In our previous post: common animation myths, we led with the bogus claim that “animation is childish.” We dismissed this as pure misconception at the time - now we’ve taken it upon ourselves to show you why! Here’s some of the best examples of animated television which is aimed at a younger audience yet still attracted a cult following of adults for reasons of its humour, darkness or general weirdness.
Some of these are almost inadvertent cult hits and some are obvious about their attempts to appeal to an older crowd. If you like off-beat humour, innuendo and darker themes, look no further.
On paper, Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time doesn’t exactly sound like the recipe for a cult hit: A boy and his dog go on adventures and foil the plans of the evil Ice King with an occasional rescue thrown in when Princess Bubblegum gets into a spot of bother. In reality this post-post-apocalyptic (yes, that’s a genre) show is incredibly rich in atmosphere, full of complex and colourful characters and is always nurturing its consistent and absorbing mythology.
The visuals are clean and colourful, borderlining on psychedelic at times and Jake the Dog’s growing and stretching powers really let the animators be creative with his movement in an entertaining way. Adventure Time is a perfect example of the ‘cult’ phenomenon, there is real depth and experimentation here, yet the younger audience can still enjoy the goofy plot around what are essentially candy people...
Courage the Cowardly Dog
Remember when we said that the cult status of some of these shows was down to how dark they were? Well we were thinking of this one! Shot through with paranormal, surreal atmosphere, Courage is a horror-comedy about a little dog who lives with his two elderly owners in a ranch house in the middle of nowhere.
Courage is a quality, episodic-style thrills and chills affair with great attention to classic horror tropes and a dash of added cartoon weirdness. It was some much-needed edginess to cartoons at the time of its launch, might just give the kids nightmares though...
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
In a similar vein to Courage albeit slightly less weird (which isn’t really saying a lot we know) The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is a show about two kids that manage to trick Death into being their servant during a limbo competition to save his pet hamster. It was originally based on the sketch show Grim and Evil, but Evil was given a spin off of his own and now Grim runs the show!
There’s plenty more horror influences to enjoy here as well as a slew of references ranging from Dune to The Terminator and even H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos.
Regular Show revolves around slackers Mordecai and Rigby (blue jay and raccoon respectively) as they try to avoid working their groundskeeping jobs for their boss Benson (a gumball machine). Like Adventure Time, Regular Show’s animation is fantastical, the characters are pleasingly weird and the plot is bonkers and fun.
The best thing about this one is that it’s genuinely funny - the jokes are well judged and they complement the characters delivering them. It tries to slip innuendo past you (and the youngsters it’s technically aimed at) constantly too. Nominated for a ridiculous number of awards and with 2 - 2.5 million watchers, definitely give this one a go.
From Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack is an incredible pastiche of sci-fi, anime and kung-fu movies. Tartakovsky’s aim was to create something “that is cinematic in scope and that incorporates action, humor and intricate artistry,” - the great popularity of this series is confirmation of his success in doing so.
Starring a samurai who has been thrown forwards in time by the demon Aku, Samurai Jack is a dark and dramatic action-adventure which has themes of conflict, revenge, isolation and alienation. The animation uses a highly detailed and outline-free masking-based method. These stylised visuals really make Jack pop and seem out of place in his surroundings which is appropriate considering he’s out of his native time. Sometimes epic, sometimes comic, always awesome, don’t miss out.
Starring some seriously iconic cartoon characters such as Yakko, Wakko, Dot, Pinky and The Brain, this Warner Brother’s cartoon even boasts Steven Spielberg as its executive producer. Animaniacs is a comedy variety show filled with skits featuring a large cast of characters and usually consisting of three shorts per episode.
Most of the time, this show was an innocent string of zany capers filled with catchphrases and the occasional song, but beneath all this is a layer of adult-targeted jokes, references and sly innuendo. Just take The Goodfeathers, a seedy trio of funny-voiced pigeons to a kid, but an unmistakable homage to the mobsters of Goodfellas and The Godfather to the adults.
Rocko’s Modern Life
Similarly to Courage, Rocko’s Modern Life maintains much of its cult status by leaning hard into its surreal vibe. Rocko stars and is named after an anthropomorphic Australian wallaby whose life in O-Town features a relatable series of neuroses and resonated with its audience by representing the regular quirks of daily life in a bizarre way.
As is the case with many of the ‘toons on this list, Rocko is full of innuendos, some of the early reviewers even warning parents to watch out for them or even that this was not really a show for kids and to avoid showing it to them completely! After Rocko’s cancellation, much of the staff regrouped to work on Spongebob SquarePants, another honorable cult mention that could easily be on this list too!
Regarded as an iconic member of Cartoon Network’s roster, Johnny Bravo remains one of our most fondly-remembered cartoons from the 90’s. Okay so he’s cheesier than a Wotsit, but Johnny has become something of an icon himself too, that hair, those shades and his Elvis-like voice are unmistakable!
Jam packed full of pop culture references (that I didn’t quite understand at the time), celebrity cameos and cheeky adult-oriented jokes, it’s no surprise that Seth MacFarlane of Family guy fame wrote a number of the episodes.
Phew, little bit of a blast from the past there. We’ve definitely been reminiscing in the office over this one, did we miss any of your favourites? Drop us a message and let us know, it doesn’t take much to get us watching cartoons...