Have you ever re-watched your favorite childhood cartoon series as an adult and been hugely disappointed? Well, you’re not alone. Nostalgia can often put a nice, fuzzy aura around the things you loved growing up, blinding you to the real truth — that not everything you enjoyed as a kid was actually technically “good.” Sometimes, cartoons can be a victim of their time. If they try to be too topical or “of the moment” they risk looking incredibly dated incredibly fast. Of course, some properties that are really entrenched in a certain era can serve as a funny, retro representation of it for future generations.
Technological innovations can play a part in a cartoon’s lasting appeal, too. Clunky movement, dodgy facial expressions, and badly synced dialog can turn new and old fans off when they’ve grown used to the comparatively slicker animation of modern shows. Changing times mean that children’s media has also become a lot more sophisticated over the last two decades. This is thanks to shows like Batman: The Animated Series, which — with its brooding atmosphere and well-crafted storytelling — raised the bar and is widely considered a timeless classic. But, while some cartoons have stood the test of time, others haven’t fared so well.
15. DOESN’T: HE-MAN
From its accidental campiness to its cheesy PSAs to kids, He-Man is quintessentially ’80s. Though there are a lot of chuckles to be had from rewatching it today, the show definitely isn’t the best its era had to offer. The poor animation quality of He-Man is infamous. Yes, it was made over three decades ago but other shows of that time look far better.
Most of the characters are just copy-and-paste lumps of muscle; plus, key details, like what on earth (or Eternia) Castle Grayskull’s “power” even is, are never explained. The Prince Adam/He-Man alter-ego shift also suffers from the same datedness as Shazam. In today’s media, kids don’t need to disguise themselves as adults to be taken seriously as heroes. If you like the He-Man mythology, just watch the ’00s remake instead. Yes, seriously.
14. DOESN’T: TRANSFORMERS: BEAST WARS
The Transformers franchise has churned out some great series’ over the years, and Beast Wars is often considered among them. Fast-forwarding way into the future past Generation One, it breathed new life into the Hasbro property by evolving the ‘Bots into animalistic forms and kicking off a whole new era of war. It also featured cutting-edge CG animation and launched an equally innovative toy-line.
So, why does it deserve a place on this side of the list? To put it bluntly, Beast Wars has aged horribly. CG evolves faster than any other medium, and what looked “state of the art” in 1996 looks painfully dated now. This is honestly a real shame because the show is tightly-plotted and has excellent character development. Hardcore fans bemoan the limited cast, though, which is another side-effect of the expensive animation.
13. DOESN’T: X-MEN: EVOLUTION
Coming off the back of the smash-hit that was X-Men: The Animated Series, Evolution had a lot to live up to. Maybe that’s why it’s nowhere near as well-remembered as its predecessor. Unlike TAS, which was very faithful to the source material, Evolution chose to deviate hugely. The biggest change was that the teenage mutants had to attend a normal high-school as well as the Xavier Institute.
Although changes like these can help an adaptation appeal to a new fan base, this altered premise fundamentally worked against X-Men‘s core appeal, rather than reflected or enhanced it. (Mystique posing as a high-school principal? Reeeally?) Though the show’s focus on character development was good, it feels more like a New Millennium high-school drama that happens to have X-Men in it. If you want something fresher than TAS, watch Wolverine and the X-Men instead.
12. DOESN’T: SONIC UNDERGROUND
Affectionately known by some fans as “the worst thing to ever happen to Sonic The Hedgehog,” this series lulled you into a false sense of hype with the crazily catchy theme song, and then crushed those expectations with a bizarre premise and poor writing. In Underground, Sonic was one of three royal siblings who were separated from their mother after Robotnik takes over her planet and bans music.
This musical show couldn’t have been more ’90s if it had a Will Smith rap breakdown during the opening credits. As such, it really doesn’t have the same timeless quality that other shows of the decade do. Watch the opening credits on YouTube, but, unless you enjoy cartoon rock operas that look like drug-induced hallucinations, the rest of it really isn’t worth revisiting.
