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The best kids' cartoons of the '90s: all-time animation classics

X-Men! Batman! Rugrats! South Park! What an era for animation.

The best kids' cartoons of the '90s: all-time animation classics
Jon Mundy
01 April 2023

If the 1980s was the golden era of kids' cartoons, the 1990s expanded and evolved the format into a whole new realm - as this best '90s cartoons list proves

This decade still featured more than its fair share of action figure shifters, but also reached out to new, more mature audiences.

The ’90s was when irony went big, and many of the most interesting cartoons of the period reflected that snarky shift.

Adult humour, pop culture references and political satire were all added to the pot. This was also the decade that birthed Cartoon Network.

Here are our picks for the best cartoons of the ’90s. Don’t forget to vote below.

Best cartoons of the 90s

Best cartoons of the 90s

1. Batman: The Animated Series

Stream on Apple TV

Batman: The Animated Series was a striking piece of work. It took the gothic splendour of the two Tim Burton movies of the time, and built a stunningly stylised art deco world that often felt closer to 1942 than 1992.

A more mature, noirish tone accompanied this darker style, while the standard of the writing was far better than we’d come to expect from our Saturday morning action cartoons. The voice cast, too, was first rate, including Mark Hamill as The Joker and the late Kevin Conroy as the caped crusader.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

2. X-Men: The Animated Series

Stream on Disney Plus

Before the X-Men live action films helped kick off the cinematic superhero craze at the turn of the millennium, the hugely popular X-Men: The Animated Series laid some vital groundwork. Successfully adapting some of the greatest stories from a key period of the comic book series, X-Men went as big on melodrama as it did the biff-pow action.

So well remembered is its original five-series run that Disney+ has commissioned a direct follow-up, called X-Men ’97, for some time in 2023.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

3. The Simpsons

Steam on Disney Plus

The Simpsons might have debuted in 1989, but it’s arguably the quintessential ’90s cartoon. It certainly had its best years before the millennium, even though it continues to run to this day.

Indeed, it can be difficult to fully appreciate The Simpsons for what it is, given it is now part of the furniture. It brought satire and wit to the cartoon format, as well as a whole string of catchphrases that have entered common vernacular. D’oh, indeed.

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The series that launched Trey Parker and Matt Stone into the stratosphere was, and is, way ruder and cruder than most other adult cartoons. However, a wilfully amateurish animation style has enabled it to avoid scandalising the hand wringing classes – at least for much of the time.

Perhaps South Park’s greatest trick is that its crew of foul-mouthed pre-teens and weirdo adults are almost universally unlikeable, yet the whole thing is executed with so much naughty charm it proves impossible to resist.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

5. The Ren & Stimpy Show

Stream on NOW

It might not have been a true adult-focused cartoon like The Simpsons or South Park, but The Ren & Stimpy Show was definitely following a different path to most other cartoons of the time. This story of a sociopathic chihuahua and his faithful manx cat sidekick was shot through with surreal humour, brutal slapstick, and plenty of bared buttocks.

Its Looney Tunes-on-amphetamines animation style and relentless pace helped disguise some pretty dark stuff – which naturally made it all the more compelling for any ’90s kid.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

6. Beavis and Butt-head

Stream on Paramount Plus

In the early ’90s, MTV went from rebellious upstart to establishment titan, and a pair of chuckling knuckleheads set the tone. Beavis and Butt-head perfectly reflected the slacker sentiment and sludgy alt-rock sounds of the time, commentating on real music videos with typical brainless disdain.

While their appeal as characters was very specific to a certain time and place, their huge success was enough to produce the Beavis and Butt-Head Do America movie in 1996, and a second more recent movie in 2022’s Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

7. The Powerpuff Girls

Stream on Amazon

The Powerpuff Girls was the cutest and most colourful cartoon of the ’90s, without question, but its bright candy-coated exterior disguised a surprisingly subversive core. Cartoon Network really struck it big with its tale of three super-powered girls kicking butt.

Recapturing that same animated lightning proved understandably tricky with a 2016 reboot that was far from universally loved. Thankfully, the madcap innocence of the original shows has scarcely aged. If only all superhero properties were this joyous.

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A cartoon about the secret lives of toddlers might not have been the most promising of premises, certainly not for a child of the ’90s, but then Rugrats was a pretty singular cartoon with its own distinctive voice. The writing, the animation, and even the music all felt like it was from some alternate world. It’s not hard to see why it had such a long and beloved 9-season run.

The way the show got down on its knees and super-sized the (quite literally) babyish problems of its characters was inspired, but it also took the time to perfectly skewer the world of the parents, with all their silly adult hang-ups.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

9. King of the Hill

Buy now From Amazon

Of all adult-oriented animation that came along in the wake of The Simpsons, King of the Hill was the most nuanced. Certainly far more so than creator Mike Judge’s previous ’90s cartoon offering, Beavis and Butt-head.

Following the quotidian concerns of the Texan Hill family, King of the Hill rarely relied on cheap visual gags or crass humour to get its yucks (unlike other shows on this list). Instead, there was a deeply identifiable seam of understated realism to its set pieces, creating a great sense of pathos. It was still bloody hilarious for all that.

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Best cartoons of the 90s

10. Pokémon

Stream on Netflix

At a time when everyone is praising what a rare and wonderful video-game-to-TV adaptation The Last of Us is, it’s worth remembering Pokémon made a similarly successful journey in the late ’90s – albeit with a much less mature audience in mind.

What’s remarkable about Pokémon is that these two strands co-existed, and continue to co-exist, with each one directly informing the development of the other. In its original run, the TV show told the story of young Ash Ketchum, who embarks on a lighthearted quest to become a Pokémon master. Like the games, that involves catching, nurturing, and battling cute pocket monsters.

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