Recently, I went on a binge of rewatching a lot of shows that I had seen as a child, drinking them all in, comparing them to everything I had ever seen on the small screen. And sure enough, certain gems shone out at me, not just memories of things I enjoyed as a kid, but shows that even now, I find myself in awe at the sheer levels of wonder they evoke in me. In many ways, a lot of these cartoons are more powerful now I can appreciate the subtleties that the writers and directors took in creating the series that as a kid, I never noticed. (Not to mention the dirty jokes. My GOD, the dirty jokes...)
I took to thinking...what precisely was it that made these shows so great, that made me, make me care so much.
So, to discuss this, I'd like to take a moment to discuss just a few of my favourite animated series, and discuss what precisely about them made them work so well, what I feel made them as good as they really were.
First up on my list is a show that sometimes I'm amazed was ever made. Batman Beyond, a show set in the far future of the DC Universe. Despite this show airing years before I ever got into comic books, I was of course familiar with Batman, the masked powerless vigilante who fought to keep Gotham safe out of the memory of his dead parents. But none of that prepares a kid for the brilliance that is Batman Beyond. Everything about this show is good. The animation is superb, the writing is top notch, the voice acting is fantastic, with the lead actor Will Friedle bringing the character of Terry McGinnis to life in such a way that his character seemed to almost ooze out of every sentence he spoke, while Kevin Conroy returned to his old role of Bruce Wayne...yet managing to convey the age and experiences, defining him so distinctly from his youthful counterpart from Batman:TAS that I actually had to check to see if it was actually him. But none of that stuff is what made the show into the marvel that I find it to be. No, that rests with the world of Neo-Gotham, created from essentially whole cloth, this decaying, dingy urban centre easily conveyed the poverty, the crime, the loss of hope that made Batman neccesary. This series, more then any other, created a world that made me think that a superhero was needed for more then just beating up bad guys. When the Chris Nolan Batman films talk about Batman as a symbol, as being more then just a man in a mask, I honestly think of this show, and how even without ever directly stating it, they managed to plant that mentality into my mind. This show was Batman+Blade Runner. If that's not enough of a motivation to check it out, I don't know what is.
Continuing the theme of Comic book Superhero cartoons, we have something from an entirely opposite end of the spectrum. Justice League, and its sequel Justice League Unlimited. Where Batman Beyond was dark and gritty, these shows managed to shine a light so bright, some episodes can put a smile on my face just thinking about them. Justice League was among the only Superhero team shows that ever seemed to get the balance of focus right, allowing all the characters time to shine throughout the season. At the same time, the writers weren't afraid to leave a character out of an episode if the story wouldn't be helped by their presence. They balanced an ensemble cast excellently. At the same time, despite the show having a much more comedic and four-colour heroics style then Batman Beyond, it was never afraid to tackle mature storylines, and it didn't feel the need to treat its audience like children. Villains attempted to nuke the entire earth. Not some other planet, and not destroy it with some never again mentioned doomsday device, but literally destroy the entire planet with radioactive fire. Not only that, the show featured a literal on screen lobotomy, with the characters reacting to the this in a realistic and believeable fashion. Details like that made the stakes of the episode feel real and, combined with top choregraphy for its many, excellent fight scenes and its consistent, logical character development that continued to the very end of the show, this cartoon is one that I will happily watch any episode of any day of the week.
Next up, and one of the few cartoons on my list that doesn't involve superheroes, is Godzilla: The Animated Series. This cartoon grew out of the loathed Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie that was made during the 90s, and to my mind, the existence of this show is almost good enough to make that movie worthwhile.
In any case, set after the film, it followed the adventures of the films main protagonist, plus a few other humans as they seek to fight other enormous kaiju, not to mention aliens, evil industrialists, etcetera. And how do they accomplish this, you ask? They raise the resultant offspring from the egg shown at the very end of the Godzilla movie to work with them. That's right, they had an entire two season cartoon of Godzilla beating the everloving crap out of a different monster each episode. At the same time, the human cast got plenty of development and charaterisation, with some very human interactions. If you're a fan of the original japanese Godzilla movies, I couldn't recommend this show more, not only does it have superb animation on the monster fights (which are fantastic) it's even acknowledged as exceptional by the original creator of Godzilla. And you can't say fairer then that.
Zorro Generation Z, the next show I'm gonna talk about is...well, objectively this show is not the greatest, and I'll admit it's easily the weakest on this list. However, even so, it does demonstrate some features that are near unique in the shows of its day. An bizarre mix of Zorro updated to align better with the superhero cartoons of the time, Zorro Generation Z was an incredibly fun show that went out of its way to make a show about a rich teenage descendant of Zorro fighting crime with a laser sword/whip/blaster/whatever the plot needed be as real as possible. It avoided people healing at ridiculous speeds, it often showed the severe effects of some of the more evil schemes happening and it. On the other hand...they did have cops with Tanks. Not Armed Guard or whatever, actual cops. That one was always a bit weird. But where this show really excelled was its characters. The protagonists were exception, from Zorro, who in both his identities was incredibly well voice acted and developed, to my favourite character: Bernard. Bernard was the best friend of Zorro, and the brains behind most of his advanced technology, as well as acting as a form of mission control. What set him apart from other shows "geeky best friend of the hero" was that he was mute. And this wasn't treated like some kind of quirk or amusing fact to be mentioned once and played for laughs a few times. It was a surprisingly accurate representation of mutism in media, one which I have not the like of since.
The final show I'm going to talk about, and my absolute favourite cartoon to this day is the Canadian Class of The Titans. This show remains to this day the singular best example of an ensemble cast I have ever seen, focusing on not just its seven core cast but also giving plenty of screentime to its wealthy cast of secondary characters. The show followed the emergence of CRONUS, GOD OF TIME! into our world, after having been imprisoned by the Greek Gods in Tartarus for several millenia. And boy is he annoyed. With the gods powers waning after all this time, the oracle, (disguised as a newspaper vendor) reveals a prophecy that Cronus can only be defeated by seven teenagers, each the descendant of great Greek Heroes, embodying their powers. The show kept the focus equally divided over its 52 episodes between all of the characters ensuring that no matter who your favourite was, you'd get to see plenty of them. Each episode was a nice blend of action, comedy and interpersonal drama, and the show excelled in all of them. The action scenes were well written, well animated and by and large varied substantially each episode. As a fan of Power Rangers for most of my life, seeing a show like this have an incredible action scene each episode (almost always more then one) this was a dream come true for me. The comedy was probably the weakest element of the three, but by no means subpar, as a lot of the humour came from the personality clash of the cast. In my personal opinion, however, the shows real strong point was the writing of each of the cast. Often in shows like this, certain characters would be overshadowed to the point where all you could remember about others would be the barest idea of a personality. In this show, each character got several episodes focusing on them, and would almost always have something to do in episodes that weren't about them. Often, a characters best done development would be in episodes that had little to nothing do with them in terms of focus. The real masterstroke of this show was that it showed seven different, yet incredibly believeable reactions to being thrown into a world of monsters and gods and superpowers, then show those reactions change. Not to mention, this show was dark. The main villain wasn't looking to defeat the protagonists, he was trying to murder them. He wanted vengeance, and was willing to do whatever it took to get it. So that was Class of the Titans: come for the awesome fights, stay for the superlative characters.
Any way, those are my five top picks of shows I recommend people check out if you ever get the chance. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go watch some cartoons. Till next time.