The 1980s were a decade of excess, and great animation! Many Saturday morning and weekday cartoons were “must-see TV” for kids and teens alike. That said, let’s forget the formalities and niceties and let’s get right to the best and worst cartoons of the 1980s.
# 10 – Ducktales
Disney’s first major foray into afternoon animated features was the series-titled movie which saw Scrooge McDuck taking his nephews under his wing on a quest to find an ancient lost treasure. We still don’t know who Huey, Dewey and Luey’s father was, but we know that Donald Duck wore a sailors outfit because (surprise!) he was a sailor. DuckTales had some great storylines, including weeklong arcs, hilariously silly and heroic characters (Launchpad McQuack), seriously cheesy but nasty bad guys (Flintheart Glomgold), and holds the distinction of the series to feature the post-Transformers reunion of Peter Cullen as Admiral Grimitz and Frank Welker as the Phantom Blot. The clincher – Scrooge’s mythical ability to swim through his Money Bin-stowed fortune like Michael Phelps in an Olympic practice run.
# 9 – Mysterious Cities of Gold
When Nickelodeon was in its infancy, it ran this anime feature of World Events Television, which crossed over to the states in the mid 1980s. The story of Estaban, a Spanish youth traveling with mysterious adventurers and pirating rogues, to discover ancient advanced technologies on the way to El Dorado cemented this series as a cult classic. It makes the Top 10 because of containing critical elements: outstanding animation, original storytelling, and finite plot with an endgame. Who can ever forget the sight of the Golden Condor aloft, looking like a DC-10 with a really crazy paint job?
# 8 – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Mattel hit the jackpot with this 1980s series! A collection of budding writers, excellent voice acting, and cutting-edge (for the day) animation made He-Man one of the best of the 1980s. Sadly, it also led to the ill-conceived She-Ra: Princess of Power movie (I should know, I plunked down money to see this train wreck!) and its associated spinoff series. Fortunately, a 2000s He-Man reboot for Cartoon Network, though short-lived, actually answered a great many questions the original series was never able to touch on, as Mattel was legendary for interfering with Filmation’s storytelling.
# 7 – Inspector Gadget
How can a series featuring a film noir-style detective with a helicopter in his hat, genius niece, transforming car, and dog with cellular collar not make this list? Another of DIC Entertainment’s 1980s hits, Inspector Gadget, his niece, Penny, and dog Brain always seemed to get into some sort of madcap adventure to stop the evil Dr. Claw and his malevolent troops of M.A.D.D. from taking over the world. Gadget gets on this list because of the series ability to combine 1980s action-slapstick with the sort of intrigue and semi-risque humor one would expect from a group of Bond film alums. It also never ceased to amaze just how many freeways were in Metro City, though there were several instances where we all asked “why didn’t Gadget just launch a missile to blow up the M.A.D.D.mobile when it took off?” We never get to see Dr. Claw, but we can only surmise he looks a bit like Soundwave in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, as Frank Welker provided that voice, and they sounded identical. Last but not least, it featured one of the catchiest theme songs of the 1980s. Matthew Broderick’s portrayal in the 2000s live-action offering was “meh,” at best. Go-go, Gadget!
# 6 – Jetsons (reboot)
Hanna Barbera had a LOT of forgettable cartoons in the 1980s, but it did manage to get the reboot of the Jetsons right! Where others failed with rebooting 1960s cartoons in the 1980s, Hanna Barbera nailed it with critical things – they stayed true to the original premise, original voices (mostly), and modernized the animation and story concepts. Yes, there were some silly moments but, in a decade of oft-super serious action cartoons and syrupy sweet kiddie shows, The Jetsons were a welcome dose of silly afternoon comedy which combined timely topics with just the right pinch of humor grown-ups could get. The episode featuring George moonlighting as a cabbie only to pick up his boss remains a hoot, and hearing Mr. Spacely say “I’ll risk a speeding ticket and kick this thing into high” actually got my own father laughing. Naturally, the writers made sure to incorporate the series trademark line, Jane, stop this crazy thing! (you KNOW George wanted to drop an f-bomb or ten!)
# 5 – Voltron: Defender of the Universe
One of two “anime”-style cartoons to make this list, this incarnation of Voltron (the Earth-based version was entirely forgettable) made the list through extremely solid voice acting, and first-rate animation. Aside from those, Voltron DOTU suffers from a level of predictability and some of the hokiest animated aliens and enemies to ever grace a 1980s action series. Fortunately for this version, writers tossed in an episode in which the characters faced death itself, only to come back and defeat their enemy. This alone elevates this feature to Top 10 status.
