There were over 500 scripted TV shows in 2018, and that’s more than any of us could ever follow (even those of us who do it professionally). Year after year, this decade has seen a continued rise in the volume of animated entertainment options largely due to streaming services like Netflix investing in adult and children’s cartoons, from the fantasy-comedy Disenchantment to pre-teen mysteries like The Hollow. Fortunately, many of the best cartoons of the year are available right now to stream—here are 3 must-sees from the newest and greatest in TV animation.
The Dragon Prince (Netflix)
Marry Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and it would look something like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, a fantasy drama that far more people should be talking about this year. In its first season we’re introduced to the war between humans and elves and like any complicated war, both sides are simultaneously sympathetic and in the wrong. When the humans kill the last dragon and its egg, there’s no looking back—stubbornness on both sides spiral the humans and elves deeper into conflict and violence. Of course, when the adults are too entrenched in hatred to see anything clearly it becomes up to the younger generation—humans and elf—to stop the war and create peace.
A rich world and stunning animation make The Dragon Prince an easy recommendation, but its focus on character relationships propels it to a must-watch. From a deaf army general who demands your attention in sign language to the step-relationships of a blended family and a lot in between, The Dragon Prince is the blueprint for the diverse world we live in reflected in a land of fantasy. With the first season ending on a cliffhanger and the recent announcement that Netflix renewed the series for a second season, you can count on The Dragon Prince to be a late bloomer that everyone will be talking about soon enough.
Notable episode: Episode 4, “Bloodthirsty”
The power structure drastically changes for the humans in this episode. Meanwhile, our heroes are on the run and take refuge in a winter lodge where soldiers catch up with them. Long-awaited tension pays off when you finally get to see General Amaya in action as her own nephew tries to escape with her sworn enemy.
Craig of the Creek (The Cartoon Network App)
Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek is the most adorable depiction of a Black family I’ve ever seen animated, and the one that the 9-year old Black boy inside me has always wanted. Craig is an adventurer, and alongside his two best friends, Kelsey and J.P., they go on 11-minute adventures that are lessons in emotional intelligence along the creeks and in backwoods behind their suburban houses. Think Disney’s Recess, complete with kid clique archetypes that Craig and his friends meet along the way, and you have a good idea of what you’re in for.
But where the playground is swapped for the creek, this one also adds more focus to Craig’s home life as well to give us representation of a younger rule-following sister, an ambitious and short-fused older brother, and two loving parents that lead their beautiful home. With Craig’s grandmother as a city councilwoman and his grandfather a woodworker who bestowed his adventurous spirit on Craig, it’s easy to see the charm in a loving family that thoughtfully fills the void of Black households in animation. The main through-line is Craig’s ambition as a cartographer to map out the entire creek, leading he and his friends to new adventures. If you need a dose of adorable family life, endearing kid adventures, and clever humor courtesy of voice actors like Phil LaMarr and Terry Crews, you can find all the current episodes Craig of the Creek on the Cartoon Network app.
Notable episode: Episode 12, “Bring Out Your Beast”
A card game takes the creek by storm and Craig steals his brother Bernard’s set of cards to play. Little does Craig know, Bernard’s collector deck is one of the most powerful out there. With its power unleashed on the creek, it turns to chaos, and Bernard must finally bond with his little brother to restore balance. A riff on Yu-Gi-Oh!, “Bring Out Your Beast” is one of funniest episodes in a long list of instant classics.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix)
Perhaps we have Voltron to thank, because Netflix doubled down this year on rebooting a popular franchise from the eighties, this time with a successful first season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Written by Noelle Stevenson, creator of the sharply clever graphic novel Nimona, She-Ra is yet another bright spot among modern reboots like Voltron: Legendary Defender and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and a counterargument to the jaded belief that reboots are inherently bad.
What to expect? When Adora discovers she’s long been on the wrong side of the war by fighting on behalf of the evil Horde, she also becomes the hero She-Ra who must turn against her former best friend to reunite Etheria. The result is a princess-of-the week formula where Adora and her two new best friends, Glimmer and Bow, most recruit the other princesses to help them stand up against the Horde before they take over the world.
While you might expect an easy formula from there—collect all the Infinity Stone princesses and the rest is easy as a snap—the princesses are given an autonomy that makes for a more complicated and genuine story where they truly need convincing, and not all will choose the right side. The result is a mostly-female cast with few male speaking parts (I counted 6 the whole season) with a clear message towards the power of girl friendships, down to the “we must be strong” theme song, and an implicit queerness characteristic of a world so unimpacted by men.
Notable episode: Episode 9, “No Princess Left Behind”
Like the title suggests, this one’s an emotional episode. With the help of her new friends, Adora sets out to rescue one of the captured princesses only to fail and be captured herself. There’s spy craft, torture, and heartbreak as Adora’s friendship with her former best friend comes to an emotional shattering point.
Jordan Calhoun is a writer and pop culture fanatic in New York City. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Twitter @jordanmcalhoun.