Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Greatest Animated Series of All Time

Here is my list of the greatest animated series of all time. Note that since yours truly is definitely a child of the early '90s, my pop culture tastes will reflect that. This all began when I skimmed through IGN's list of the top 100 animated series of all time and found it deeply lacking. Thus, I endeavored to compile my own list, reflecting reality as I see it. Those assholes at IGN did a dreadful job with their one hundred slots. For some reason, they decided to fill it with tons of lame stuff from the 70s. Seriously, what the fuck is DangerMouse? And the Smurfs? Goddamn lunatics. Well, without further ado...

1. The Simpsons
Oh c'mon, you knew this was gonna be at the top. It's obvious. Don't deny it cause it's popular (despite the decline in quality over the years). The Simpsons defined mainstream network cartoons. Sure, I didn't immediately think of it either, but that's because when we think of cartoons, we generally think of saturday morning or afternoon fare. The Simpsons on the other hand is clearly late night adult entertainment. The great granddaddy of stuff we all take for granted now like South Park, Futurama, Adult Swim, and yes, Family Guy. Bart Simpson was the rebel without a cause for an entire generation of young people and "Eat my shorts" was enshrined in pop culture forever. While it's steadily gone down the shitter after season 9, we can always look back at those cherished reruns when Mindy was seducing Homer with room service and Bart still made prank phone calls to Moe's.

2. ExoSquad
The greatest sci-fi war epic of all time, in saturday morning cartoon format. ExoSquad was no funny series of hijinks and misunderstandings. Nor a treasure trove of pop culture references randomly inserted throughout. It was simply a dramatic and at times brutal account of the Second Neo Sapien War. For a saturday morning cartoon, this show took risks. Characters you'd grown to know and love could and would die. Entire populations were brought to starvation and slavery in concentration camps. And the most frightening aspect of all... mankind had pretty much brought this on itself. We were responsible for creating our own conquerors, the genetically engineered Neo Sapiens. Slaves who were now our slavemasters.

The show basically took World War II and transported it into the 22nd century, with sci-fi exoskeletons known as Exo-Frames. Basically, all the cool aspects of Starship Troopers, but with a much more relatable conflict. Instead of just blowing away anonymous bugs, we were fighting our own bitter creations, who were politically ruled by a megalomaniacal tyrant named Phaeton. I'll never forget the first season episode "The Brood" in which the ExoFleet, returning to Earth to liberate it from the occupying Neo Sapiens, ended up being overwhelmed by two Neo Sapien fleets. The flagship Resolute going down in flames as its lifeboats shot out and were blown apart by hostile fire is probably one of the most traumatic images of my childhood. Sure, I'd seen the Reliant get blown apart by the Enterprise in "Wrath of Khan" before then, but that was a ship full of escaped criminals and villains. They were trash. Seeing the Resolute, flagship of the entire Exofleet, the pride and joy of Admiral Winfield, slowly get ripped apart by laser fire and then explode with the traitorous Captain Marcus aboard invoked a curious mixture of horror, despair, and wonderment.

Now that I've grown up, I actually find that I can appreciate the series more, which is rarely the case with these saturday morning cartoons. But it's only now in my adult life that I find myself recognizing the subtle touches of the writers, like the state of the Neo Sapien people in the first few episodes resembling the state of Germany before World War 2. Or the problem of human collaborators working with the Neo Sapien occupation, just like the Vichy regime of France.

Here's a quote that I've found especially memorable. Only a mere taste of the excellence embued in this animated masterpiece.

Thrax: "I used to worry how I would face the end. Would I go bravely like a soldier? But let me tell you something, Neo Mega, it's life itself that matters, not how it ends. Each moment is a precious gift, if only we have the courage to accept it. That is where our duty lies, not in taking life, but in living it."

3. TaleSpin
Disney's Afternoon Block was king in my after-school entertainment schedule. Two solid hours of animation, followed by the segue into Full House. And of all the excellent animated shows on that block, none has stuck with me like TaleSpin. Sure, you might be wondering to yourself WTF Disney was thinking with this concept... taking the characters of The Jungle Book and sticking them into a prewar 1930's seaside city named Cape Suzette? Baloo the bear piloting a cargo plane? Shere Khan the tiger as some corporate mogul who scratches his wooden armrest all the time?

