Cartoons were inescapable in the 1980’s. Saturday mornings, weekday afternoons and even on cable TV, colorful animated characters were everywhere we looked. While the majority were shoddy productions conceived as part of carefully constructed marketing plans to sell toys, a few managed to rise above and deliver lasting entertainment with a few life lessons along the way. There are degrees of being “the best”, so let’s flip on the tube and break it down by a few categories as we look back at the 10 Best Cartoons of the 80’s!
Best Band: Jem and The Holograms
Going back to the ’70s with Josie and the Pussycats or even further down the rabbit hole to animated 60’s oddity, The Impossibles, it seemed like cartoon characters were always starting rock bands. The trend continued in the ’80s and while novelty rodents Alvin and The Chipmunks had a resurgence, their claim to fame was cover tunes. That’s why if for outrageous character design alone I have to nominate Jem and The Holograms as the Best Cartoon Band of the ’80s.
Over 3 seasons, Jem and The Holograms, their rivals The Misfits and eventually The Stingers were responsible for over 150 original pop songs that appeared on the show. Not only that, but each one had its own music video. None may have been quite as memorable as the original theme song (you can take season 2’s JEM GIRLS and stuff it) but they were all competent songs with great vocal performances. Prolific, stylish and truly outrageous, Jerrica and the girls were the band to beat!
Best Gimmick: Inspector Gadget
If a character wanted to stand out in the cartoon landscape of the 80’s they had to have a unique trait that made them memorable and when you talk about gimmicks, Inspector Gadget was king. Never mind that kids didn’t know voice actor, Don Adams from his run as Maxwell Smart on the 60’s TV series Get Smart (though I personally watched reruns on Nick At Nite), that pop culture Easter Egg paled in comparison to the fact that this was a cyborg detective with enough spy tech to make James Bond jealous.
I was so enamored with the clueless gumshoe that I got the Inspector Gadget doll for Christmas when I was 3 which featured his helicopter hat, extending mallet hand, extending legs and telescoping neck which made Extendar and Mekaneck from Masters of the Universe look like chumps. Even cooler to me though was when Gadget’s van would transform into a car and his niece Penny’s computer book. Add to all of this an amazingly catchy theme song and it’s clear to see why Gadget’s bag of tricks rose above the rest in a crowded TV marketplace.
Best TV Show To Cartoon: ALF, The Animated Series
When a live-action show got popular enough it often transcended to the world of animation. The Brady Bunch, Dukes of Hazzard and even Gilligan’s Island got this treatment in the ’70s, with mismatched cutie Punky Brewster continuing the trend in the Reagan era. While I loved Glomer and his leprechaun magic, it was a huge departure from Punky’s prime time antics that bordered on ridiculous. So what sitcom star made the transmission more smoothly? None other than everyone’s favorite cat munching alien, ALF.
The ALF cartoon acted as a prequel to the sitcom in that it took place on ALF’s home planet Melmac. Here the wisecracking extraterrestrial was known as Gordon Shumway and had a whole cast of supporting characters that represented his society. It was a great way to expand the mythology that was only dropped sporadically to Willy and the rest of the Tanner family on a weekly basis. More importantly, the cartoon retained the same tone of humor that came to define the ALF character, not dumbing it down for younger viewers. Eventually, the series morphed into ALF Tales where Gordon was cast as storybook characters in fantasy adventures, which kind of missed the point, but it started off strong.
Best Bears: Gummi Bears
Among the brighter bear stars in animation are Yogi and Boo-Boo, Winnie-The-Pooh and for a few die-hards out there, Kissyfur. Sure the greeting card mascots turned stuffed animal icons The Care Bears inspired toys, movies, and nightshirts, but it always felt like their mission was murky. Make everybody feel good all the time whether they like it or not with your Care Bear stare? It feels like the citizens of Care-A-Lot were overstepping their bounds a bit. Speaking of bounding, my vote for Best Bears of the ’80s goes to Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears.
It’s hard to express how big Gummi Bears were when they debuted in 1985, given that their popularity didn’t sustain itself beyond the decade in which Grammi, Zummi, Gruffi, Tummi, Cubbi and Sunni premiered. There was something special about the medieval fantasy setting and magical properties of Gummiberry juice that gave our family of heroes the ability to bounce around like rubber balls in their battles with Igthorn and his Ogre horde. Gummi Bears are certainly a case of the theme song being more fondly remembered than the actual show, but perhaps with the series now being available to stream on Disney+ the residents of Gummi Glen will regain their former glory.
Best Adventure Series: The Real Ghostbusters
Whether it was Voltron, Thundercats or M.A.S.K., the 80’s had no shortage of animated violence on TV. While the battles waged between G.I. Joe and Cobra may have concerned parents enough to require Public Service Announcements to be tacked onto the end of each episode, the true frights were to be found on another series starring heroes who could each declare, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost”. Of course, I’m talking about The Real Ghostbusters. Though inspired by the 1984 film, The Real Ghostbusters cartoon was in many ways a world unto itself.