11. DOESN’T: THE SMURFS
The Smurfs have been smurfily entertaining kids and adults for over 50 years now. The ’80s cartoon series is not the best way to enjoy them, though. Like many ‘toons of its day, the show suffers from a lot of technical problems but it looks like the animators really struggled with this one. Some sequences have barely any actual movement at all.
Because the show was aimed at young kids it has an obligation to preach a lot of moral lessons to them, which, again is common for shows of the time with a similar target audience. Yet, while some manage to do this in a way that is only a little condescending, the writing in The Smurfs comes off as insultingly patronizing. It’s only really worth watching this one if you’re a Smurfs completionist.
10. DOESN’T: G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO
First of all, the title of the show makes Joe sound like an ego-maniac considering he’s part of a team. It would be like The Avengers being named “Iron Man: Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist.” This show suffers from the common ’80s animation problem of having very limited movement — not ideal for action sequences in a show that was all about action.
With the exception of the excellently named Sargent Slaughter and Snake Eyes, most of the characterization and stories are also pretty cookie-cutter and uninspired. Granted, it’s always hard for writers to tack concepts and personalities onto toys (especially ones that had fallen out of popularity like the Joes had by 1982.) But, when you consider what a good job The Transformers did, the genericness of the show is even more inexcusable.
9. DOESN’T: CAPTAIN PLANET
Sorry to break it to you ’90s kids, but Captain Planet is firmly stuck in the era from whence it came. Does the eco-friendly superhero show have its charms? Sure. Its educational value is also still relevant, and superheroes are more popular in mainstream media now than ever before… just not ones like Captain Planet. The Captain suffers from the same core problem as He-Man.
Once Harry Potter came along, kids calling upon adults for help doesn’t have the same appeal. Tonally, the show is all over the place, too. Episodes filled with preaching wholesome and civilly responsible values to kids also throw hugely inappropriate sexual innuendos around. This makes it potentially too risqué for the very young but too childish for older audiences, begging the question — who was this show for?
8. DOES: X-MEN
X-Men: The Animated Series was one of the first in a string of ’90s comic book cartoon adaptations that helped elevate how children’s media was approached. The show’s legacy is big — not only did it introduce a whole new generation to the world of Marvel’s mutant superheroes, but it did it so astonishingly faithfully. Having said all that — does it still hold up?
Honestly, yes. Where some X-Men movies have sadly missed the mark, TAS serves as a high watermark of what an adaptation can do. Bryan Singer even used it for most of his research when prepping for the first movie. It’s not without faults — animation blips and hilariously hammy voice acting occur throughout — but the pros far outweigh the cons. Plus, those opening credits are still some of the best ever made.
7. DOES: THUNDERCATS
If you’re going to watch one high-fantasy cartoon series from the ’80s, make it Thundercats. The series has all of the cheesy “Lesson Of The Week” story structuring, barely believable premise, softcore fantasy action, and ludicrously-dressed warriors as He-Man, but pulled off with a lot more finesse. (Lion-O has much better hair, too.) The problems of stiff, ’80s animation still persist, there’s no getting around that.
But, the weird blend of fantasy and sci-fi works surprisingly well and the writing and character development is generally much better done than its contemporaries. You really do buy into this odd little family of superpowered space-cats. If you can get past how irritatingly often Lion-O loses his sword, it’s well worth revisiting. The 2010s remake deserves more love, too.
6. DOES: ANIMANIACS
You might think that the main reason Animaniacs holds up today is because it was ahead of its time, but really, it couldn’t have existed in other decade. Animaniacs was a reaction to a very ’90s concern that kids cartoons were becoming too violent, something that the show frequently enjoyed addressing with its slapstick gags. It also operated under the pretence of harkening back to the “good old days” with a Looney Tunes-style segmented format.
