Travel back in time with us to a golden age of cartoons
The heyday of Saturday-morning cartoons is long behind us. In the era of streaming television, where services like Netflix and Hulu have the means to surprise-drop whole seasons of animated shows and feature-length films on subscribers without warning and and where (nearly) all your favorite shows are accessible with the push of a button, popular animated television is no longer “appointment” television and instead is a matter of finding time to fit it in with the rest of one’s busy media schedule.
Here at Polygon, we love animation — especially the era of animation when one had to be in front of a television set at a particular time of the day on a particular day of the week in order to catch our favorite shows. We’ve put together a list of our favorite childhood cartoons and where you can watch them. For the sake of this list, a “Saturday-morning cartoon” is less a matter of whether it aired on the weekend or not, but rather a matter of a show that made any day it aired on feel like a Saturday for the duration of its run time.
Here are Polygon’s favorite Saturday-morning cartoons!
American Dragon: Jake Long made immediate waves in my San Gabriel Valley-based extracurricular group. Sure, he had dyed spiky hair (to indicate he was a cool Asian to white kids), and yeah, it was a mystical martial arts-styled show. But we loved him because Disney finally figured out that we loved Brenda Song, and decided it was time to branch out a little more. Like any good superhero show, Jake’s own arc is focused on his ability to hone his powers — practicing his ability to shape-shift into a dragon. —Nicole Clark
American Dragon: Jake Long is available to stream on Disney Plus.
If you were a PBS kid growing up in the ’90s or early 2000s, then you — like me — might have absolutely loved Arthur. The aardvark family was so lovely, even if they didn’t always get along in the moment. I loved his friends like Buster, Muffy, and Francine, and am still obsessed with the Library Card Song. The show also had tons of cameos, including late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. A genuinely incredible and entertaining show for kids. (Why am I crying?) Truly, what a wonderful kind of day. —NC
Arthur is available to stream on PBS Kids.
I’ve watched this show across so many platforms. I streamed it after its recent move to Netflix, and in college I watched Legend of Korra episodes as they launched on Nickelodeon’s own streaming site (the final season never aired on TV, even though the show has since hit cult status). But as a kid I watched the hell out of Avatar episodes after school and on weekends, fully engrossed in the world’s elemental magic system and its geopolitical strife. Its storytelling was sophisticated for a kids’ cartoon, and I watched it as I went from preteen to teen, crossing the chasm of 13. My mom, who often had to deal with my cartoon bingeing, genuinely enjoyed watching it too. It remains an animated show that I love to watch as an adult (up there with Steven Universe). —NC
Avatar: The Last Airbender is available to stream on Netflix.
I could write a blurb on Batman: The Animated Series. I could try to sum up, in a short two-to-four-sentence paragraph, how the series shaped my aesthetic and narrative sensibilities from an early age and spurred me to pursue a lifelong journey through art that would ultimately result in me writing about it as a career.
But instead, I think I’ll just quote a paragraph from an essay I wrote last month for the show’s 30th anniversary:
My love for Batman: The Animated Series transcends the character or the medium. The show didn’t just introduce me to the character of Batman, and it didn’t simply cement my love of animation; it opened my world to whole dimensions of art and expression and history I might never have pursued or known had I not encountered that series from an early age. In no uncertain terms, Timm and Radomski’s show is, however many degrees removed, responsible for setting me on the course to pursue a career writing about art and sharing that knowledge and passion with others. I’m a curation editor here at Polygon, which means my job is sifting through the ever-growing and shifting catalog of movies, television, comics, and games and spotlighting work I find particularly noteworthy, thought-provoking, and beautiful. I never would have honed those sensibilities, let alone thought to write about them, had it not been for Batman: The Animated Series.
Batman: The Animated Series is available to stream on HBO Max.
I was not yet born when the original Transformers cartoon series first aired on American television but, to paraphrase an old meme, “Born too late to watch Transformers, born too early to explore space, born just in time to absolutely lose my mind over Beast Wars.” Old-school Transformers fans will shake their heads and harrumph at the idea of the 1996 CG series being one’s introduction to the franchise, but to my 6-year-old self, I loved it all the same and couldn’t tell the difference.
