Back to IndieWire

The Best Animated Series of All Time

From "The Flintstones" to "BoJack Horseman," animation serves up an incredible array of excellent, wide-ranging stories.

bojack cowboy bebop daria


40. “Samurai Jack” (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2001-2017)

Samurai Jack Premiere Movie

“Samurai Jack.”

Cartoon Network

Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the modern day masters of animation, and “Samurai Jack” might be his masterpiece. Airing on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2017, the strikingly beautiful martial arts series taught its fanbase patience — because given the inconsistent release schedule, the fanbase had good reason to wait. The series won eight Emmys over the course of its run, made great use of voice-acting legend Phil LaMarr, and again, changed the way people thought about what might be possible with television animation. Nearly every frame of this series is a work of art worthy of being framed on a wall. – LSM

Buy on Amazon.

39. “Gurren Lagann” (Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima, 2007)

Almost the polar opposite of Studio Gainax’s other giant robot anime – the sterile and repressed “Neon Genesis Evangelion – Hiroyuki Imaishi’s “Gurren Lagann” wears its emotions on its sleeve. Sure, it’s another “boy pilots a giant robot” anime, but where “Evangelion” is terse and quiet, “Gurren Lagann” is loud and brash. What starts out as a typical hero’s journey winds up encompassing not one, but two series-defining twists, defying expectations and keeping viewers on their toes. It’s a series-long cry of defiance against oppression, with a heart as big as the universe. – JS

Stream on Hulu.

38. “Freakazoid” (Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Steven Spielberg, 1995 – 1997)

A spoof of the superhero genre before superheroes took over pop culture, “Freakazoid” somehow pulled off teenage wish fulfillment while still poking fun at itself. Following Dexter Douglas, a 16-year-old kid who obtains enhanced strength, endurance, speed, and agility after being sucked into a computer and absorbing all the information on the internet, the short-lived series tapped into the inner crazy kids can feel needs to be hidden away as they get older. Dexter would appear to be normal until he uttered the words “Freak out!,” when Freakazoid would spring from the secluded corner in Dexter’s brain and lead him on madcap adventures. “Freakazoid” was also a comedy above all else, filled with unexpected messages to the audience and bizarre live-action cutaways, making it unique to the space then and a kid-friendly precursor to “Deadpool” now — except this red-suited crusader was truly nuts. – BT

Buy on Amazon.

37. “The Boondocks” (Aaron McGruber, 2005-2014)

Adapting Aaron McGruder’s syndicated comic strip for animation proved to be a controversial choice for Adult Swim, but the results were fascinating, bringing McGruder’s complex and funny take on race to the screen along with the comic’s inspired anime-influenced style. That, plus some great performance work by Wanda Sykes and Reginald Hudlin, ensured “The Boondocks” became a show worthy of discussion for its limited run, bringing a unique voice to the world of animation. – LSM

Buy on Amazon.

36. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, 2005-2008)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

“Avatar: The Last Airbender.”


One of the enduring parts of the legacy of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is its lightning-quick ability to flesh out a fantasy world that’s also brimming with detail. Boiling a timeless battle for environmental control down to its elemental parts, the series breathed new life into an already crowded field of “emerging hero discovering their abilities” stories. With a lush visual style that fully harnessed the majesty of a world with its very fundamental components in flux, “Avatar” set a standard of storytelling excellence that continued through its follow-up series “The Legend of Korra.” Here’s hoping that same care and attention also translates to Netflix’s planned live-action adaptation. – SG

Stream on CBS All Access; stream on Amazon via CBS All Access; buy on Amazon.

