2011 is just about finished and I’d say it has been an excellent year for animation. There’s been a lot of variety in programming and technique this year, and while most of the shows on this list didn’t begin in 2011, they either hit their stride or struck episodic gold this year.
These are my picks for the 3 best animated programs of the year… but first, the runners up.
Like most of the shows in the “Honorable Mentions” category, Cartoon Network’s big budget reboot of Rankin-Bass’s ThunderCats falls just short of “Best” qualifications due to only a few setbacks. Before I talk about those, though, I want to talk about why this show has been great.
ThunderCats takes place on the world of Third Earth, where races of anthropomorphic animals war for territory and, I dunno, magic or some other ill-defined objective. Lion-O is the prince of Thundera, the most powerful nation on Third Earth… at least until the forces of Mumm-Ra conquer and destroy it using a new menace called “technology”. Joining with the survivors of Thundera (Cheetara, Panthro, Tygra, Wily-Kat, Wily-Kit and, uh, Snarf), Lion-O searches Third Earth for three magical stones necessary to defeat Mumm-Ra, learning the origins of his people along the way.
As a reboot, it strikes that necessary chord between “familiar” and “fresh”, bringing in all the elements fans of the 80s series recognize while adding new twists on the old concepts as well as completely original ideas. It compresses certain plot points that were either needlessly convoluted or simply haven’t withstood the test of time (instead of the Mutants and the Thunderians being from different planets and crashing on another different planet, they’re warring races on a single world). The voice acting is solid (even if a few of the villains, namely Slithe and Mumm-Ra, fall short of their predecessors) and there’s a stronger connection between the cast, who all have deeper individual motivations and more sincere personalities.
Also, the show is really, really expensive-looking.
But what keeps it from being the best would be a matter of pacing. The show is just all over the place and the ongoing narrative is very poorly focused. The ThunderCats will be traversing Third Earth, having one-off adventures with the weird inhabitants of that fantasy-themed planet with nary a mention of the overarcing conflict… then all of a sudden, everything important will happen all at once. In one episode. Then they will go back to the world-building (which is really fun, I’ll admit) for another few episodes then BAM! Everything important happens in one episode. While I love the way they’re fleshing out the bizarreness of Third Earth with each standalone episode, the story elements that actually matter are rushed in hasty introductions to fit 22 minutes, rather than taking advantage of the long-term benefits of a serialized plot.
And Cartoon Network’s constant mid-season hiatuses haven’t helped. Maybe the show is too expensive-looking?
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Aw Hell, here we go…
Look, I think as adults we can sometimes forget that cartoons are targeted more often than not at children, and some are targeted at very *young* children. Some cartoons, such as My Little Pony, are even geared toward elementary school-aged girls! Crazy, I know. It doesn’t make them bad cartoons if they’re out of our demographic as twenty or thirty-somethings; they’re just geared for a different audience. What’s important as objective adult viewers, then is to see how these shows treat the intelligence of the tykes they’re aimed at. I’m happy to say that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic bucks a trend that’s been going strong since the 80s, choosing not to write for little girls as if they were all little morons.
Created by Lauren Faust of Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends fame, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic follows egghead asocial pony Twilight Sparkle (sigh) as she is ordered by Princess Celestia (sigh) to travel to the Podunk village of Ponyville (sigh) to learn about the magic of friendship (SIGH). She often does this by battling rogue moon goddesses, pony-eating dragons, manticores and hydras as well as the occasional spirit of chaos-incarnate voiced by John de Lancie from Star Trek: The Next Generation (wha?).
This current iteration of My Little Pony is a show I can appreciate on principle. It’s very smartly written, featuring the same rapid-fire, often-cynical and occasionally obscure jokes that made Faust’s Cartoon Network productions so enjoyable for all ages and genders. It doesn’t take the low road of treating the young audience like they’re imbeciles, which a LOT of cartoons geared at kids tend to do, and you can tell that the people making the show put a lot of genuine care in their craft. It’s one of the best-looking Flash-animated cartoons I have ever seen and it has a strong-yet-small voice cast.
