Many analysts, researchers, artists, and film buffs consider the 50-year time period between the 20’s and the 70’s as the “Golden Age of Animation”, a 5-decade era that pushed the boundaries of the imagination and the technical know-how of animation itself. And I’m not disagreeing with that.
Let’s be real: the 90’s was where it was at. Sure, the 80’s had great hits like Thundercats, He-Man, Jem and the Holograms, etc., but it was in the 90’s that all the technical improving, boundary-pushing, and story-driving elements of the Golden Age culminated. 90’s cartoons bore all the great concepts of the decades before it, as well as being gritty enough to straddle the line between PG13 and R18. This was also a unique decade in terms of story-telling: the 90’s saw the emergence of world-changing technology like the internet and virtual reality, the end of the Cold War, and unprecedented economic growth in the last half of the century.
This meant cartoons that employed updated versions of traditional animation while tackling stories that were never seen before. If the 80’s was the pinnacle of Saturday Morning Cartoons, then the 90’s is the Golden Age of Cartoons itself. Hands down, bar none, and don’t let the fact that my personal bias of being a true-blue 90’s kid convince you otherwise!
I compiled a list of some of my personal favorites to kind of drive home my point. But please note: these are personal favorites. Don’t come at me with “why didn’t you include this or that cartoon!” brouhaha; make your own list, I’m sure it will be just as good. But for me, these following cartoons epitomized the 90’s in glorious Technicolor.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
There’s not a 90’s kid out there who didn’t spend hours of their prepubescent days arguing with his friends about who gets to be which particular Ninja Turtle (I was, of course, Raphael. Because he’s the coolest) for the day. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a staple for every group of kids in the early 90’s, mostly because, well, ninjas, but also because there were enough Ninja Turtle names, colors, and characters for everyone in your treehouse club to embody.
TMNT was that right mix of action, adventure, comedy, and a bit of drama (remember that episode where Leonardo lost his confidence to lead the group? Heartbreaking). The animation for the time was intense, and it gave most prepubescent boys their first crush: April O’Neil.
Batman: The Animated Series
With the DCEU trailing far behind the MCU in terms of movie dominance, it’s hard to remember a time when DC characters ruled the airwaves, but everyone can agree that the early 90’s was definitely Batman’s domain, particularly in the animated world. Batman: The Animated Series was the 90’s kids first, real taste of grit without being overtly violent, sexual, or scary, although the show had these moments too. This version of Batman was pretty much everything you’d expect from the World’s Greatest Detective: dark, brooding, and mysterious as the caped crusader, suave and charming as Bruce Wayne. This was the cartoon that your older brother would watch and something you couldn’t wait to grow up for.
Batman: The Animated Series showed us what “cool” really meant, not to mention imbibe in us all the virtues that made Batman the iconic hero that he is.
Rocko’s Modern Life
Absurdly hilarious and surreally funny, Rocko’s Modern Life was my first foray into the weird side of cartoons. Whereas before, cartoons were silly and had simple story arcs, Rocko’s Modern Life was designed to be completely different and unique, offering a strange and often times mystifying viewing experience.
I can’t accurately describe to you just how weird and wonderful Rocko is, from its upbeat and frenetic animation, to its surreal depictions of Heck and City Hall. Much like Ren and Stimpy (another 90’s classic), Rocko’s Modern Life takes the animation standards of the 50’s and puts a unique, twisted take on reality. Also like Ren and Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life was also criticized for its heavy use of innuendos, satirical commentary, and adult humor, most of which I personally missed when I was watching it!
Is there anything more wholesome than Helga Pataki’s crush on Arnold? Hey Arnold! was an honest look at big city life through the eyes of a fourth grader. The episodes ranged from hilarious to heartwarming, action-packed and mysterious, even scary (remember that time they took the train to the depot and they thought it was going to Hell?). But all throughout its 5-season run, Hey Arnold! managed to encapsulate a lot about modern, urban American childhood, like an animated Norman Rockwell painting, or a less-depressing Edward Hopper piece.
What made Hey Arnold! great for me was its unabashed portrayal of a diverse cast of kids, with black and asian children being represented not as caricatures, but as living, breathing human beings, something that went a long way to teaching kids about acceptance, tolerance, and why diversity is one of the core strengths of our country.
Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, seeing as it first debuted in 2001, but I had to include it because of the way it elevated cartoons as an art form. The series has won multiple awards that praised its story writing, character development, artwork, technical animation, and soundtrack. While the episodes that covered the main story arc were brilliant, it was the stand-alone, almost devoid of dialogue, sheer exercises in visual stimulation, type of episodes that really got to me.
I consider Samurai Jack to be part of the Cartoon Network Holy Trinity, with Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls rounding up the trio. These three were the culmination of the Golden Era of cartoons and was the pinnacle of that era. Fight me if you disagree.