Well. I have no respect for my own life. That’s the only explanation I have for even attempting to name the 10 best cartoons for kids from the 90s. I mean, where do i even begin? There were a ridiculous number of incredible cartoons from the 90s. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
Before I begin let me set the ground rules: Each entry has to be targeted toward kids. Entries may have premiered in the 80s or ended in the Naughties so long as the bulk of their run was in the 90s. One last thing, these are my own choices. They are not going to match yours. Rest assured that, a) this will not be the only top 10 list of 90s cartoons I do and b) I want to know what your list looks like! Leave it in the comments below.
10. Darkwing Duck
The year was 1991. Tim Burton’s Batman had come out just a couple years previously and the highly anticipated sequel was set to release the next year. The successful revival of a dark, pulp fiction (a term which here does not refer Tarantino’s 1994 non-linear neo-noir masterpiece, but the stories popular in the early 20th century that acted as a precursor of sorts to comics) inspired Batman meant it was only a matter of time before parodies popped up.
One of the best parodies of that era answered the question, what would Batman look like in the DuckTales universe? Although the show had plenty of funny, slapstick action it also did a clever job at poking fun at superhero tropes. At the same time, it also managed to explore the dangers of leading a double life in sometimes surprisingly touching ways thanks to the relationship between Drake and Gosalyn Mallard.
Based on the popular books by Marc Brown, this PBS Kids show combined humor that was at times, just bizarre with a keen sense of what it means to be a kid to create a show that was truly one of a kind. The best part of my day was coming home from school to watch this show when I was 10…until I was 21. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
8. Rocko's Modern Life
Ren & Stimpy set an incredible precedent for Nickelodeon cartoons in the 90s. The creators somehow managed to get so much inappropriate, sometimes downright disturbing content into their “children’s” show. This innovative show paved the way for what I consider to be its spiritual successor, Rocko’s Modern Life.
The wallaby-centered show was infamous for its racy humor; Rocko was a sex-phone operator for cripes sakes. Fortunately, most of the racy humor went straight over my head as a kid and since my mom worked she never had the time to sit down and realize I was watching a show in which a frog was trying to boink a wallaby.
Interestingly, this show launched the careers of Tom Kenny, who voiced Heffer Wolfe and Stephen Hillenburg, who directed many of the episodes. After Rocko’s Modern Life’s run ended, Hillenburg began working on a pet project he called SpongeBob Squarepants. When the time came to cast the voice for the show’s titular character, he reached out to his old friend, Tom Kenny.
7. Dexter's Laboratory
Dexter’s Lab had it all: a novel concept, zany, off-the-wall humor, and clever satire of pop culture. The pilot for the show debuted on Cartoon Network’s What a Cartoon! show in 1995. After the positive reception in received, Cartoon Network green-lit the show for a full production.
Like Rocko’s Modern Life, Dexter’s Lab played to both kids and adults, but it had a certain sense for cinematic flair that set it apart from other cartoons. Many of the segments perfectly emulated the feel of the samurai, sentai, comic-book, western, and sci-fi film and tv genres. There can be little doubt that Genndy Tartakovsky and his team had a unique vision for their show. Tartakovsky would later go on to refine his flair for animated cinematic beauty in his later creation, Samurai Jack.
In 1989 Toei Animation partnered with Marvel to create a pilot for an animated X-men series called Pryde of the X-men. Apart from some patented awesome Toei animation and a Wolverine who was doing his best Hugh Jackman impression in a sort of weird meta prophetic kind of way, the pilot was not quite incredible or uncanny enough to be picked up for a series.
After going back to the drawing board, Marvel partnered with the South Korean animation company, AKOM and debuted X-men: The Animated Series in 1992. While the animation left a little to be to desired, the actual substance of the show was incredible. Like the comics it was based on, the series explored some pretty heavy themes like discrimination, forgiveness, and compassion. It’s characters were complex and its story arcs never pandered to kids. It went a long way in showing just how deep comic book stories can be.
The concept for Rugrats was developed by Paul Germain, Arlene Klasky, and her husband, Gábor Csupó. Observations made on their own children served as inspiration for the show’s stories. The couple’s production company, Klasky Csupó had already proven itself more than capable to produce an animated show, having been the principle animators for Gracie Film’s The Simpsons.