The cartoon told the story of Optimus Primal and his crew of Maximal comrades who crash land on a mysterious planet — revealed to be prehistoric Earth — along with their mortal adversaries, the Predacons, led by Megatron. Beast Wars was one of my formative introductions to serialized storytelling and a series which, years later, even considering the dated visuals, still manages to hold up as a drama that’s as riveting as it is occasionally hilarious. —TE
Beast Wars is available to stream on Tubi and Pluto TV.
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot to me represents the platonic ideal of what a Saturday-morning cartoon is and ought to be. Based on Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s 1995 comic book of the same name, the series follows the eponymous Rusty, a boy robot who resembles a cross between Astro Boy and Pinocchio, who is set to replace the BGY-11, a massive war robot built as a last-ditch defense against world-ending threats both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. Unbeknownst to most of the world, however, including Rusty, the Big Guy is not in fact a robot— it’s a heavily armed battle suit piloted by Lieutenant Dwayne Hunter, who works undercover as the Big Guy’s ostensible “repairman.”
A mashup of broad-shoulder superheroics and sci-fi kaiju action shot through with themes of aspirational futurism and coming-of-age drama, Big Guy and Rusty is the third most inspiring giant robot cartoon this side of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo and Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Over the span of two seasons, Big Guy and Rusty ventured across the expanse of Earth to the far reaches of the moon to 200 years in the past and back again, thwarting evildoers and growing together as a surrogate family along the way.
Unfortunately, like so many other cartoons of its era, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot was canceled on a shocking cliffhanger that still fascinates and perplexes me to this day. That said, with a show like Big Guy and Rusty, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. Plus, it’s got an absolute banger of a opening theme song. —TE
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot is available to stream on YouTube.
Parodying James Bond — or, if you want to be specific, short-lived 1960s Bond knockoff TV series Danger Man — 1980s British cartoon Danger Mouse is about a mouse secret agent, who wears an eyepatch and a white roll-neck sweater, foiling the dastardly plots of evil toad Baron Greenback while keeping his hapless hamster companion Penfold out of trouble. Kids love nothing more than humor that makes them feel sophisticated and grown-up, and Danger Mouse’s mix of slapstick, farce, gentle satire, and radical, fourth-wall-breaking wit hit this sweet spot with unerring aim. It even had the courage to mock its perfect hero, and the very idea of heroism — Danger Mouse’s essential cowardice is often what saves his skin. —Oli Welsh
Danger Mouse is available to stream on Netflix.
I still rewatch the show’s finale on my tiny fifth-generation iPod Nano, which I’d spent iTunes money on to entertain myself during long bus rides to volleyball tournaments. Nothing is more appealing than a teen drama with an occult streak and a cast that I crushed on.
In case you’re not familiar with the plot: Young Danny Fenton (he was just 14) when his parents built a very strange machine, it was designed to view a world unseen. (He’s gonna catch ’em all cause he’s Danny Phantom.) When it didn’t quite work, his folks — they just quit. But then Danny took a look inside of it. There was a great big flash, everything just changed (his molecules got all rearranged). When he first woke up, he realized he had snow-white hair and glowing green eyes. He could walk through walls, disappear, and fly; he was much more unique than the other guys. It was then that he knew what he had to do — he had to stop all the ghosts who were coming through. He’s here to fight for me and you. —NC
Danny Phantom is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
Watching Nickelodeon in the early 2000s meant wishing you had fairy godparents like Cosmo and Wanda. That jazzy intro jingle! The power to get anything your heart desires (with really bizarre unintended consequences)! Having to figure out which matching set of animals or inanimate objects are actually your fairy godparents! Fun fact: Cosmo and Wanda are also marriage goals, having been married for 10,000 years. Sure, they bicker — but show me a man I have to endure for 10,000 whole-ass years and I would not fare nearly as well. —NC
The Fairly OddParents is available to stream on Netflix and Paramount Plus.
Hearing “Hey Arnold” will always be synonymous with hearing “football head” — the insult of choice from titular Arnold’s bully Helga (who also happened to have a massive crush on him). To be fair, Arnold’s head is actually in the shape of a football. The show was always very goofy, with a focus on friendship. There is an entire episode where Arnold and his BFF Gerald attempt to learn how to roll their R’s so they can look hot (relatable). And my parents loved it because it always imparted some sort of lesson, like being nice to your elders or not lying about forgetting to do your homework or literally never going on a roller coaster. —NC
Hey Arnold! is available to stream on Paramount Plus and Hulu.
