Rankings of the final decade in the Saturday Morning Cartoon era.
For our rankings of the best (and worst) of TGIF and more, visit our 2013 TV Summer Guide.
#27 Saturday Morning Cartoons
The children of 2013 face a much different Saturday morning landscape than us kids of the 1980s and 1990s. What was once four hours of multi-network cartoon and wrestling greatness has become a barren wasteland of news and paid programming. But while live-action shows like Saved by the Bell, California Dreams and even Beekman’s World flourished in the 90s, the dominating force remained the animated half hour. It was, sadly, the last decade the once-cherished but now extinct Saturday Morning Cartoon would thrive. Here are my rankings of the best the 1990s had to offer. Sorry to the Smurfs, Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, Alvin and his chipmunk siblings, Bugs Bunny and friends, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. Your multi-generational appeal eliminates you from this list. No apologies to Hammertime, Kid ‘n Play and New Kids on the Block. Your cartoons sucked.
#26 (Honorable Mention) Captain Planet and the Planeteers
This show was pretty awful, but I found myself tuning in just for the theme song. “Captain Planet, he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero. He’s our powers magnified, and he’s fighting on the planet’s side!” You know if you’re familiar with this song, it will now be stuck in your head for at least a few hours. Captain Planet was half Voltron, half anti-fracking PSA. I mean, one of the villains is a driller named Hoggish Greedly who awakens the spirit of earth with his evil corporate deeds. So she (the spirit of earth, that is) sends five rings to the United Colors of Benetton (No love for Australia!) and entrusts the wearers with the small task of defending the earth from the greatest of man-made disasters and educating mankind to prevent others from happening. Judging from the Republican view on global warming, methinks they need to once again combine their powers to summon Captain Planet. The power is yours!
#25 Dink, the Little Dinosaur
On the heels of The Land Before Time, the Emmy-nominated and Humanitas Prize for Children’s Animation-winning Dink, the Little Dinosaur followed Dink the Apatosaurus as he roamed the volcanic landscape of prehistory in a place called Green Meadow. His close-knit group of friends was made up of Amber (a big sister-type Corythosaurus), Scat (a fat, dumb, scared-yet endearing Compsognathus), Shyler (A shy Edaphosaurus, who talks in a child’s voice), Flapper (a jokester Pteranodon who constantly tries to land in water, but always fails) and, of course, Crusty (the old turtle mentor). This is the one where you’ll see the picture and say, “I totally remember that!”
#24 Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures was a spin-off of the movie and followed the misadventures of the two time-travelling slackers as they phone boothed their way through the distant past and future. You might be shocked to know that during the first season, Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin and Bernie Casey all reprised their roles from the movie. That’s how you know cartoons were serious back then. Just think of what Keanu could have done with his career if this show had lasted just a bit longer…
#23 The Addams Family
This animated series followed the release of the hit movie, but because it was geared towards children, much of the family’s macabre nature was toned down. Uncle Fester, however, still loved explosives and light bulbs. Plot lines were geared around the family living in (but not quite fitting in) the bright, cheerful town of Happydale Heights. The usually faced some kind of threat from a series of recurring villains who either wanted the Addams out of their ‘hood or to capture one of them for nefarious purposes.
#22 Wish Kid Starring Macaulay Culkin
If you haven’t picked up on the recurring theme of the last few shows (and it doesn’t stop here), it was very popular in the late 80s and early 90s to develop the cartoon around the star, and not vice versa. You make a hit movie, we’ll find you a cartoon. Home Alone is a box office phenomenon? How about a kid who catches a shooting star in his baseball glove, which then grants him wishes (when punched three times)? Not so much. But his wishes had a shelf life, and after his major league pitching arm gave out, he simply loaded a pitching gun into his sleeve and struck out the side. Don’t worry, Macaulay. There’s always Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. And crack. But that’s for another decade.
#21 Eek! The Cat
Eek was an adorable purple kitty who always put others first and whose motto was, “it never hurts to help.” Unfortunately, this attitude generally got him into trouble. In addition to Eek’s girlfriend Annabelle, the show wins bonus points for Sharky the Sharkdog, tons of movie and pop culture references and a Christmas special written almost entirely in rhyme.
