When the 2010s kicked off, it looked like animation was in dire straits. TV channels were all too happy to make the cheapest of sitcoms for kids, Marvel’s output based on the hype of the MCU was so bad that you could literally smell the South Korean sweatshop labour through your TV and any actual gems were few and far between.
And then something magical happened. Television got a kick up the pants, the streaming wars encouraged creativity and animation was seen as a new frontier to make signature mark in as the environment got a lot more crowded. From that competition arose dozens and dozens of new animated series that pushed the envelope on what the medium was capable of. Cartoons for kids, cartoons for adults and even more cartoons for everyone between those demographics.
Animation has so much more to offer in 2020 than it did in 2010, but from that groundbreaking decade came some of the very best cartoons of all time. So let’s kick this list off with:
Best animation for adults – Rick and Morty
Love its dark humour or despise its nihilistic main character for killing the joy around him, but it’s hard to deny the impact of Rick and Morty. Part science fiction and part dysfunctional family drama with a twisted sense or morality thrown in for good measure, Rick and Morty is still a treat on a visual level with animation that blends both overt and covert ideas together in a blender of insanity.
At its core, Rick and Morty never forgets that its a cartoon either. While shows like Bojack Horseman may have won acclaim for how it tackled real-world issues and mental health, Rick and Morty still manages to touch on those topics while making the most of the medium that it’s in to create episodes which are often controversial or ridiculously over the top romps of style and substance.
One thing that Rick and Morty never happens to be when compared to other cartoon shows aimed at adults? Boring, as Adult Swim’s flagship series delights in being unpredictable entertainment that has everyone talking by the time the end credits have rolled.
Honourable Mentions: Bojack Horseman, Big Mouth, Archer and The Venture Bros.
Best weirdness – Regular Show
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed as if animation was ready to ditch the Saturday morning reputation of cute ‘n fuzzy stories for something a little bit more…weird. Real Monsters, Invader Zim and Courage the Cowardly Dog are prime examples of mind-bending animation somehow sneaking past censors, and right at the start of the decade that baton was picked up and handed to the oddball duo of Mordecai and Rigby.
Regular Show was the name of the series, and if you thought a talking bluebird and his slacker racoon pal being bossed around by a talking gumball machine was the apex of crazy then you’d seen nothing yet. Over the course of several seasons, Regular Show quickly established itself with a simple formula: It took the mundane, dropped the ordinary into a blender and then mixed it all together with twists from the left field that made you question the sanity of anyone working on the show.
But by the massive head of Pops almighty, was it a treat to watch. The animation was consistently smooth, the main cast was kept at a perfect number so as to not let their endearing personalities get diminished and the digs at pop culture from all across time and space was deserving of all the kudos. With licensed music, character highlight episodes that hit you square in the emotional gut and a final episode that guaranteed that not a single eye in the house would be dry, Regular Show is a love letter to weirdness that made the 2010s delightfully mad.
Honourable Mentions: Gravity Falls, Family Guy and Robot Chicken.
Best family series – The Amazing World of Gumball
I’ve got a newfound appreciation for my parents, who’d keep an eye on me as a kid to make certain that I wasn’t being driven slowly mad with terrible animation. Having to sit through some absolute dreck at the time, today’s all ages entertainment isn’t just better but also smarter. In an age where animation can cater to anyone of any demographic, The Amazing World of Gumball is an impossible example of perfection.
Everything that makes the show unique simply shouldn’t work. And yet in reality, Gumball’s blender approach of throwing dozens of varying animation styles, themes and genres together into any given episode makes it one of the most unique TV shows to ever rise to prominence in the 2010s. It has enough appeal to grab the attention of a child and whip-smart writing to keep adults around thanks to some incredibly subtle jokes and themes.
It has animation that lives up to the amazing in its title, mashing together everything that the world has to offer into an eclectic package which is dialled up to 11. Simply put, there’s nothing else like Gumball on TV, as the story of the Wattersons managed to crack out six seasons of episodes that serve as benchmarks in family entertainment.
Honourable Mentions: Adventure Time, Bob’s Burgers.