KaBlam! never skyrocketed to the stratosphere like other Nicktoons in Nickelodeon’s premier Saturday-night block, Snick — probably because the series defied an elevator pitch that could take it any higher than the ground floor. I can relate. I’ve rewritten this damn blurb three times and I’m still failing to separate this bizarre contraption into its individual parts.
Essentially, Nickelodeon hired a collective of indie artists to create serialized animated shorts in a hodgepodge of styles, from 2D and stop-motion to puppetry and “Chuckimation.” There was a claymated slapstick comedy about an alien and a Neanderthal; a knockoff A-Team led by garage sale action figures; a hangout comedy from famed children’s author Mo Willems; and interstitials starring grunge kids Henry and June, presumably named after the first American film to receive an NC-17 rating, itself based on the diaries of Anaïs Nin.
Needless to say there was and still is nothing like KaBlam! on television; its closest contemporary is the world of YouTube. In the era of the internet, KaBlam! would have exploded. —Chris Plante
KaBlam! is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
In junior high, all the girls were trying to get their flip phones to play the Kim Possible ringtone. Popular, fashionable, and sporty, Kim Possible could really do it all, and her cheerleading background gave extra credence to her gymnastic abilities as a spy. The show also dared to name her BFF Ron Stoppable and make loving burritos (and having a naked mole rat as a pet) the majority of his personality. It has become a comfort watch. I binged it, in its entirety, in spring 2020 — along with my lockdown roomie — while we cried and ate Chicken McNuggets. I had a lot of Shego feelings (some things never change). —NC
Kim Possible is available to stream on Disney Plus.
This one-season wonder from 1997 sometimes feels like a hallucination — even my pals who mainlined every WB and Fox cartoon aren’t familiar with this syndicated attempt to funnel the Egypt-mania of the 1990s into a TMNT/Gargoyles-type action mold. Doing The Mummy thing two years before The Mummy, Mummies Alive! saw an evil sorcerer named Scarab return to the modern day to suck up the spirit of the reincarnated Prince Rapses XII, who is now a little American twerp named Presley. Luckily, Rapses’ marital arts-trained guards also return from the dead to protect the boy, and “WITH THE STRENGTH OF RA!!!” kick Scarab’s ass each week.
I had no clue at the time, but Mummies Alive! was the latest work of kid-friendly, high-stakes genius from the X-Men: The Animated Series writers Mark Edens, Eric Lewald, and Julia Lewald. Makes sense: While Mummies Alive! delivered on the action (every toyetic mummy bodyguard had its own sweet vehicles and body armor used for nimble combat), the stories still mattered. There was friendship, fear, and a sense of geography as the undead squad navigated an animated San Francisco. Maybe it was too weird for a ripped-from-comics late-’90s lineup, but today it would make anyone gaga for Avatar: The Last Airbender fight choreography drool. —Matt Patches
Mummies Alive! is streaming on Amazon Prime Video via CONtv.
“Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover.”
That’s a Homer Simpson quote, but I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons as a child in the ’90s; instead, I had the programming block known as Kids’ WB. Which was good, because I definitely didn’t have any friends at the time. While most other classmates were hanging out at their buddies’ houses, washing down PB&J sandwiches with some Capri Sun, I headed straight home after I got out of school at 3 to hang out with my cartoon pals instead. Among them were the Warner brothers and the Warner sister, but what I ended up loving even more than those titular animated maniacs were the genetically enhanced laboratory mice who debuted as recurring characters on their show: the Brain and his airheaded Acme Labs cage-mate, Pinky.