#20 Gravedale High
Rick Moranis, of Ghostbusters and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids fame, teaching in a school for monsters? Where do I enroll? Gravedale High revolved around the misadventures of one Max Schneider after he unwittingly took a job teaching a group of ghoulish teens. Think of it as Renaissance Man, but instead of Danny DeVito teaching Army slackers, it’s Rick Moranis teaching a Fonzie-vampire, a Bart Simpson-Frankenstein, a geeky ginger werewolf, a rich gnome, a surfer dude-lagoon monster, a fat mummy (voiced by Ricki Lake! Named Cleofatra!!), an invisible student, a zombie southern belle, a snake-haired Valley girl, a centaur, a blob (named Blobby), a human fly, an elephant boy, a hunchback, a mutant, a gargoyle jock, a dog boy, a pig girl and a cyclops. Got all that? Don’t you want to watch it right now?
#19 Back to the Future
Hit movie (or in this case a trilogy of hit movies) = Saturday morning cartoon! Taking place after Back to the Future Part III (but also existing in its own, unrelated universe, meaning it’s not related to the general continuity of the series), Doc Brown settles in 1991 Hill Valley with his wife Clara, sons Jules and Verne and, of course, pooch Einstein. The series revolves mostly around Marty McFly and the Brown family, with other characters making guest appearances, and not only do they time travel using the steam engine, but they also use a NEW DeLorean that has voice-activated time circuits and folds up into a suitcase. It’s a flux capacitor AND a Transformer!
#18 Camp Candy
Mr. Everything John Candy not only voices the main character, who runs the summer camp and teaches the children, he even sings the theme song (the best part!) Pretty much every episode starts out with Candy trying to show an outdoor skill to some kids, which reminds him of a story he then tells to us (and the campers). The main antagonist is Rex DeForest III, who wants to demolish Camp Candy in order to make way for a condominium.
Based on the — ta da! — hit movie, this cartoon was actually developed and executive-produced by film director Tim Burton. Instead of the Alec Baldwin-Gena Davis characters, this series focused more on the life of goth girl Lydia Deetz and her undead friend Beetlejuice as they explored a wacky afterlife-realm called The Neitherworld. Unlike the movie, Beetlejuice and Lydia are best friends, with the social misfit-latter frequently visiting the former during her free time. It won the 1990 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program, tying with The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (which would have made this list had poor Winnie been eligible).
What could be better than superstars from all four major professional sports coming together to fight crime and help children? I always consider myself lucky that I got to watch Michael Jordan play basketball during my lifetime, which kids today will never understand (Thanks for telling me about Havlicek and Cousy and Wilt, dad!). But how amazed am I that I got to watch a cartoon Jordan team up Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson (he of two-sport fame) to put bad guys behind bars AND help the environment? Eh.
#15 Life with Louie
Can’t get enough Louie Anderson, said no one, anywhere, ever. But still, Life with Louie was surprisingly endearing and a hidden gem of 90s cartoons. The show is based on the childhood of the stand-up comedian, growing up with his family in Wisconsin. It won two Emmys and was nominated for five more, and it also won the Humanitas Prize for Children’s Animation three times, which is more than for any other series.
#14 Captain N and the Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3
Call it the Nintendo hour, if you like, even if it didn’t last as long as it should have. Still, it was the pinnacle of Saturday Morning Cartoons for this video game-obsessed kid in the early 90s. The Super Mario Bros. portion, as you’d expect, was based on the video game. But Captain N, oh how I wanted to be Captain N. California teen and gamer Kevin Keene and his dog Duke are whisked into his television through the “Ultimate Warp Zone” to another universe called Videoland. In order to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Kevin is destined to become the hero “Captain N: The Game Master” and save Videoland from evil forces led by Metroid’s Mother Brain. Kevin, with a Zapper and a belt buckle shaped like an NES controller, teams up with Princess Lana, Simon Belmont, Mega Man and Kid Icarus to save Videoland. Also appearing are The Count, Dr. Light, Link, Princess Zelda and a HUMAN-SIZED GAME BOY. Best show EVER!
#13 Darkwing Duck
The only direct spinoff from Ducktales (which might be #1 if we were just ranking 90s cartoons), Darkwing Duck features the eponymous anthropomorphic duck superhero whose alter ego is mild-mannered single quacker Drake Mallard (a parody of Kent Allard, the alter ego of the Shadow). His sidekick is wacky pilot Launchpad McQuack, and he lives in an unassuming suburban house with his adopted daughter Gosalyn. Like most superheroes, Darkwing struggles to balance his egotistical craving for fame and attention against his desire to be a good father.
