You know, I’ve been concentrating a lot on the worlds of anime and video games. For all my talk about appreciating all sorts of media, I really haven’t been giving any love to other forms for the entirety of this blog’s existence, save for Lucid 9 and Miraculous Ladybug months ago. That being said, I’d like to spread the love around, this time for the genre least touched on the blog- Western Animation.
Between the Americas and the whole of Europe, we’ve gotten some pretty exceptional series. The differences between Western and Asian animations are rather clear, Western cartoons far more often gearing towards comedy and adventure, rather than lasting emotional value and artistic strength. However, as the years have gone on, some truly wonderful pieces of animation have emerged that have proven to exemplify the best the medium can offer. For this list, I’ll be listing off five of my personal favorite Western Animations. This is almost entirely by personal preference, but generally speaking, a combination of technical quality, story telling, and characterization is what separates each entry from the rest. With that out of the way, let’s get started!
5. Teen Titans
This Cartoon Network show from the early 2000s was one of many enjoyable TV shows to watch in my youth. Between this, Danny Phantom, Samurai Jack, and more, I was plenty happy with what I was watching, to say the least. However, a decade after the series conclusion, I have to say that Teen Titans was the Cartoon Network series that held up the most, at least in my eyes.
Teen Titans, a kids animated show focusing on the comic book group of the same name, was structured similarly to other action-adventure shows of the time. There’d be individual conflicts in each episode, while slowly leading up to the bigger conflicts that were the main focus of the season as a whole. However, what separated Teen Titans from other series at the time was its ability to characterize the main cast extremely well, as well as its willingness to explore rather tough topics, ranging from dealing with PTSD, to confronting racism head on.
The show, despite explicitly being aimed for kids, did a marvelous job at exploring each character, and giving them a level of depth beyond the standard kids show. It retains its message of positivity throughout, a message to always move forward, and the basic messages kids may need to hear, but to compound that, the show acknowledges tough motivations, and characters who aren’t just black and white, good or evil. Between these consistently deep thematic undertones, a confident style of animation, and its enjoyable characters, Teen Titans, despite having its cliche moments, remains one of my favorite Western Animations, even a decade after its end.
4. Rick and Morty
From an old favorite of mine, to the newest of the list, we have Rick and Morty- a hilariously crass, yet surprisingly blunt and real show. Featuring Rick, the alcoholic, old, mad scientist, and his completely normal, relatively innocent grandson Morty, the two go on intergalactic, planetary adventures, while their family back at home tries to live a normal live, dealing with the consequences of the aforementioned adventures.
The series was released in the tail end of 2013 to massive critical acclaim, and for good reason. Initially, Rick and Morty seems to be a sci-fi Family Guy/South Park mix, with extremely crass humor, plain ridiculous and outlandish scenarios, and a “there’s no such thing as too far” mentality. However, given a few episodes, the continually progressing dynamic between the pessimistic, Machiavellian Rick and the naive, but morally grounded Morty, provides for some extremely interesting interactions that, slowly but surely, develop them as characters. Given even more time, the show ends up confronting an existentialist philosophy and the reactions of both Rick and Morty to such ideas.
Both characters serve as counterpoints to each other in every way, which provides a source of depth for the series, but the humor of the series can’t be understated either. If you are a squeamish individual, or one that doesn’t enjoy extremely blunt, “crosses the line twice” kind of humor, then Rick and Morty might not be the show for you. I know initially to me, it reminded me too much of other shows I personally disliked, to really grab my attention, but after a few episodes, the cartoon showed that, despite existing first and foremost as entertainment, there was quite a bit more to it than that. Combine this with a consistently strange style of art and music that emphasizes the already-strange nature of its plot, and you have, in my opinion, the best animated sitcom yet.
3. Batman: The Animated Series
Now, for the oldest series to make its way to the list, the classic, Batman: The Animated Series, is undoubtedly one of the greats of Western Animation. Featuring, who would have guessed it, Batman, unlike the other shows on this list, this series is almost purely episodic, not continuing an ongoing narrative. However, the small narratives that exist in each individual episode are extraordinary in their quality. They confront uniquely dark themes in a manner that, for a cartoon, felt rather realistic. Each villain, despite the short focus in each episode, was portrayed as uniquely human, and even the Batman himself, was portrayed as dark, powerful, intelligent, but not to a ridiculous degree. The dark, film noir feeling, the thematic focus, the character development, it’s all done just right, to make a series that feels dark and intriguing, without falling into the trap of being overbearing.
