bright sci-fi cartoon based on a comic of the same name. It starred the titular Bucky, a green rabbit who went on swashbuckling space adventures to fight the evil Toad Empire. The show boasted incredible animation for its budget and though the writing was often subpar, it had a heart and humor that endeared it to viewers.
Need proof? Look up the opening title sequence, featuring an exciting theme song sung possibly by none other than Chris Rock. No, really. Unfortunately, the explosions of color and creativity lasted only a single season at the very turn of the century. The few who remember the show often attribute its zaniness and lack of mainstream appeal to its swift decline.
9 MIGHTY MAX
One of the last real toy-to-cartoon shows on television, Mighty Max was based on a series of toys where tiny action figures could be stored in playsets that doubled as carrying cases. To be honest, the cartoon offshoot wasn’t particularly good. Max himself, a young boy who can time-travel with his baseball cap, was the stereotypical ‘90s-kid cliché (Radical! Extreme! Tubular!) and his adventures were fairly par for the course in terms of cartoon antics. But what stood out about it was its unique placement in the timeline of commercial cartoons.
Transformers was long since over and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was winding down when Mighty Max came out and it briefly filled a hole in young viewer’s hearts which earned to be filled with corporate appeasement and blatant pandering. But perhaps that’s the very reason why nobody still talks about Mighty Max, it was a commercial, not a show.
8 SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
There were actually two Sonic the Hedgehog shows in the '90s. The first was a disaster, destroyed from within by cheap animation and childish slapstick. Fortunately, it’s successor learned from past mistakes. Colloquially called Sonic SatAM, the show revolved around the famous speedster rodent, voiced by Jaleel White, leading a team of resistance fighters against the tyrannical Dr. Robotnik who has taken over the world with his android army. And it wasn’t just good, it was great. Incredible even.
The animation was top notch, easily on par with the best of its contemporaries. Though it never had envelope-pushing humor, the jokes were consistently friendly and fun. The cast, including a deposed princess and cowardly French stereotype, were engaging and diverse. It was an unironically fantastic cartoon. And it lasted a whole two seasons. Why it got dropped and forgotten so soon in spite of its quality is anyone’s guess.
There were a lot of cartoon shows in the ‘90s that seemed to be about almost nothing. Rugrats was just about a group of toddlers being toddlers, Hey Arnold! was just about a kid growing up in New York, and Doug was about a kid named Doug. So what made Doug stand out? Two things: a highly distinctive art style that focused on playing up the colorful elements of an otherwise bland teenage life and the impeccable voice talent of Billy West, who breathed a palpable life into not only protagonist Doug, but also his bully Roger. Visually, the show enjoyed laid back but precise line work and vibrant tones which gave off the comforting aura of nostalgia, as if to remind the viewer of simpler times. The show was popular enough that when it was dropped by Nickelodeon, Disney picked it up, albeit with some significant changes.
6 THE LION KING'S TIMON & PUMBAA
In retrospect, it seems crazy that this show got off the ground. Disney had developed a system of making spin-off shows about some of their animated movies, like the Hercules and Aladdin cartoons, but they went as far as to give these side characters from The Lion King their own show where the comedic duo travel the world and hijinks ensue. And you know what? It worked. More akin to something like Animaniacs than the typical Disney production, the show understood that it was dealing with two seriously funny characters.
And the best thing to do with funny characters is to put them in funny situations in funny locations and let the characters do what comes naturally to them. The show lasted only three seasons, but arguably deserved a longer run. Though it stood out in the ‘90s amongst all the other Disney fare, nowadays it’s been completely forgotten.
5 THE ADVENTURES OF SAM & MAX: FREELANCE POLICE
Sam and Max were originally comic book characters before making the jump to gaming in their signature LucasArts productions which remain pillars of the industry. In 1997, the casual dog detective and excitable bunny got their own short-lived cartoon, The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police. The two anthropomorphic crime-fighters were lively and quick-witted, jumping back and forth from one joke to the next in such rapid succession that it was often hard for viewers to keep up.
That’s not at all to say it was bad, quite the opposite. The jokes that landed were stellar and were accentuated by the smooth animation and voice work. It even had some envelope-pushing humor, putting in the same category as Animaniacs. But the show’s brief run and its polarizing humor have kept it from climbing to the annals of pop culture.
Anyone born around 1996 had the enormous privilege of being a child in a world where Arthur existed. Based on the classic children’s books by Marc Brown, Arthur was a simple but relatable show for kids trying to understand the larger world around them. It introduced them to important concepts in a slow, consumable way while remaining entertaining.
It’s still running to this day and is no doubt still being watched by a new generation of kids, but there seems to come a time in everyone’s life where they feel they’ve learned enough from Arthur and leave it behind to pursue more advanced cartoons. At that point, their brains absorb different styles of media and forget the show that helped them form their basic comprehension of society. That’s okay though, because that’s sort of the point of Arthur; it’s for kids.
3 THE REAL ADVENTURES OF JONNY QUEST
The Jonny Quest franchise is one of the greatest adventure series to never be fully embraced by the mainstream. The long-running story of a young explorer getting into high-flying and dangerous adventures practically created the trope which would later be perfected by Indiana Jones. The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest should have been the last gasp for a dying serial, but instead chose to go out with a bang.
It kept true to its historic roots, keeping characters, locations, and even parts of the animation style the same, but made the appropriate updates to keep it interesting for the current generation. Additionally, it had an awesome intro sequence that showed off both the show’s past and potential future. It didn’t catch on beyond a single season, but the show seemed to be fine going out on its own terms.
2 SABRINA: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Based on the Archie Comics character and a spin-off of the live-action series that aired simultaneously, Sabrina: The Animated Series followed the titular teenage witch as she attempted to balance her mystic and social lives. Think Harry Potter meets Kim Possible and you basically have a formulaic introduction to both. The premise of the show was fairly standard but it contained a heart that was born from legitimate effort on behalf of the producers.
The animation was basic but admirable and the voice acting stood out with performances by Melissa Joan Hart and Cree Summers which gave the show a strangely epic feel. At the end of the day, it was a sweet, simple, and playful show that deserved more than the single season it initially got. It’s short standing in pop culture could be attributed to the more popular live-action series, but that hasn’t exactly aged well either.
Often referred to as Disney’s answer to Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles ran in Disney One Saturday Morning block where it stood out as particularly dark and dramatic for a production from the House of Mouse. The plot revolved around millennia-old gargoyles, lunar defenders of humanity, being revived in the late 20th century to face the new problems man had made for itself. Featuring the fabulous bass of prolific voice actor Keith David as protagonist Goliath, the show was everything viewers thought Disney would never touch.
Borrowing from Celtic mythology and Shakespearean lore, it was at times emotional, gripping, and could even be crushing at times. Despite its popularity, the show only lasted three seasons. Perhaps it was because Disney wanted to maintain its happy-go-lucky image, maybe it was because interest died out, or maybe it’s because Greg Weisman is cursed to only produce short-lived projects.
Which of these '90s cartoons can you remember? Let us know in the comments!