While a bit odd at first glance, this dynamic absolutely worked in execution. Baloo was just as lovable an oaf as Homer Simpson, while his supporting cast of Kit Cloudkicker, Wildcat, and Rebecca Cunngingham were equally as entertaining and charismatic. And the 1930s Americana setting was warm and rich with interesting embellishments. G.I. Joe might have had their ground based fortresses but who didn't want an Iron Vulture as a child? It was the ultimate airborne war vessel, IMO.

I can easily name off dozens of memorable episodes which seemed to have that same old Disney magic which made the Mouse company a household name. My favorite one is probably the episode where Baloo and his friend Louie go off in search of treasure and a date with a damsel in distress in this ancient lost city of scarabs and magical wind chimes. The whole thing was quite sinister with the gigantic scarab gates of the desert city, while the alluring female archeologist probably turned me into a furry momentarily. Kinda felt like a lost Indiana Jones movie, honestly.

But hey, that's just one episode. What about the one where the air pirates build an enormous mirror in the sea to confuse and crash airplanes? Or the one where Baloo loses his memory and befriends a guardian angel? Or the one where gangsters hijack the Spruce Moose? Or the one where Howard Huge builds an enormous airwing out of the parts of various airplanes? Or the one where Kit frees a giant whale? Or the one where Wildcat finds a lost world of dinosaurs? Or the one where Kit goes off and joins a Soviet cadre? Or the one where Baloo competes against a robot pilot, the future of aviation? Or the one where Rebecca falls in love with a ghost captain on a flying Dutchman? See what I mean? This show had tons of amazing episodes, made with care and that high Disney craftmanship. Unfortunately, we won't see the likes of that again, I reckon.

4. Batman The Animated Series
The greatest superhero animated series, bar none. Batman had been given a fair shake on the big screen with Tim Burton's two films, but this cartoon was the real deal. Sure, you have to get past all the bad guys shooting their tommy guns but never managing to hit Batman, but that's a minor issue. The storytelling of this show was basically everything good that the comics had produced, with some stuff that was actually much better, encapsulated in 30 minute chunks. The pinnacle of which was my favorite episode "Heart of Ice", a near perfect example of animated entertainment. Here we get not just the best portrayal of Mr. Freeze, but the best sort of Batman story, the best episode of the show, and the best episode of superhero animation by far. I can't think of many television episodes which have made me cry, but this is one of them. To watch it and not shed a tear, you would almost certainly have to have a literal heart of ice.

So how come this series isn't higher on my list? Well, to put it simply... I hate Bruce Timm's art style. I can't stand it. The ridiculously huge chins and broad torsos... they just really looked odd to me. Also, the art deco style I was never crazy for. You have to remember, as a child watching this... it was very strange seeing people in old 1950's cars and riding in blimps while also seeing Batman fighting androids and artificial intelligence with lasers. So, it does have some flaws in my eyes. However, it's still really really high on my list because the writing and characterization were so amazing. Mr. Freeze wasn't the only character that the show used well. Other villains like Harvey Dent, Mad Hatter, Clayface, and Poison Ivy were utilized in dark and emotionally deep stories that were arguably superior to the comic books at the time. And the show also created wholly new adversaries like Baby Doll and HARDAC who were worthy foes for the Dark Knight. Simply put, this show is really fucking good. So good in fact, that even after the release of The Dark Knight, many fans still rate this show as their favorite portrayal of the Batman in any medium. That's high praise indeed.

5. BattleTech The Animated Series
The show which introduced me to the beautiful universe of BattleTech.

6. Futurama
Brilliant sci-fi comedy molded to look like The Simpsons.

7. X-Men The Animated Series
Marvel's first 90's cartoon, and the best.

Honorable Mentions:
The Bots Master
Eek! the Cat
Rug Rats
Kim Possible
Rescue Rangers
DarkWing Duck
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Muppet Babies
Spider-Man The Animated Series
Alvin and the Chipmunks

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