I have to note then, that despite its lack of a concrete narrative, which normally turns me off to many series, Batman: The Animated Series, technically speaking, pulls off an episodic nature, leagues better than other similar episodic shows. Everyone in the show was voice acted spectacularly, special attention going to Batman and the Joker, who, made the show a pleasure to watch. It was confident in its darkness, portrayed the Dark Knight in a perfect manner that emphasized both his character, and the characters of the numerous villains, as well as even the personalities of the people of Gotham. Dealing with drugs, unemployment, personal feuds, Gotham as a consistent setting is portrayed in a great way, providing a backdrop to the individual stories that, despite lacking a cohesive narrative, tied it all together. It was a fantastic show, and the favorite of many, but for me, there are two shows that I still love over it.
2. Steven Universe
Steven Universe is an odd cartoon, with a strong personality, that only gets stronger as the series has grown. Premiering on Cartoon Network in 2013, the adventures of Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems have grown to have a consistently strong following, and for good reason.
Starting off, Steven Universe is a rather odd show to many, featuring a ragtag group of characters that doesn’t quite fit the norm of other animated shows. Simultaneously grounded in a very concrete, sensible world, yet filled with magical powers, abilities, and powers, the show had high points of comedy, but surprisingly serious, mature points as well. With a uniquely fun, yet smart tone, Steven Universe has developed over the years to very bluntly confront the ethics of relationships, how to deal with personal problems, and that even the greatest role models have their flaws. Thematically speaking, Steven Universe is probably one of the most effective story-telling Western Animations out there, speaking great lessons for kids while remaining headstrong in its confrontation of tough topics.
On that note, the ability of the series to develop and grow its characters is remarkable. Every character has their time in the spotlight, and I mean, EVERY character. Through short stories that emphasize the depth of even a small background character, while simultaneously showing growth in the main cast, Steven Universe takes the setting of “Beach City” and makes it cohesive, wholly unique. To further emphasize this, the growth of the main characters is not forced- it is done very steadily, accentuated by certain moments that, to say the least, show cohesive character design and depth that far exceeds the quality of other series. Combine that with a simplistic, yet beautiful art style, and you have a formula for a great animation. That being said, despite being a great series I am still looking forward to, there is one other that surpasses it in my eyes.
1. Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Legend of Korra
My favorite Western Animation, or rather, Animations, are Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its successor, The Legend of Korra. As a series of animations that exist within the same universe, made by the same studio, I feel like in regards to my personal feelings, they should both be listed as my favorite series.
These two animations together, have created a universe that I believe to be one of the most expansive, intriguing, and inspired in any animation. The basics are relatively simple- in this world, people can manipulate, or “bend” the elements of water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar, however, can bend all four elements, and is responsible for keeping the balance of the world: threatened by the tyrannical Lord Ozai in the first series, and…well. Several villains in the second. From this concept, a huge world is born. I mean, there are multiple series that produce massive amounts of intrigue for their setting but the amount of detail that has been woven into the narrative, from the technology, to the segregation, to the multitude of organizations and cultures, is astounding.
The two series differ in multiple ways, from the way they build up their main characters, to the content of the episodes, to even the focus of the narrative. One’s set in an earlier time, while the other evolves to a far more advanced, modern setting. However, the history that can be traced through both is intriguing, and the characters, despite their differences, are well designed, and for the most part, well developed. Each series is not afraid to tackle tough issues in a smart manner, again, differing in topic, but not in the way it respects its audience. For instance, The Last Airbender deals heavily with more practical, personal lessons, about confronting your fears, growing from them, while The Legend of Korra confronts the potential consequences of extremist views. Both of them are smart series that respect their audiences, and for their combination of character development, thematic power, and ridiculously in-depth setting, they claim my place as my favorites among Western Animation.