Having said that, another part of the show’s lasting appeal is its self-referential humor, which has since become a more mainstream gimmick in media today. With a prestigious name like Stephen Spielberg’s attached, it’s probably not surprising how well it’s aged — or not aged. But honestly, the real secret to the show’s lasting success is a simple one: it’s really funny. Need proof? Just look up the “Finger Prints/Prince” joke.
5. DOES: GARGOYLES
Like most cartoon classics, Gargoyles has a premise that really shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. As well as actual, humanoid gargoyles, the show featured a crazy cast of characters that included robots, fairies, and even the Illuminati; spanning multiple genres. For a Disney show, it was unusually dark in tone and ambitious (for the time) in scope. Unfortunately, this was lessened after Season Two following the creator’s departure.
Gargoyles’ mythology is so rich that it still has an active fanbase to this day, a testament to its strong writing and the imagination of its creator. The animation also still holds up well — though not always consistent in quality. Unfortunately, it couldn’t escape Disney executive’s meddling completely, with its maturity being detrimentally toned down in Season Three.
4. DOES: THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS
Serving really as just a money-grabbing tie-in to a popular film, The Real Ghostbusters shouldn’t hold up as well as it does. Some cartoon nerds would even argue it’s actually better than the films. For an ’80s show, the animation isn’t too bad — still a bit stiff but far from the worst of the decade. It also has pretty decent voice acting, another exception for its time.
The show slots into the film universe comfortably with the premise that it was filling in the ‘busting gaps you didn’t see in the movie. In other words, it does what any great alternate media tie-in should do: expand on the original. Things unfortunately go downhill a bit in Season Two when executives bumped up mascot Slimer to a title role, but Season One is definitely worth a Ghostbusters fan’s time.
3. DOES: RUGRATS
The premise of Rugrats has much the same appeal as the premise of Toy Story — but with babies and toddlers instead of toys. What do they get up to when adults aren’t watching? The answer turns out to be, going on crazy adventures led by one brave baby with a screwdriver. A lot of cartoons struggle to keep their animation from becoming dated by striving for realism.
Shows like Rugrats beat this future problem by leaning hard into cartoonishness and having a more distinctive style. Part of the charm of watching the show now is that the kids’ quests often have hilariously baby-sized stakes from our grown-up perspectives. The show also still works because of how subtly progressive it was for the early ’90s, featuring a tyrannical but sympathetic antagonist, interracial families, and breaking gender stereotypes.
2. DOES: DUCKTALES
DuckTales was responsible for kicking off Disney’s entrance into animated TV and it certainly got its run off to a good start. Though many associate it with the ’90s, it actually began in 1987. It’s an easy mistake to make, of course, considering how much better the animation was compared to most ’80s cartoons, but not too surprising given it was a Disney property (and also benefitted from a lot of that Disney-dollar.)
The show also introduced a new audience to the charmingly curmudgeon, Scrooge McDuck, though he’s slightly less grouchy than his comic book appearances. The series has recently been revived for a whole new generation, evidence of its continuing appeal, but the original still feels just as fun, wacky, and well-crafted today.
1. DOES: SAMURAI JACK
Samurai Jack’s ageless appeal is partly thanks to its historical themes, and partly because of its gorgeous and unique visuals. The animation looks like a moving work of art, and though it was directly inspired by early anime movies and Japanese cinema classics, it still looks remarkably fresh and forward-thinking to this day. The show’s mature themes and abstract artsiness means it could easily be confused for an adult show.
But really, it’s one that truly transcends age demographics, though the creepiness of some of Jack’s enemies might give younger audiences a fright. Like other cartoon greats, it’s really hard to imagine this show ever falling out of relevancy. (Samurai are never not cool, either.) It’s certainly worth a binge-watch before you pick up the sequel series.
Which cartoons do you think do or don’t hold up? Let us know in the comments!
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