Back then, I mostly just loved their goofy catchphrases — “Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Pinky?” — and their mouse-brained schemes, like the Brain’s repeated attempts to control humanity through subliminal messages. But later in life, I gained an even greater appreciation for Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs when I came to understand just how packed they were with references and parodies. First off, the shows became even funnier and more interesting when I learned, say, who Orson Welles and Vincent Price were (Maurice LaMarche, the actor behind the Brain, has described his voice for the character as “65% Orson Welles, 35% Vincent Price”). But more to the point, it was incredibly important that I, as a sheltered child of immigrants, could get a crash course in 20th-century American pop culture from some children’s cartoons. Who knows if I would’ve made it on to Jeopardy! without them? —Samit Sarkar
Pinky and the Brain is available to stream on Hulu.
When my brothers and I first got into the original Pokémon series, our parents didn’t want us watching it because they thought it promoted animal violence. As a result, we had to undertake a covert operation to watch the show.
What we would do is ask to go to grandma and grandpa’s house on the weekends, and then lie to our grandparents about being able to watch it. I don’t actually remember the precise timing of when the episodes aired, but I do remember watching it in the evenings as I drank strawberry milk before bedtime. —Ana Diaz
Pokémon is available to stream on Netflix.
Sugar, spice, and everything nice. Powerpuff Girls really solidified the blonde, brunette, and redhead character dynamic. Instead of being a cartoon’s only girl, you could be one of three types of girls: sassy and sporty, a nurturing leader, or cute and forgetful. No matter which, you could still have the superpowers to defend a city — if you managed to sneak out after dark. Critically, Powerpuff Girls had the exact right amount of gross-out type stuff. I mean, you could see Mojo Jojo’s exposed brain in his clear helmet. This was the era of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a show I tried to watch but had to spot because terrifying scenes sometimes made me throw up. —NC
Powerpuff Girls is available to stream on HBO Max.
The Proud Family was on regular rotation, as one of the only family-comedy cartoons I loved as a kid. I related to Penny — and obviously hated her frenemy LaCienega, with her enormous flipper feet (in hindsight, that was mean of me) — and was obsessed with her grandma Suga Mama. I still remember watching reruns of “Romeo Must Wed” where Penny plays Juliet in the school play, and “rehearses” a smooch with Kwok (voiced by Dante Basco). —NC
The Proud Family is available to stream on Disney Plus.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, so I thought these Venice Beach kids whose parents let them do XTreme Sports were the coolest kids alive. I imagined a world where I’d do what they did, and they’d be my friend. (How would I deal with being called Squid? I would manage.) We would play field hockey in the streets, dirt bike down mountains, surf massive waves. Reggie and I would be BFFs, obviously. I remember an episode where Otto turns 11 and thinking, That is so old. —NC
Rocket Power is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
I have such fond memories of waking up early with my younger brother and watching Scoob and the gang solve ridiculous mysteries. The crossover episodes are legendary (the Harlem Globetrotters entries particularly stand out to me), and I truly believe the Mystery Gang was a foundational touchstone for my love of movies and television. And shout out to Velma for finally being comfortable with her true self. You go, Velma. —Pete Volk
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is available to stream on HBO Max.
Few things got me out of bed (or back from school) faster than the promise of new episodes of Spider-Man to watch. The hit ’90s animated series, along with its predecessor, X-Men, was weapons-grade catnip for a budding comics fan. There was the bitchin’ theme song (I did all the moves), iconic reinterpretations of classic Spidey villains, a host of guest characters (they even did a Secret Wars crossover), and yeah, I asked for the toys every Christmas (and even got a couple). As an adult, I marvel (sorry) at the show’s creative successes given the way that showrunner John Semper Jr. was frequently hamstrung, either by censors — which is why everyone, cops included, had ridiculous laser guns — failed movie plans keeping certain characters and stories off-limits, or the simple fact that season-long story arcs would never be aired in order given how broadcast networks aired children’s programming. It’s a miracle the show stands up to any scrutiny, and it’s a big part of why I love comics today. —Joshua Rivera
Spider-Man is available to stream on Disney Plus.