#12 Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears
The series was the first animated production by Walt Disney Animation Television and is mostly remembered for its awesome “bouncing here and there and everywhere” theme song (yes, it is on my iPod). It also baaaaarely qualified for these rankings, as new episodes aired mostly in the 80s. But it fizzled out in the TV listings in 1990, and thus it is included. The Gummi Bears have a long and rich history and are relatively unknown to humans, who believe them to exist as legend only. In ancient times, the Gummis and humans lived peacefully together, but for reasons left undetailed (it is suggested that the more malevolent humans had been craving the magical and mechanical advancements of the Gummi Bears, and of course, their famed Gummi-Berry Juice), the Gummis grew a grudge against the humans. The ancient Gummis left behind small, scattered populations of bears, such as the main group of the series, the Gummi-Glen Gummis.
#11 The Tick
Easily the greatest superhero parody of all time. The Tick began as a comic book, but some changes were made to bring the character to a child-aged audience. Rather than being an asylum escapee, the animated version of The Tick crashes a superhero convention and wins the “protectorship” of the city. The series featured a shallow, self-absorbed Batman parody named Die Fledermaus, a Rain Man-like Aquaman named Sewer Urchin and a superheroine comprised of Wonder Woman and Captain America named American Maid. The Tick would bumble around with his villain before sidekick Arthur devised a plan to save the day. While designed for kids, the show picked up a pretty loyal cult following of older teens, young adults and full-growns, too.
#10 The Real Ghostbusters
Easily the best cartoon adaptation of a movie on this list, The Real Ghostbusters captured the acerbic wit of the characters as well as the cuddly cuteness of Slimer and the other ghosts. Remember Ecto Cooler? The series continued the adventures of paranormal investigators Dr. Peter Venkman, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore and secretary Janine Melnitz as they chased and captured rogue spirits around New York and various other areas of the world. Celebrity voices included Dave Coulier (Peter) and Arsenio Hall (Winston).
The first Marvel superhero to crack the list, Spider-Man was one of the most popular Saturday Morning Cartoons of all time. It focused on Spider-Man and alter ego Peter Parker during his college years. As the story begins, Peter has already gained his superpowers and is a part-time freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle. The show features classic villains like Kingpin, the Green Goblin, the Lizard, the Scorpion, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Shocker, the Rhino, the Vulture, the Chameleon and Venom, as well as love interests Mary Jane Watson, Felicia Hardy and her alter ego, the Black Cat. There were also appearances from the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Daredevil, Blade, Doctor Strange, the Punisher and Captain America. The series was the second longest-running Marvel show and the longest-running series based on Spider-Man. Its cancellation was not due to ratings trouble, but disagreements between executives and the network.
#8 Tiny Toon Adventures
Welcome to Acme Acres, where Tiny Toons like Buster Bunny, Babs, Plucky and Hamton J. Pig attend Acme Looniversity, whose esteemed faculty is made up of the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd. And you can’t forget the show’s two human villains, Elmyra Duff and Montana Max, who are also are students. The university was founded to teach toons how to be funny, and many of the jokes parody and references the current events of the early 1990s and Hollywood culture. Presented by Steven Spieldberg, Tiny Toons was a much-hyped big deal for kids when it premiered in prime time. During its award-winning run (seven of eight Daytime Emmy wins and one Emmy nomination), Tiny Toons aired new episodes during weekdays and on Saturday mornings.
#7 Muppet Babies
Ever wonder what it would be like if the Muppet characters all grew up together in a large nursery, watched over by pseudo-attentive human woman called Nanny who allows their hyperactive imaginations to run wild as they embark on adventures into imaginary worlds? Well, wonder no more! A classic Saturday Morning Cartoon from the mid 80s through the early 90s, we all grew up watching Muppet Babies. And not only was it popular, but the show was also a critical success during its time on the air. Muppet Babies won four consecutive Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Animated Program and a Humanitas Prize for Children’s Animation. With pint-sized versions of all the famous characters (as well as Nanny’s pink skirt, purple sweater and distinctive green and white striped socks), the Muppet Babies constantly found creative ways to entertain themselves (and us!) and learn to work together to solve problems and survive their wild-imagined adventures.
#6 Garfield and Friends
Garfield and Friends’ was a Saturday staple for seven seasons, making it one of the longest-running Saturday Morning Cartoons in history. In addition to the usual Garfield-John-Odie-Nermal segments, Garfield’s “friends” — pig Orson, cocky rooster Roy, cowardly duck Wade, affable sheep Bo, tiny chick Booker and egg Sheldon — got some playing time at U.S. Acres. And while the farm sideshow segments were funny and the characters endearing, we all watched for Garfield more than the “Friends.”