Best adventure series – Gravity Falls
The 1990s were a gold mine for animated series focused on one gloriously long adventure, and the 2010s didn’t disappoint when Disney began throwing considerable amounts of capital at the small screen to produce unique new series. The greatest triumph out of all these shows is easily Gravity Falls, Disney’s Twin Peaks meets the X-Files fusion that took the world by storm.
With a simple setup of twin siblings investigating the supernatural town of Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch’s show wove subtle threads throughout the saga, eventually stitching them all together into a jersey of full circle plot completion so glorious in its execution that it’s a small miracle that Mabel herself hasn’t run off with the end product yet.
Any single episode of Gravity Falls makes for a fun diversion, but step back to observe the bigger picture and its an astounding work of art. It’s a grand tapestry of hidden clues and references, dangling threads that are never wasted and all lead to one of the best finales in animation. Gravity is all charm and heart, but it’s also a prime example of a TV series realising that it didn’t have to treat its primary audience like children. It could rely on its viewers actually being clever enough to see a bigger picture at work, a masterpiece of storytelling that won’t be surpassed for years to come.
Honourable Mentions: Starr vs. the Forces of Evil, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Duck Tales.
Best superhero series – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Cartoons may have been doing business long before Superman lifted an old Ford car above his head in 1938, but when Fleischer studios decided to rotoscope the hell out of the man of steel it set a benchmark for the medium and a genre that would flourish over the decades to come. The 1990s saw DC rule the roost with Batman, Superman and Justice League cartoons, while Marvel would step into the fold in the years to come with their shared animated universe of shows that were…meeeeeeeeeh.
If you’re talking comic book source material cartoons though, you don’t get a franchise any bigger than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Having existed in one form or another ever since they began raising shell in the 1980s, every decade since then has had a take on the sewer-dwelling heroes since then. Coming off of the shakey but ultimately solid extreme reimagining of the 2000s, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s creation eventually wound up being sold to Nicklelodeon in the 2010s, a sale that would see the definitive TMNT cartoon rise from that acquisition.
Using a mixture of cutting edge CGI animation, 2D stylisation and a whole heap of nostalgia, Nicklelodeon’s first foray into the world of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a sight to behold. Several seasons of charm, action and world-building that ran like a mix-tape of highlights from across the eras of turtledom, the early 2010s gave birth to a show that may have been aimed at kids but still knew how to hook adults back in thanks to callbacks from the past that were given a fresh coat of paint
That Nicklelodeon’s show still managed to stay kid-friendly enough to sell a ton of toys while pushing the envelop on animated action sequences and character development, is a triumph not only for its genre but for all of animation. The bar was raised, the fandom was reignited and Nicklelodeon would prove that the quartet of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo had found the right home for their shadowy shinobi adventures in the 2010s and the decades of adventure that are still to come.
Honourable Mentions: Justice League Action, Beware the Batman, Young Justice and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
The groundbreaker – Avatar: Legend of Korra
In an age where norms are challenged and people are beginning to question the status quo of everything, Avatar: The Legend of Korra felt like the first brave step in a new direction towards tomorrow. It wasn’t just the fact that Korra’s saga would end with baby steps towards people realising that gasp two people of the same sex could fall in love, but so so much more when you examine the overall series.
There were themes of mental damage and loss, heartbreak and inner turmoil. There were challenges to overcome not only of the body but of the mind as well. There was the threat of division in a world that realised that unity was more powerful than ancient gods seeking to disrupt balance in a brave new world, there were questions of spirituality and change.
For a show that was only meant to last a single season, Nickelodeon and Studio Mir’s four season epic was a groundbreaking adventure at the time. Weaving a complex narrative with expert precision, The Legend of Korra still realised that it could be more than just a traditional cartoon while also playing to the strengths of the medium, merging the traditional with the new. Having all that and incredible animation on top of it, made this show more than the sum of its part and an important first step in advancing storytelling for a new age and audience.