One of the most famous and enduring cartoons to come out of Nickelodeon hardly requires introduction. Instead I’ll just point out that I still know all the lyrics to nearly every famous song out of that series — and I was not even a dedicated viewer. Episodes were just aired very frequently. Sometimes when I am walking home after ordering pizza from a local spot I will start singing “The Krusty KrraAAAaaAAAAbb-AAaaaab is the peeeeeza (yeeahh) for you and meeeEEEEE” while waving the box around. —NC
SpongeBob SquarePants is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
The minute the Teen Titans theme came on, I buckled in for a perfect adventure, where a found family of teens kicked the ass of several recurring villains that I tended to forget. I always liked Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Raven best, to the point where I eventually just noped out when episodes focused on Robin and Starfire. Why did Robin always have to ruin the fun? Just let Beast Boy and Cyborg play video games. Why weren’t any of them real people so I could smooch them? Haha… just kidding. Or? Season 1’s “Nevermore” was a favorite, since it featured so many versions of Raven. I was in my Warped Tour era — what can I say? —NC
Teen Titans is available to stream on HBO Max.
Before superhero parodies were cool, The Tick burst onto the scene as an uproarious sendup of airheaded heroes. Created by Ben Edlund, who developed the character as a comic book hero in high school, it was the rare Saturday-morning cartoon that my dad enjoyed just as much (if not more) than I did, just because of how funny it was for viewers of all ages.
Filled with an absurd cast of terrifically named characters (Eyebrows Mulligan, Barry Hubris, and the Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight), The Tick led to excellent live-action adaptations (including the stellar 2016 revival on Prime Video). The jazzy intro tells you all you need to know. Spoon!!! —PV
The Tick is available to stream on Hulu.
I spent many summer days with my cousin where we’d plonked in front of the TV to watch Teen Titans followed immediately by Totally Spies — our favorite shows, which always had back-to-back episodes. The series mixes fun genres — teen girl movies, James Bond-esque spy procedurals, along with a clear anime influence — to create one of the most popular girl-led action cartoons of the early 2000s. The gadgets were so rad and stylish (rings, hair sprays, cute sneakers). I loved Sailor Moon and Powerpuff Girls, and so of course, I loved Totally Spies. —NC
Totally Spies is available to stream on Prime Video.
The French were into anime before the rest of us, and the early 1980s saw a few legendary co-productions between French and Japanese studios, like this epic sci-fi reworking of Greek mythology. Space captain Ulysses incurs the wrath of the immortal gods when he rescues his son Telemachus, and a group of other children, from the terrifying techno-giant Cyclops; Zeus puts his crew to sleep and condemns him to wander the stars in search of the kingdom of Hades.
To a British kid at the time, the show’s foreignness combined with its mythic dimension made it seem mysterious and important, over and above its cool Star Wars stylings and banging theme tune. (Ulysses 31 was one of the inspirations for Daft Punk’s Discovery music videos and associated film Interstella 5555.) —OW
Ulysses 31 is available to stream on YouTube.
X-Men Evolution’s premise sounds like fanfiction, and that should be taken as a compliment, because it works. In this show, all of the X-Men are teenagers attending a public high school where they must keep their mutant powers under wraps; they’re only allowed to be out of the mutant closet when they go back home, to Xavier’s boarding house.
Because everybody is 16 years old, this show focuses a lot more on character development and melodramatic love triangles rather than the widespread political and systemic oppression that the X-Men faced in X-Men: The Animated Series (and in the comic books). As a result, X-Men Evolution is more of a slow-moving character drama, allowing each young mutant their turn to shine. —Maddy Myers
X-Men: Evolution is available to stream on Disney Plus.
Public opinion on cops in the United States has changed a lot in recent years, and stories about superheroes have faced similar scrutiny, since they’re often framed as superpowered police (or they work with the cops directly). It may surprise you to learn, then, that the X-Men animated show from the ’90s is one of the most “fuck the police” television shows ever produced, while also being a superhero TV show geared toward children.
Instead of working with the police, the X-Men are oppressed by their government, making cops the most common enemy on the show. The other most common enemy? Bigoted hate groups trying to take down mutants, who are framed as an oppressed minority. There are few things more satisfying than watching Rogue punch a neo-Nazi while Storm uses her lightning powers on a bunch of cops. Although it has a few goofy and skippable episodes, the X-Men cartoon did a surprisingly good job of navigating the potential awkwardness of using mutants as a metaphor for various oppressed minorities (most often, queer people). The result is absolutely still worth a watch – especially given that the show is set to return for another two seasons on Disney Plus in fall 2023. —MM
X-Men is available to stream on Disney Plus.
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