# 4 – Thundercats
File this show under the category of “love it or hate it.” Fans of the show follow it in every incarnation and, like Transformers, Generation 1 fans (aka – “gee-oners”) tend to get into verbal spats with younger viewers over the merits of the original series versus the reboots. Where Thundercats did well was in the series’ unique ability to combine science fiction and fantasy with the paranormal. What this cartoon lacked (animation quality was hit and miss, depending on the episode), was more than made up for by incredible storytelling. While voice acting left something to be desired at times, there was a degree of isolation-style intrigue which set Thundercats apart. As stated, you either loved it, or absolutely hated it. Most loved it, especially Lion-O’s battle cry of Thundercats, HO!!!
# 3 – GI Joe
This series, often juxtaposed Transformers during its run, was one of the greatest action military series of the 1980s. Featuring many of the same acting talent as Transformers, GI Joe also spawned a franchise, with both live-action and animated movies, and rebooted series. Unfortunately, GI Joe suffered from having to follow Transformers’ trailblazing and oft-controversial storytelling approaches, and directors and writers were forced to modify some episodes and story arcs as a result of letter-writing campaigns by parents. According to industry insiders, the death of Optimus Prime in the 1986 Transformers theatrical release led to a vastly scaled down level of violence in the original made-for-TV animated GI Joe movie – in the original script, Duke was actually killed by Serpentor. Regardless, the series did have several great story arcs which threw myriad twists and turns at fans, and its Serpentor-vs-Cobra Commander conflict towards the movie finale cemented the series as one of the best.
# 2 – The Real Ghostbusters
When Columbia Pictures and DIC Entertainment collaborated with ABC to bring the 1980s paranormal comedy film to Saturday morning television, there were concerns as to how good it could be. Fortunately for fans, they did not disappoint. The legendary voice quartet of Maurice Lamarche (Egon), Frank Welker (Ray), Lorenzo Music (Peter) and Arsenio Hall (Winston) brought the oddly remastered characters to life in such a way, hardcore fans actually began abandoning the series when major cast changes were made after Season 2. Writers such as J. Michael Straczinsky and Richard Mueller lent their pens to numerous episodes and, combined with the series ability to go (mostly) without a “big bad” enemy to battle and make social commentary on a variety of issues is one of the reasons The Real Ghostbusters makes it to #2. Speaking of twos, there’s a second reason this series earns this spot: over 150 episodes over a six year span – unheard of for an 1980s animated series.
# 1 – Transformers
Optimus Prime is the gold standard for 1980s cartoon heroes, while Megatron was the ultimate villain. What set Transformers apart from other series of the decade was it was strictly syndicated and relied on no network. Solid storytelling made up for myriad animation gaffes (some now legendary, such as Prime’s missing mouthplate). Where Transformers wins, hands-down, is how it evolved since its origins; launched as a mini-series which nearly didn’t make the cut into an action series which lead to the now-legendary 1986 movie – one of the few to feature the actual deaths of heroes and extremely raw portrayal of war. Then, it survived cast changes atop cast changes, horrendous episodes of its third season and the awful fourth-season “Mini-series” finale, numerous – and often bizarre – reboots in the 1990s and the myriad anime-style franchises shown on Cartoon Network in the 2000s, then picked up by Paramount and Michael Bay and turned into a billion-dollar movie franchise and subsequent ultra-popular animated spinoffs and sequels. That said, Transformers’ 1980s incarnation is the series which started it all!
THE WORST – because each are so awful in their own way, there’s only one clear stinker, and that one we saved for last.
ALF: The Animated Series
You will notice a pattern here – NBC rides a series into the ground. Sadly, this time it’s taking a primetime live-action sci-comedy hit and converting it into a very unforgettable failure of an animated series. Only a semi-catchy intro jingle, and not-so-original concept of the hovercar keeps this series from the top of the scrap heap. What viewers knew about this series was made it so depressing to watch – we all knew, from the start, the Melmac was doomed to destruction in a nuclear holocaust by a villain portrayed as a complete dimwit, but who must have had enough intelligence to know how to “push the button.”
Hanna-Barbera hits the ground running with this 1980s bomb. By this time, however, its various efforts to continue to breath life into the 1960s pioneering Flintstones series becamed steeped in predictability. The ill-fated 1970s spinoff Pebbles & Bam-Bam reeked of desperation, and this late 80s stinker was horrid in all the wrong ways. If it wasn’t bad enough that Fred Flintstone sounded like a helium-breathing bully, the fact the storylines were beyond puerile and pre-pubescent made this series a complete disaster, and this time it was ABC, the standard-bearer for Saturday morning cartoon quality, which pulled a Jurassic-level blunder airing this schlock.
There are two versions of Heathcliff in the 1980s which aired, both of which were forgettable, so this particular series was doubly bad. The Ruby-Spears produced version was reasonably horrid, but the DIC Entertainment variant was silliness at artful levels, keeping it at the fourth spot and diffusing the awfulness of the more silly former against the slightly higher quality latter series. Fortunately, Mel Blanc was retained for both, which managed to allow it some shred of respectability.
Dennis the Menace
This series, which actually lasted long past its shelf life of, oh, three episodes, was a combination of idiotic, moldy ham, and can’t-cut-the-mustard animation waste. There were precious few episodes which come to mind, which makes it worthy of this list. In fact that the only character even worth remembering was Mr. Wilson, and he looked like a cross between Fred Flintstone and magician from the animated Frosty the Snowman!
Hokiness, meet your daddy! This series was simply one bad pun after another, after another, after another. What could have been a crackerjack animated police action series was doomed by writers who were dictated agendas by stations and syndicators, endless meddling from outside sources, and voice actors who seemed to be just “mailing it in.” When a series supposedly set in the 21st century, and uses laser bazookas and an evil professor with a glass-dome covered brain, dusts off the old “train robbery” plot, you just flushed your credibility down the toilet to…Newer Jersey? (Yes, we remembered that one!)
Thundarr the Barbarian
In the year 1996, a really badly animated comet caused the moon to crack, the earth to loose its cloudcover, and California’s coast to get flooded out…and that was before the Kardashians arrived! Yet despite bad storylines, lousy animation, and predictable plots, the series managed to actually deliver a zinger or two on occasion, such as when Thundarr slips into the pre-1996 Earth and is introduced to the Yellow Pages, referring to it as “this book of knowledge.”
There are two very different versions of this Hanna Barbera series – one was a train wreck of stupidity powered by the human Wonder Twins, and one was a far-better, yet still forgettable incarnation featuring the Justice League-style alien Wonder Twins and gang going up against the Legion of Doom. Depending on which one you watched more of, the Justice League animated series of Warner Bros. fame was like Holy Water sprinkled on a demon called the network executives. At least Gary Owens was consistent in both.
Scooby Doo & Scrappy, Too!
Hanna Barbera does it again with wrecking an original. Fred Jones, Daphne Blake and Velma Binkley apparently were went on some sort of bizarre menage-a-trois when HB gave center stage to a miniature Great Dane having one gigantic episode of roid rage. We know he didn’t get the juice from Shaggy or Scooby, so one can only surmise that the network heads spiked the animators’ ink and paint wells. Aside from that, this entire series took the venerable Scooby Doo series and almost drove it into the ground, so badly that nothing short of endless reruns of the original series saved it from obscurity. Puppiiieee….oh, NEVER MIND!!!
Ghostbusters (Filmation version)
This series suffered from several issues, but not least of which being Filmation Studios’ knack for really lousy timing. Trying to capitalize on the remaining success of He-Man and other franchises, Filmation dusted off the 1970s Ghostbusters cult movie and beat Columbia Pictures and ABC to the punch. It’s primary issue, beyond annoying viewers who expected something akin to the Real Ghostbusters franchise, was the fact that it recycled seriously overused science fiction plot devices and combined them with even more trite and overused cartoon plot devices. Time-travel and interdimensional battles with what were supposed to be ghosts and goblins seemed were silly at best, boring at worst. Top it all off with the introduction Prime Evil, a “big bad” who looked like a cross between Skeletor and the Terminator, sounded even more ridiculous, and had a henchman who looked like a rat suffering from a serious bout of the giggles. Clinching this show’s awfulness was the clichéd sex-kitten Futura, whose name reeked of hoke and appears to be the character model inspiration for several females featured on Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
and at the top of this crap pile…
NBC knows how to do one thing well – run a series into the ground. They did so with expert guile when it came to the little blue men (and woman) of the 80s. Hanna Barbera took Peyo’s annoying little cutiepies, gave them serious “kid-appeal,” and bestowed upon it some of the most idiotic stories in the history of American animation. What clinches the top spot for this series is the rather sexist transformation of Smurfette from an evil, raven-haired frump queen into a blonde bombshell of blue. Predictable plots, stupid characters and incompetent bad guys, thy name is Smurfy! OMFG, make the theme song stop!!!!!!
Of course, we couldn’t go without Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions:
Mighty Orbots: One season with a great, action packed storyline. Tonka’s lone foray into action toys and an anime-style series ended abruptly with rumors of copyright infringement suits between Tonka and other major robot toy manufacturers.
PacMan – The Animated Series: When ABC gave the go-ahead to this series, parents across America groaned. Strangely, this show had a charm to it which made it a cult hit. Give credit to the cast – they carried the series where artwork failed miserably.
Alvin & The Chipmunks: This series wrecked the great Chipmunks cartoons of the 1960s and, sadly, the movie franchise of the 2000s was eerily similar to the 1980s version.
Saturday Supercade: See also Alvin and the Chipmunks. Memo to network execs – never try to convert Nintendo games into hand-drawn animation until 1997. Oh wait, we passed that year, didn’t we?
Slimer!: Someone at ABC was on a serious bender when they forced this horrid Real Ghostbusters spinoff down the throats of fans. Then again, it did come out around the same time that Superfriends was winding down, so maybe they needed something to fill that crap void. Thankfully, it lasted one season – Professor Dweeb is reportedly now a campaign worker for Donald Trump.
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