Oh holy crap, an X-Men cartoon was a dream come true for recently-turned 12-year-old me. My favorite comic book turned into my favorite Saturday Morning Cartoon? Yes please! I’ll even watch it after I’m way too old to be watching Saturday Morning Cartoons (and after writing this, I’m really tempted to start watching it on Netflix). The series walked through several of the actual comic book plot lines featuring Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, Beast, Gambit, Jubilee, Jean Grey and Professor X. Also making appearances were Colossus, Nightcrawler, Emma Frost, Forge, Havok, Polaris, Cannonball, Banshee, Northstar, Iceman, Archangel, Longshot, Dazzler, Sunfire, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Psylocke, Cable and Bishop, Feral, Rictor, Deadpool, Punisher, War Machine, Ghost Rider, Mimic, Blink, Doctor Strange, Ms. Marvel, Captain America, Thor, Nick Fury, G.W. Bridge and Spider-Man. This also might have been around the same time I had my first wet dream.
#4 Animaniacs/Pinky and the Brain
Animaniacs ended up replacing Tiny Toons, with Pinky and the Brain spinning off into its own series. While Tiny Toons was a hit with the younger audience and some adult viewers, Animaniacs took it to a whole new level. The writers used the experience gained from the first series to create new characters with an even wider appeal and included comedic educational segments that covered subjects such as history, mathematics, geography, astronomy, science and social studies, often in musical form. Animaniacs itself was a sort-of variety show, with short skits featuring a large cast of characters.
Pinky and the Brain, genetically enhanced lab mice who live in a cage inside Acme Labs, first appeared as a recurring segment on the show before eventually spinning off. Brain is intent on taking over the world, while Pinky is good natured but feebleminded. In each episode, Brain devises a new plan for world domination, which ultimately ends in failure. In addition to being geared towards kids, the show developed a cult following really unseen for a Saturday Morning Cartoon. It was the kind of comedy that people of all ages could enjoy.
#3 Batman: The Animated Series
I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge DC Comics fan. I’ve always been a Marvel guy who dabbled into DC, never really able to turn my back on Superman and Batman. But real people with mutations in real cities vs. superheroes from other imaginary planets? What can I say, I’m a sucker for realism. But even I had to admit the genius that was Batman: The Animated Series. It’s telling that if you Google “Batman the,” with all the different incarnations of the Dark Knight over the decades, the Animated Series is the second thing that comes up. The visual style of the series was dubbed “Dark Deco,” meaning it was a kids’ cartoon that embodied the film noir artwork that doesn’t usually translate to that target audience. The storytelling was superb, the themes were more adult-oriented than previous superhero cartoons (with depictions of outright physical violence and the use of realistic firearms) and the supporting cast included Mark Hamill as the Joker. The series also won four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Animated Program.
#2 Bobby’s World
The superhero shows don’t always have cross-gender appeal, but let’s give Howie Mandel credit for the best thing he’s ever done not named Little Monsters. Mandel created the show, based in part on his own childhood, and voiced the title character Bobby Generic and his dad Howard. The show chronicles Bobby’s daily life and how he sees the world through his very overactive imagination. Other topics and characters were based on the childhoods of co-producers and other behind-the-scenes employees, including Uncle Ted. The show was funny, particularly 4-year-old Bobby’s literal interpretations of what adults around him said. Bonus points that John Tesh composed the theme song.
#1 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
As far as I’m concerned, this is the undisputed king of Saturday Morning Cartoons during my childhood. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael were so popular that even after a shift to weekdays, the show began a secondary run on Saturday mornings as a 60-minute block with initial back-to-back exclusive episodes. The show helped launch the characters into the mainstream and became one of the most popular animated series in television history. The cartoon, loosely based on a much darker comic book, spawned a breakfast cereal, plush toys and all manner of products and media, including a feature film that was actually pretty good (Let’s not get started on Vanilla Ice and The Secret of the Ooze, which we anxiously saw in the theater on opening night). The series lasted 10 seasons and 193 episodes (with numerous incarnations to follow), and I dare you to find me anyone in their late 20s/early 30s who can’t at least hum the theme song (or name all four famed painter/sculptures for who turtles are named).