What made Rugrats so special was the fact that there had never been a show about babies getting into all kinds of mischief while making clever commentary about current trends and pop culture. Okay so maybe Muppet Babies did that first, but Rugrats managed to capture what toddlers actually do more accurately. They talked like babies, they thought like babies, and they cared about what babies cared about. In a way it allowed all who watched a chance to look at the world through a toddlers eyes once more.
It also didn’t hurt that the show was consistently funny and occasionally powerfully touching.
My older brother, who was more a child of the 80s than the 90s, watched He-Man, and Thundercats shows that combined sci-fi with fantasy with a healthy dose of action and adventure. I watched Doug, a show about an utterly ordinary junior-high student who struggles with social anxiety. Most of the show’s excitement and humor came from Doug’s numerous daydreams and Quailman comics. Doug’s imaginary adventures followed the exact logic as those of real 11-year-olds.
Add to that the utterly zany residents of Bluffington juxtaposed with Doug’s seeming rationality and you had a show that, while at times wacky neverthelesss started the trend of cartoons exploring childhood in a non-pandering way, paving the way for shows like Arthur, Recess and of course…
3. Hey Arnold!
Much like Doug, Hey Arnold! tackled what it was like to live the life of an American kid. What set this show apart was how perfectly it captured what friendship in the 4th grade looks like. True, the kids from P.S. 118 occasionally had some over-the-top adventures, the likes of which no normal child would ever engage in, and I don’t care what anybody says, no kid had a room as cool as Arnold’s. Still, each episode mainly dealt with issues every kid does. Unrequited love, bullying, miniature boat racing, sports, family troubles— it was all there and explored in entertaining, funny ways.
In many ways Hey Arnold! had a similar premise to that of Doug. What pushes Hey Arnold! slightly higher on my list are the episodes like “Arnold’s Christmas” in which Arnold tracks down Mr. Hyunh’s long-lost daughter and reunites the two. Or “Helga on the Couch” in which Helga’s sad home-life is painfully revealed. Hey Arnold! taught me the importance of empathy and compassion because you never now what a person may be going through.
2. Batman: The Animated Series
If you are going to make a Batman series the two things you absolutely have to have is a good Batman and a good Joker. Batman: TAS had Kevin Conroy as the perfect Batman and Bruce Wayne and Mark Hamill as the perfect Joker. In fact I would argue that Kevin Conroy is the only performer who managed to nail both sides of the caped crusader.
While the series boasted some truly impressive voice acting, it also had some incredible writers, such as Paul Dini. Dini got his start writing episodes for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe where he wrote some of the series’ best episodes. He would make a minor contribution to Batman, just a small character, you may have heard of her, it’s only KARA-ZOR-EL. Wait. That’s not right. Oh yeah, he created Harley Quinn. Giving every uncreative cosplay girl inspiration for convention costumes for decades to come.
The incredible writing was accompanied by an inspired art direction which evoked the art deco architecture of the 30s with the fashion style and automobiles of the 40s, thus paying homage to the era in which Batman comics first ran. The show was also did not shy away from dark, sinister plots and a gothic tone throughout. Thus the show was the perfect mix of what Batman was originally and what it had become in the 80s and 90s. It was an incredible show, and is the main reason Batman became my favorite comic book hero.
1. The Simpsons
Okay, I know I’m cheating a bit with this one, since The Simpsons was not targeted mainly at children. Back in the 90s it was considered a family sitcom with something to offer to everybody so screw it, I say it counts.
Back in the early 90s you could’t look anywhere without seeing one of the members of the Simpson family (most often Bart). They were on t-shirts, candy commercials, watches, pogs, feminine hygiene products probably. It was an utter phenomenon, and it’s little wonder. The Simpsons may have got its start as a series in the 80s, but it entered its golden age in the 90s thanks to some classic stories written by the likes of Conan O’Brien. These episodes were not only hilarious, they were also at times genuinely touching. Need proof? Just watch “Lisa’s First Word” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The Simpsons was such a unique show in he 90s. Nothing has been able to quite capture the charm, humor, and endearing qualities it had. I mean not even the modern Simpsons episodes can come anywhere close to capturing the magic of those years. And that is why it’s my pick for best cartoon of the 90s.
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