What keeps it from being the best is that, well, it’s got a very narrow demographic. As funny and charming and nicely animated as it is, Hasbro’s My Little Pony toyline is still marketed toward girls and that sort of kills its appeal to a broader audience (at least among younger boys who don’t want to get beat-up on the playground). And before you bring up the topic of “bronies” (adult male fans of the show that border on obsession), they’re actually the second reason I couldn’t slot this series in the “best” category. Thanks to the overexposure and forced meme-ing of Friendship is Magic on the internet, it has become a series that can never live up to its own exaggerated hype. Plus, those people are just plain creepy. Avoid Deviant Art at all costs.
Other honorable mentions go to The Looney Tunes Show, Transformers: Prime and G.I. Joe: Renegades, which were all excellent shows with only a few glaring faults holding them back from my top 3. As a matter of fact, I think The Hub wins overall for best line-up of cartoons in 2011, even if only one of their programs made it to my top 3.
The 3 Best Cartoons of 2011
Dan Vs. was a show I just sort of stumbled upon while waiting for Transformers or G.I. Joe reruns on Hasbro’s new network, The Hub. Though I was initially turned off by the less than stellar Flash animation, the writing, characters, cast and weird plot of the show quickly drew me in. Now, I’m proud to say I haven’t missed an episode.
Dan Vs. follows a bitter guy named Dan (voiced by Curtis Armstrong), who takes everything personally and never, ever lets go of a grudge. Any seemingly innocuous slight will ignite Dan’s rage, setting into motion one elaborate revenge fantasy after another. Helping him are his pushover friend, Chris (Dave Foley) and Chris’s secret agent wife, Elise (Paget Brewster).
Although it sounds like a show with a concept that would wear thin after only a few episodes, Dan Vs. stays surprisingly sharp from episode to episode. It has a lot to do with the variety of foes Dan wages his vendettas against. Sometimes it’s direct villains, like a crooked dentist or a rude fast food manager, while more often than not, he has to figure out how to get revenge on vague and intangible foes, like “New Mexico”, “traffic” or “the beach”. The insane schemes he concocts to get even with stuff like “technology” or “the ghost of George Washington” are interesting and hilarious enough to keep you there for the full 22 minutes.
What really struck me about Dan Vs. was the sense of humor prevalent in the show. It’s aimed at adults without being inaccessible to younger viewers, either. The language rarely exceeds expletives on par with “crap” and any off-color jokes are either subtly delivered or wrapped in references kids wouldn’t get. And yet, the show is “mature” without resorting to the most juvenile definition of the word, instead being mature through the sheer quality of the writing and subject matter. They’ll joke about things that would never be joked about in a children’s cartoon (“Of course Santa is real. Read your Bible!”) and reference subjects that’d fly over the heads of younger kids (“I don’t care if you sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus; give me my refund!”). If anything, it reminds me of the early 90s era of “The Simpsons” or its contemporary adult cartoons like The Critic, where the humor was aimed at grown-ups but did so by being genuinely clever rather than overtly crass and gross.
The Flash animation is probably the show’s biggest setback, but it improves as the series progresses. And though the characters can be somewhat two-dimensional and stiff in appearance, the backgrounds have a great deal of depth and detail while the action is storyboarded with a lot of energy, masking the inadequacies of the chosen animation medium. When I say “Flash animation”, I don’t mean garbage like Johnny Test or Kappa Mikey.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
This one almost didn’t make the list because, the season having finished six months ago and no new episodes until next year, I nearly forgot about it. However, reminding myself that it existed also had the benefit of reminding me just how damn good this show was and why it really shined as one of the best action cartoons of 2011.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is all about the Avengers, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Don’t worry, you’ll get pretty well-acquainted with them next year when Marvel unleashes its marketing blitz for the upcoming film. Anyway, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Ant Man, the Wasp, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Black Panther and jeez, is that all of them? They band together to battle the various super villains menacing the world, but mostly Manhattan because that’s the only part of the Marvel Universe that matters. Evildoers like Kang the Conquerer, Ultron, MODOK and Loki all seek to conquer or destroy the Earth, but not if these valuable corporate intellectual properties have anything to say about it!