Honourable Mention: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Best stupidity – Sanjay and Craig
I’m a big believer that cartoons can be an uplifting and important part of our entertainment diet, but at the same time I’m also a massive fan of junk food animation. The kind of cartoon that revels in stupidity, idiotic adventures and storylines so absurd that you’d swear the entire creative crew behind it was constantly on the trippiest of drugs possible.
When it comes to stupid good fun, it simply doesn’t get better than Sanjay and Craig. It’s a delightful romp of dumbassery, a mindless jolt to the system that is pitch perfect in extracting a giggle from its audience. Maybe it’s a perfectly timed fart sound, maybe it’s a cast of voice actors who can give Japanese Kabuki performers a run for their money in overacting or maybe its the animation style which perfectly complements the insanity.
Heck, maybe it’s all of those things and more, as Sanjay and Craig somehow managed to outdo itself with every single episode and raise the roof on having a good heart chuckle every week.
Honourable Mentions: Pickle and Peanut, Uncle Grandpa.
Best inspiration – OK KO! Let’s Be Heroes
If you’re going to learn a moral lesson, you might as well learn it from cartoons. He-Man would regularly deliver a sermon by the end of an episode, Captain Planet’s warning to save the environment was largely ignored and Channel Um-Teevee was…well it was something. The idea of a cartoon series actually having something to say was pretty much dead ad buried throughout the 2000s as cheap Japanese animation took the west by storm, but nearing the end of the 2010s one reminder of the past surfaced to the top.
Called OK KO! Let’s Be Heroes, it seemed like your stock standard action series with delightful animation, but scratch beneath the surface and you’d find that KO’s story packed a lot more punch than you were prepared for. Now make no mistake, OK KO! is still a bucket of fun and absolutely delights in running wild with quick-fire bursts of action, but it still manages to deliver a haymaker of unexpected twists straight to the emotional gut.
What starts out as an atypical journey to be the best like no one ever was quickly subverts the genre and instead becomes an absolute joy to watch. More than anything else, it’s KO’s unbridled optimism and enduring spirit that makes this short ‘n sweet knockout punch of animation so memorable.
Honourable Mention: We Bare Bears.
Best legacy – Star Wars Rebels
There’s a certain thrill in seeing the past given a slick new coat of paint, and there’s no other form of media on the planet that can wield nostalgia with the same deadly precision that Star Wars can. Nine movies later, countless tie-ins and video games added to the Disney vault, and Star Wars Rebels stands as the very best of the entire franchise.
It’s everything that works about Star Wars, but condensed and delivered in a form factor that’s easy to digest. It is both intimate and epic in its construction, a story of renegades fighting back against the biggest Imperial dog in the yard. Victory is fleeting, defeat is unavoidable and by the time the show ends you’ll be buried a sobbing wreck trying to process multiple stages of grief and joy.
Legacy shows are meant to encapsulate everything that’s great about the source material, but Star Wars Rebels didn’t just do that. It made the entire Star Wars franchise even better.
Honourable Mention: Scooby Doo Mystery Inc., Transformers Prime and Tron: Uprising.
Best of the Best – Voltron: Legendary Defender
You want action? Voltron. You want emotion? Voltron. You want a multiple season-spanning universal saga with a definitive beginning, middle and end that defies the norm and is a testament to just how truly epic animation can be when given the chance to shine? Voltron. Dreamworks Animation and Netflix created magic when they teamed up for Voltron: Legendary Defender, a show so epic and intimate in its construction that it is amazing that it even exists.
There may be a Point A to Point B destination throughout the multiple series of the Voltron saga, but it operates on so many other levels at such an incredible level of craftsmanship that the show is obscene in just how good it is. It has a soundtrack that lays an audio foundation for any scene with expert care and attention, it looks like a trillion-dollar investment from Studio Mir and it has moments that will leave you reeling from the heavy emotional body blow that it delivers right your organs.
Voltron: Legendary Defender isn’t just a cartoon…it’s a work of art. It is love and care for the source material that inspired it while also being brave in how it blazes its own path forward. Voltron: Legendary Defender is a triumph of animation and storytelling, and is hands down the very finest experience that animation had to offer in the 2010s.
Last Updated: January 29, 2020