There’s been a lot of discussion lately that animated kids shows made should be judged on a curve completely disregarding the fact that kids are smart as hell and can get just as frustrated with inconsistent characterization and weak storylines as adults. Sure they might not have some of content adults have come to expect from tv because violence and sexuality and shock factors are easy ways to mask lack of characterization and pick up the pace of a lagging plot but honestly that just makes them even more impressive. The crutches that adult shows lean on to keep interest up just don’t work with kids programming so the choices are step up or let it ride.
We all know that Pixar movies get us deep in the feels and Studio Ghibli films show those beautiful quiet slice of life moments we all relate to but somehow when it comes to animated tv the expectation is always inferiority. And for sure there are shows that are fluffy, over the top and inconsistent but to say that it’s unfair to judge an animated kids show based on its consistency is insulting to the medium and to viewers. The assumption that books, shows, movies geared towards a younger audience means lower quality is just flat out wrong.
So to celebrate and put rest to the idea that just because a show is directed towards kids it’s somehow less have some of my favorites.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006)
Honestly, I could put almost every DCAU show on this list because across the board they are phenomenal but Justice League/JLU will always hold a special place in my heart. Justice League is an episodic show starting at the foundation of the Justice League and all the heroes learning and growing as individuals and as a team and after the phenomenal finale realizing 7 heroes is not enough and expanding the roster significantly. Justice League Unlimited is almost an anthology show where if you so chose you could watch the eps with just your favorite heroes and not miss much of the story although obviously, you should watch the whole thing.
Steven Universe (2013-2019)
There are a few shows on this list that pulls the ol “lol I’m a fun kids show come get sucked in by our wacky adventures ok now that we’ve got you, let’s unleash the depth of story and emotion” and gosh darn the formula works Every Time. Steven Universe is a show about a boy living in an idyllic seaside down with 3 crystal gems as his guardians and they are trying to keep the earth safe from the homeworld gems. As the show goes on the tightness of the storytelling and the way the show explores themes of loss and love and duty and depression all add up to a timeless gem for all ages to enjoy.
Tangled: The Series (2017-2020)
The Disney movie Tangled is one of my all-time favorite Disney movies (I’m sorry but it should’ve gotten the same accolades as Frozen, especially for the soundtrack) and when they announced a show that takes place immediately afterwards featuring the original cast I was so excited so I was going to watch it anyway. And then the show added wonderful characters and decided to look deep at how being locked away in a tower for 18 years affected Rapunzel and it skyrocketed to one of my favorites.
Adventure Time (2010-2018)
This is another stealth feelings show because I’m not sure anyone who started watching the show about a shape shifting dog and a human boy crushing on the princess of the candy kingdom expected the ride we went on. I don’t even know how to get into this without going into spoilers because the slow reveal of what the world really is is one of the pleasures of Adventure Time so I’m just going to say trust me here.
Danny Phantom (2004-2007)
“Young Danny Fenton, he was just 14 when his parent’s built a very strange machine” Does anyone else find themselves missing catchy theme songs? Anyway, I feel like Danny Phantom is the stereotypical kids show one thinks about and often dismisses. Kid gets powers and fights enemies with his friends while juggling school and sneaking around his family. It’s a formula that works and it especially works when you let your characters consistently grow from season to season and have events that take place actually mean something and have consequences which is why of the many shows like that Danny Phantom is my top pick.
Gravity Falls (2012-2016)
Many of these animated kids shows take place over years giving the characters time to grow into themselves, to make mistakes and learn from them. Gravity Falls takes place over a single summer but a key summer, the summer of the year of the teenager. 12-year-old Dipper and Mabel Pines get shipped off to their weird Great Uncle Stan’s in the town of Gravity Falls for the summer and soon discover the town is full of odd happenings. The show captures the immediacy of being 12 so well, the obsessions and the wildly changing passions and the eagerness and worries about growing up all wrapped up into a compelling mystery and some of the best characters on tv.
Proud Family (2001-2005)
There is nothing “just” about this show. Yeah Penny Proud is a teen girl with all of the typical teen girl problems but this show is unapologetically black and in an age where people prefer their diversity to be sanitized and not have to see any of the real effects of living while black or brown Proud Family is a show that deeply needs to be revisited. It’s smart and funny as hell and every single character is amazing.
The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
Ok Avatar: The Last Airbender is probably the show people expected to see on here and don’t get me wrong the story and progression of AtLA is amazing but Legend of Korra is such a good example of a show starting strong, fumbling a bit and then recovering and knocking it out of the park that I really wanted to showcase it. It also takes close looks at depression, classism, inequality in parenting, ability to trust the government, biases based on abilities and so much more all while progressing the storylines and having the characters grow into themselves. Also, it has the best endgame ship of any show.
Honorable Mentions for Animated Kids Shows: Honestly I can go on and on but you all should probably be watching some of these fantastic shows instead so I’ll just say Elena of Avalor, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Over the Garden Wall, Miraculous: The Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, Mucha Lucha, Star vs. The Forces of Evil, El Tigre, Lolirock and Batman Beyond are all personal favs worth checking out as well.