Western animation has come a long way since the early 1900s. Cartoons don’t just exist as a way to kill time anymore, nor do they exist solely to sell toys to impressionable kids.
The animation industry enjoys more autonomy and more funding now than it ever did before, so it might be hard to imagine a time when Western animation was little more than “for kids.”
How did we get to this point, where animation matured and became a medium that’s as fitting for adults as kids? Well, several key animated TV shows paved the way—but sadly a lot of those shows have been lost to history and faded memories.
Here are some of the most important yet forgotten cartoons that changed Western animation for years to come. They often don’t get the recognition they deserve, so let’s remember them!
1. Tiny Toon Adventures
Back in the early 90s, one of the most famous and successful filmmakers wanted to get into animation. Steven Spielberg, like most people his age, had grown up watching the misadventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and more.
But unlike most people, Spielberg had the reputation and persuasive strength to walk right up to Warner Bros. Animation and ask them to make a spin-off of Looney Tunes.
The result? Tiny Toon Adventures, an animated cartoon show about a group of young Looney Tunes-inspired characters training to be the next Looney Tunes stars.
Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Fifi La Fume were obvious homages to the classic characters, but the show wasn’t just a rehash of the usual antics.
Tiny Toon Adventures not only explored and parodied current events of the time, but it also touched upon some more timeless issues—like self-esteem and finding one’s own identity.
The show lasted three seasons and was a direct predecessor to Animaniacs, which would feature a similar format but be unrestrained by the older show’s tie to Looney Tunes.
Tiny Toon Adventures proved that a kids’ TV show could be more than just a toy commercial, could include jokes and references for grown-ups, and could be enjoyable for all. Shows like Animaniacs, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Ren and Stimpy followed in its steps and gave their own spins on what Tiny Toon Adventures started.
2. Superman: The Animated Series
We all know that Batman: The Animated Series is a classic. After all, that show is constantly featured on all kinds of “Best Animated TV Shows of All Time” lists—and for good reason!
And yes, that may have been the cartoon series that started the DC Animated Universe, which would then extend to Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. But it wasn’t the show that proved the idea of a “shared universe” could work.
That honor goes to Superman: The Animated Series. If we were to use the MCU as a comparison, then Batman would be Iron Man and Superman would be Thor.
When Superman: The Animated Series first aired in 1996, the idea of a shared universe was largely unheard of (short of the occasional crossover episode meant to sell more toys). But once it aired, it felt like Superman and Batman lived in the same world.
Both of these animated TV shows shared many of the same showrunners and writers, who made use of similar motifs to bring their costumed heroes to life. Despite wildly different tones, both shows shared the same DNA.
When it all came to a head as Superman and Batman finally met in The World’s Finest, it actually felt organic rather than forced.
Batman may have come first, but Superman proved that the concept of a shared universe could work, allowing work to begin on the two Justice League spin-offs and forever changing the future of visual media as we know it.
3. What a Cartoon!
Back in the mid-90s, Cartoon Network looked very different to how we all might remember it. Owned by Turner Broadcasting, it was primarily relegated to showing old Hanna-Barbera cartoons—because that’s pretty much all they had the rights to.
In an effort to bring something fresh to the fledgling network and to recapture the excitement of creativity amidst a new generation of animators, then-president of Hanna-Barbera (Fred Seibert) pitched What a Cartoon!
The idea was to create several dozen single-cartoon shorts from a diverse team of creators, giving each one the opportunity to capture their own audience and justify their own program.
And it was wildly successful. Dozens of shorts were produced and many of them caught the public’s attention, including some that would go on to become Cartoon Network’s biggest hits: The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, among others.
Cartoon Network would later become a massive force for Western animation, but without these TV shows launched by What a Cartoon!, the network may never have found its footing.
What a Cartoon! ran for only three years, but it was pivotal in establishing Cartoon Network and allowed the network to make animation accessible and exciting to a whole new generation.
4. Speed Racer
Speed Racer wasn’t the best anime of its time, nor was it the first anime to be brought to Western shores, but there is a special place in animated TV history for it—because Speed Racer became one of the first major cultural touchpoints outside of Japan.
The show’s simple format and focus on action made it highly accessible to young people in the US, while the soap opera plot was tolerable for parents forced to watch alongside their kids.
With its jarring lip flaps and rough dubbing, Speed Racer isn’t an easy show to go back and rewatch. But without its success, we might never have gotten other anime series in the West.
Speed Racer introduced a slew of anime tropes, such as the overly dramatic reveal or the treating of something as mundane as car racing as something that could dominate the world stage. Plus, it had one of the most memorable theme songs of any TV show!