Not only did the series change the likenesses of Ray, Egon, Peter, and Winston but during its 7 season run the show introduced a whole host of new spooks and spirits beyond the films’ rogues gallery of Gozer, Zuul, Mr. Stay-Puft, and Vigo The Carpathian. Though Slimer provided comic relief, the stories themselves were genuinely dark and frightening with just enough wisecracking the keep it fun. As we look forward to the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife in 2020, fans should never feel upset about waiting all this time for a proper Ghostbusters 3, as we got 5 years of continuing adventures featuring our favorite paranormal exterminators in animation.
Best Forgotten Series: Dinosaucers
By the late ’80s, television animation was an overcrowded space where many fun and inventive concepts fell through the cracks, especially after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a giant green behemoth that left the competition shell-shocked in 1987. One of these casualties was Dinosaucers. Conceived and produced by Michael Uslan, who was instrumental in getting the 1989 Batman film into theaters, it was a classic tale of good vs evil with a prehistoric twist.
The series, produced by DiC, told the tale of a group of earthlings who are recruited to be Secret Scouts for an alien team of humanoid dinosaurs called DinoSaucers led by the heroic, Allo who battled against the villainous Tyrannos, led by Genghis Rex. These warring dinos all had the ability to “Dinovolve” or transform into full-sized Dinosaurs and access the pure strength of that form. The rings worn by the Secret Scouts give them each enhanced abilities as well ranging from super speed to super strength. It was a fun idea with very distinct character designs, but only lasted 1 season which caused the planned action figure line by Galoob to be canceled. Here’s to what could have been.
Best Cartoon Cat: Garfield
Looking for furry feline fun on the tube in the ’80s, kids had quite a few offerings to choose from, but I think most would agree that the alley cat battle for dominance in the animated sphere was always between Garfield and Heathcliff. In the mid-’80s these two rotund, orange furballs both emerged from the comic strip funny pages to star in their own cartoons and interestingly enough both shared the run time with another team of animal characters created for their shows.
Garfield had barnyard back-up from U.S. Acres, which starred the likes of Wade Duck and Orson Pig, in what was basically a wacky animated sitcom featuring a large cast of funny farm animals. Meanwhile, Garfield shared the spotlight with The Catillac Cats, a junkyard gang who got into mischief. Ultimately though we have to judge it on the marquee name of each show. Garfield may have been a little harsh to Odie and Nermal from time to time, but Heathcliff was just a jerk to everybody. A loveable rascal will always win out against a callous kitty in my book. Congratulations Garfield, Monday is canceled and here’s a hot pan of lasagna.
Best Team Leader: Optimus Prime
Elementary schoolyards in the ’80s were full of endless squabbles over who got to be Leonardo, Lion-O or He-Man because being in charge is always more fun. Finding yourself front and center can be stressful, but there was always one leader who kept his cool in battle, Optimus Prime. Though there were dozens of different characters popping up each season to sell more Transformers toys for Hasbro, Optimus was always the icon, even in season 3 when Hot Rod and Ultra Magnus tried to take up the mantle (sorry fellas, you just didn’t cut it).
As voiced by Peter Cullen, Optimus had a nobility to him which instantly garnered devotion from Autobots and 1st graders alike. His unwavering commitment to fighting for the right, mixed with the gentle way he taught life lessons to those around him made Prime the ultimate robot father figure. How many cartoon characters do you know that caused kids to break down in tears when they were killed on screen? To be fair that probably didn’t happen much in American animation, but if any character deserved the solemn moment of passing infused with real emotion, it was Optimus Prime. There’s a reason the head Autobot has endured in all iterations of Transformers lore, truly a leader to be revered.
Best Movie To TV Adaptation: Muppet Babies
The translation of movie properties to cartoons are probably more noted in their infamy than quality when you consider violent R-rated flicks like Rambo and RoboCop getting their own animated series. Even Beetlejuice, which was a big hit sprung from a film where the titular character grabbed his crotch while using the F-word. But there is one show that was a staple of Saturday mornings for years, which many people don’t realize spun-off from a segment in The Take Manhattan, the Muppet Babies!
What made Muppet Babies so special wasn’t just seeing Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and the rest in their nursery with Nanny. It was the imaginary worlds they created that were brought to life using film footage, mostly public domain, but sometimes from Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Ghostbusters. Each episode also contained a musical segment with original songs, so it’s no wonder the series continued to entertain kids from 1984-1991 with all it’s pop culture-infused wackiness.
Best Comic Book Cartoon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
As featured recently in The Toys That Made Us documentary series on Netflix, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series was created to promote the toys being produced by Playmates, which were inspired by the original black and white comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. So while most kids had never read the hard-edged source material, they were, in fact, buying toys based on a comic property, not a cartoon. That being said, most children of the ’80s met Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michaelangelo through the animated series that ran for 10 years on TV.
The cartoon made the TMNT more accessible to kids by giving each turtle their own signature color bandana and personalities, which led to tons of merchandising. The series managed to combine humor and action in the ongoing battles against Shredder and Krang, though over time the fighting was toned down to the point where Mikey’s nunchucks were replaced with a less controversial grappling hook. The Turtles have remained a fixture of children’s programming for over 30 years which tells you just how strong the concept is at its core.
So there you have it, the 10 Best Cartoons of the ’80s. I hope this brought back some memories, but I’m sure there are a lot of childhood favorites you don’t see on the list. So sound off in the comments below and tell us which shows you feel are contenders for the best of the decade.