35. “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” (Craig McCracken, 2004-2009)

A majority of the shows in this collection are powered by a potent sense of momentum. But among a fleet of steam-engine trains, “Foster’s” seemed to be a nuclear implosion of twisted, manic energy fueling the imaginary exploits of a young boy and his group of 2-D mental creations. From the plunky, toy-keyboard strains of the theme song, “Foster’s” operated like a spirited youth on a sugar high, following an open search for adventure often with a shriek and a mischievous giggle. It’s the perfect show for a generation of kids whose attention spans were dwindling, but would sit still long enough to enjoy the hand-drawn craft of wherever Mac, Bloo, and the rest of the gang might have ended up. – SG

Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

34. “FLCL” (Kazuya Tsurumaki and Yoji Enokido, 2000-2001)



FLCL Production Committee

Few coming-of-age stories are as out there as “FLCL,” the tale of a bored, small-town kid who gets run over by a mysterious woman on a Vespa, only to find that his brain has been replaced with a dimensional portal through which robots emerge and do battle. But honestly, the plot barely matters, as “FLCL” is mostly a series of show-stopping virtuosic animated sequences, ranging from manga comic panels to a direct parody of “South Park.” At only six episodes (ignore the atrocious Cartoon Network sequels), “FLCL” blasts along like a rocket, moving from scene to scene with the improvisational energy of a guitar solo. If only all series rocked this hard. – JS

Stream on Hulu; stream on Sling TV; buy on Amazon.

33. “Spongebob Squarepants” (Stephen Hillenburg, 1999-present)

SpongeBob Squarepants

“SpongeBob Squarepants.”


SpongeBob is an optimistic and innocent soul who lives in a pineapple under the sea, loves to eat Crabby Patties, and hangs out with his pals Patrick the starfish and Sandy the thrill-seeking squirrel. Somehow marine biology lover Stephen Hillenberg hit upon the absurdist underwater formula that appeals to children and adults alike with its colorful palette, cheerful demeanor, and clean sense of fun. Nickelodeon’s longest-running series and the second-longest-running kids’ animated series ever has even lured in the likes of David Bowie, Amy Poehler, J.K. Simmons, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to guest star. The four-time Emmy-winning SpongeBob’s un-ironic charms have reached worldwide, inspiring comic books, theme park rides, films, and even a figure in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. – HN

Stream on CBS All Access; stream some seasons on Amazon; buy on Amazon.

32. “The Powerpuff Girls” (Craig McCracken, 1998-2005)

The Powerpuff Girls

“The Powerpuff Girls”

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

It all started when Professor Utonium accidently spilled some “Chemical X” into his mix of “sugar, spice, and everything nice.” What he got were Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, young superheroes who are there to stop evil in the city of Townsville, USA — particularly by the nefarious Mojo Jojo. Created by Craig McCracken, “The Powerpuff Girls” was an early success story for Cartoon Network, just as that channel began to experience success with originals like “Dexter’s Laboratory.” When it premiered in 1998, it was Cartoon Network’s highest-rated premiere ever, and soon the show would become a smash hit — and a merchandising juggernaut. A film, soundtracks, video games, and much more followed. “The Powerpuff Girls” also won two individual achievement Primetime Emmys before ending its initial run in 2005. A reboot was launched in 2016. – MS

Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

31. “Over the Garden Wall” (Patrick McHale, 2014)

Over the Garden Wall

“Over the Garden Wall.”

Cartoon Network

Patrick Hale (“Adventure Time”) is behind the 10-part miniseries, which won the Emmy Award in 2015 for Outstanding Animated Program. And it’s not hard to see why: “Over the Garden Wall” is beautiful — full of whimsy, mystery, melancholy, and delight. The show centers on two half-brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), who wind up lost, deep in the woods, on Halloween. Wirt is a worrywart while Greg is carefree, causing some tension between the two. But the half-brothers must work together as they travel through the Unknown forest and try to find their way back home. Along the way, they encounter various enchanting characters — including the sarcastic bluebird Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), an angry woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), Greg’s singing frog (Jack Jones), and a Beast (Samuel Ramey). When it comes to fairy tales on TV, there’s really been nothing like “Over the Garden Wall.” – MS

Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox