Our Ten’s List: Best Kid’s Cartoon Movies.
We pour a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal and hop on the couch for ten great kid’s cartoon adaptations.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold reminded that Hollywood can occasionally get a kid’s show right. I went through the film library looking for ten other films based on children’s shows that could pass muster. Many of these films are already classics. Some of them you may not have ever heard of the movie or the TV show they were based off of. Some are great because they give you more of what you loved about the series. Others take the material in entirely new directions, leveraging a bigger budget and wider audience to reinvent themselves. All of them are great picks for the family, or if you’re looking to revisit your own childhood glory days.
10. The Powerpuff Girls Movie.
Professor Utoniom strives to create the perfect little girls, but his mischievous monkey lab assistant Jojo causes him to accidentally drop Chemical X into the mix. The resulting explosion creates three super powered little girls -Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup. It also gives Jojo super intelligence, turning him into the supervillain Mojo Jojo.
When the Powerpuff girls are introduced to the wider world, things do not go smoothly. Their super strength and speed make school recess into a disaster zone, and the people of Townville quickly shun the little girls. The trio hide on the moon in shame, but realize their powers could be used for good when Mojo Jojo uses his army of super monkeys to take over Townville.
Our first entry basically recapitulates the origin story of the Powerpuff girls, while adding some new wrinkles. The movie feels like an extended episode of the show, but in all the right ways. The story feels organic to the franchise but has more meat on its bones, the action benefits from the bigger animation budget, and most of the fan favorites get a chance to shine on the big screen. Coming out at pretty much the height of the series’ popularity and peak of the shows storytelling power, The Powerpuff Girls Movie gives fans more of what they already knew they liked.
9. BraveStarr: The Movie.
Marshal BraveStarr is a Native American peace marshal living on the colony planet of New Texas. The planet is mostly desert but is rich in a mineral that helps power space flight. The local desperado Stampede plots to steal the mineral and terrorize the indigenous population, but is repeatedly foiled by BraveStarr.
While our first movie existed to give fans more of what they knew, BraveStarr is a gem because it introduced audiences to a character/universe they probably never knew existed. I had all of the He-Man stuff and watched his cartoon regularly (heck, I even shelled out for a ticket to the live action Masters of the Universe!) and I still had no clue that Mattel had another TV/toy franchise called BraveStarr.
The movie format whips the series into shape, imposing a more linear story onto the “bad-guy and moral lesson of the week” structure of the cartoon. This makes the space opera/western feel grander and more ambitious than the show. The upgrade in animation, featuring some pioneering computer animation, stands out. When Cowboy Bebop came out and revolutionized the space western genre, it reminded me of certain elements of BraveStarr’s movie. A nice, niche show that really benefited from getting a movie.
8. Pokemon 3: Spell of the Unown.
Terrifyingly powerful creatures called the Unown are called into existence by a grieving young girl. They begin granting twisted version of her wishes – her home becomes a crystal castle cut off from the world, her missing father is replaced by a illusionary version of himself, and the Unown kidnap a woman to act as a mother to complete her idealized family. Unfortunately, the captured woman is series hero Ash Ketchum’s mother, so the plucky young Pokemon trainer heads to the foreboding castle to save his mom and the young girl under the sway of the Unown.
Pokemon movies are a dime a dozen, and they tend to suffer from “Dragon Ball-itis.” Namely, they feel like either stale rehashes of stories from the TV show or they are transparent marketing gimmicks to pimp some new monster/character merchandise. Pokemon 3 actually feels like a real movie.
Sure, we get most of the fan favorite creatures here and there, and there is a new (marketable) group of monsters introduced…but at its heart it’s a poignant story about loss and grief, and the need to face tough reality instead of comforting fantasies. It also benefits from being smaller in scope. Instead of being a big monster brawl with the world at stake, we get a more character driven arc. It’s still Pokemon, but probably about as deep a story as the dueling pocket monster franchise has fielded.
7. SpongeBob SquarePants The Movie.
SpongeBob has high hopes that he will finally get to manage the Krusty Krab when a second restaurant is founded. Unfortunately, his childish nature leads to him being passed over for the promotion.
At the same time, Plankton devises a plan to steal the secret recipe for the famous Krabby Patty: he steals King Neptune’s crown, exiles it to the real world, and frames Mr. Krabs for the crime. A pissed Neptune arrives to destroy the Krusty Krab, but SpongeBob and Neptune’s daughter, Mindy, bargain for a reprieve. Now SpongeBob and Patrick have one week to grow up and get the crown back.
For fans of SpongeBob’s brand of inspired lunacy, this movie adaptation gives with both hands. The story is really the same over-baked “steal the Krabby Patty” plot that basically fuels 90% of the show’s material, cranked up to 11. The idiocy of SpongeBob and Patrick is likewise turned all the way up. The new characters are interesting, especially Scarlett Johansson’s Mindy and David Hasselhoff’s…well…David Hasselhoff! Alec Baldwin plays a weird hitman hired by Plankton to stop the duo, which is hit and miss.
Thanks to the final part of the story taking place in the real world, we get a whole ‘nother level of crazy pants ideas for the show-writers to play with. I mean, the film features a 12 foot tall photo-realistic replica of Hasselhoff, and the Hoff basically body boards our heroes back to Bikini Bottom like a human dolphin. People who read my review of Swiss Army Man should recognize how much I appreciate such displays of unfettered madness.
6. The Wild Thornberrys Movie.
Eliza Thornberry travels the Savannah with her documentarian parents, older sister, adopted brother, and pet monkey. Due to her constant courage in rescuing animals, she is gifted the ability speak to animals by a shaman. Also due to her constant bravery, she is targeted by a pair of poachers. Thanks to her gift, she learns the poachers are planning on killing a herd of elephants, so Eliza and her reluctant siblings must intervene.
I did not think I would like the Wild Thornberrys. The animation style is really not appealing to me, and the show missed my Nickelodeon age window by a good decade. That being said, the movie was really good. It didn’t improve the character animation much, but it really leaned into the beautiful nature panoramas that the show couldn’t afford. The characters are all interesting and varied. The story has enough twists and turns to not feel generic or like a glorified episode of the show. I figured this would be a mash up somewhere between The Rescuers Down Under and Born Free, but The Wild Thornberrys Movie wound up being its own animal.
5. Shaun the Sheep.
Shaun is a good-natured but mischievous sheep constantly bringing grief to the gentle farmer who runs the farm. His latest scheme to avoid work is to fool the farmer into sleeping all day, using counting sheep. Unfortunately, the sleepy human winds up rolling away in the mobile trailer Shaun concocts for the plan, and now Shaun and his farm buddies have to rescue him from the big city.
We’ve already talked about how much fun Shaun the Sheep the Movie is. It captures all of the charm of the show, has great production values, and provides plenty of laughs for the whole family. Check it out.
4. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Bruce Wayne meets a mysterious young woman just as he’s beginning his career as a crime fighter. He contemplates living a normal life, but when she ditches him he commits to becoming Batman. Ten years later, as he tries to break up the newly solidified crime families, a new vigilante appears in town who ruthlessly murders the gang members one by one. Batman races against time to find the killer, clear his name, and find out what connection his lost love has to the sordid affair.
Batman: The Animated Series made the jump to the big screen and really leaned into the new format. Being off TV, they took the story in a much darker direction. By adding in the vignette where Bruce Wayne could have been happy (and not been Batman) we get to a new truth for the character. Batman is not an aspirational figure or Bruce’s way to memorialize his parent’s by preventing other crimes. Batman is the product of a profoundly unhappy man who feels like life has taken away every option but to be Batman.
Besides the grim ethos of why Batman does what he does, we also get villains committing a lot of murder. Death was implied in many episodes, but here we watch both Joker and Phantasm off baddies on-screen by the truckload. That’s a far cry from Mark Hamil‘s Joker clonking Batman over the head and making wrench puns in the series. It’s not Tim Burton Batman levels of disregard for life, but it does give Mask of the Phantasm its own sensibilities separate from the show.
All told, the darker story, the bigger action sequences, and a surprisingly deep backstory for the Phantasm make this adaptation a strong outing for the Dark Knight.
The Chipmunks and Chipettes go on a globe-trotting race against each other. Unbeknownst to them, the organizers of the race are using our singing rodents as mules, hiding contraband in the items that the Chipmunks have to collect and drop off as they circle the globe via hot air balloons.
What’s more family friendly than having adorable anthropomorphic animals get caught up in diamond smuggling? Despite the dubious morals, the Chipmunk Adventure is a fantastic riff on Around the World in 80 Days. Each stop features fantastic visuals, excellent musical numbers, and exciting set pieces. From evading a shark in Bermuda, to navigating a street festival in Mexico City, to having a battle of the bands in the Parthenon, each stop is instantly memorable.
The fluid animation is a treat, light years better than the television show. The creators of the Chipmunks financed the picture himself with the acorns he squirreled away from creating The Chipmunks, and he snagged several Disney animators who had been released after The Black Cauldron flopped. Goes to show you how little people new about good animation in the 80’s!
For those afraid of Alvin and the gang after seeing the dreadful live-action versions, check out this film instead. It’s fun, pretty, and filled to the brim with great songs.
2. Paddington / Paddington 2.
Paddington is a polite and tidy little bear living with an English family. Despite his good intentions, our marmalade loving hero winds up getting himself into sticky situations.
Paddington 2 was my introduction to the film franchise, and it was a lovely surprise. The characters were memorable and lovable without being cloying. The jokes were firmly G-rated but pretty much all landed with me. Paul King paces the story well and has a visual style that is distinctive. It made me wonder if I’d missed something by not seeing the 2014 original.
I fired up the first film to see if it was a fluke, and guess what? Both movies are adorable. The first film is a bit more folksy “fish out of water” type story, but it still had the same charm and solid structure. This is a pair of bear movies you can sit down and watch with your kids and enjoy them just as much as the tykes.
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Four pet turtles come into contact with radioactive ooze and become turtle teens. Trained in ninjitsu by their sensei, Splinter -a Japanese rat who also became human-adjacent due to the ooze – the four turtles battle crime in the big city. Soon after coming out of the shadows, they face their greatest threat – The Shredder, a warlord who is using his ninja underlings to create a reign of terror.
I swear to god that this story makes all the sense in the world when you’re watching it instead of reading it.
It seemed that turtle-mania was everywhere when I was a kid, so it was no shock when a movie was announced. What was a shock, was that unlike other adaptations of cartoon/toy lines, it was really good. The costumes looked great. The stunt work was fantastic, with tons of iconic fight sequences. The three part story arc feels sufficiently weighty, with themes of loss, alienation, grief, and the fraught relationships between fathers and sons all getting treatment. Even the sillier aspects, such as Casey Jones, were made to feel natural in the way the film handled them.
Besides being a great adaptation of a kid’s cartoon, TMNT was a great martial arts flick and a really engaging movie. Despite the three-ring circus that the franchise has become, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film is a classic.