After watching the introductory collection of “micro-episodes” followed by the complete first season, Avengers felt to me like Saban’s X-Men cartoon from the early 90s, only done, you know… well. It weaves together a number of character-based plotlines and major event arcs from the comics, but does it with more finesse than most Marvel cartoons I’ve seen, adjusting those classic stories to fit this new interpretation of the characters without losing the value of those tales or altering them to the point of being unrecognizable. There are multiple plot lines going on all at once, bombarding the heroes with conflict after conflict whilst never overwhelming the audience with “too much story”.
Plus, unlike the X-Men or Spider-Man cartoons I grew up with, the animation in this show is pretty damn good.
For long-time fans of the Avengers or the individual characters that make up the roster, the show is an absolute joy to watch, with Easter eggs and references thrown in on top of the popular stories being adapted for the program (the entire “jailbreak” from the beginning of the series will hit you with so many cameos your head will spin). In a way, it’s a lot like DC’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold in that any character or storyline, regardless of age or obscurity, is ripe for the picking (just swapping out the Silver Age fun for a less whacky but equally entertaining sense of humor.)
While you might be getting a little sick of it in reruns for the better part of a year, it was still a fantastic series with healthy 1st season run of episodes and micro-episodes (none of that 13 episodes then a five month-long “mid season” hiatus bullshit.)
Adventure Time (with Finn and Jake)
What time is it? Time for you to all start yawning because you saw this pick coming. Hey, I’m not here to shock, but to say which cartoon I felt was the best one of the whole year and that would be Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.
Finn the Human and Jake the Dog (who can stretch and change shape) live in the Land of Ooo which is apparently a post-Apocalyptic Earth but I don’t think anyone in the show cares about that. Together, they go on weird adventures spanning the epic to the mundane, treating every threat with an indescribable mixture of nonchalance and unbridled enthusiasm. Joining them are Princess Bubblegum, Marceline the Vampire Queen and a host of other weirdos.
Though it began mid last year, the season and a half that ran in 2011 really boasted the lion’s share of amazing episodes from this hugely imaginative, bizarre, exciting and just really damn funny animated series. Adventure Time is a show that runs on pure imagination rather than an excess of internal logic, so anything is possible so long as the writers think it might be funny. The Land of Ooo is an ill-defined world of magic, technology and surreal freakiness that can facilitate any adventure at any moment, no matter the trappings.
The variety in the show is one of its best qualities, as it gleefully bounces back and forth between over-the-top action and day-to-day activities with a twist. For instance, many episodes will feature heroes Finn and Jake navigating dungeons, battling gladiators in tournaments or rescuing princesses from an evil pedophile, while just as many will follow them as they try to get a horse to stop staring at them so they can go to sleep or film a movie for their weekly video club. And yet, the “boring” episodes have just as much insanity to them as the more adventure-oriented ones. One episode in particular centers around the main characters’ home becoming infested with imaginary enemies, and thus is nothing but 7 minutes of Finn fighting invisible bad guys… yet the humor and action are so compelling you don’t lose any of the energy for lack of visuals.
And the visuals are another thing worth praising. The backgrounds are so lush and filled with personality and details that you actually do feel drawn into the made-up world of this cartoon, as there’s a weird sort of sincerity and authenticity to the whole thing. There’s also a waving snail hidden somewhere in each episode, so you have to carefully inspect every scene to find him. Gives you something to do during the reruns!
One thing I think a lot of older fans will dig is that Adventure Time seems to have been inspired quite a bit by dungeon-crawling video games such as The Legend of Zelda. Numerous episodes feature Finn and Jake traversing subterranean mazes and temples, solving puzzles and fighting monsters, and much of it feels like it stepped right out of Ocarina of Time or what have you (switches on the floor they have to drag blocks onto, keys to open doors hidden inside monsters they have to defeat, etc). The enthusiasm of Finn and Jake, who enter these dungeons just for the fun of it, coupled with their absolute lack of concern for the value of their own lives, helps to drive the whole “video game” thing home.
And more than all of that, Adventure Time is funny. The sense of humor in the show can occasionally border on the excessively “random” (like the worst moments of “Invader Zim”), but there’s something for everyone and many of the gags are written on levels for different audiences. It’s one of those shows I wish had been around when I was a kid.