“Animation is not a genre. Animation is an artform and it can do any genre.”
As director of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, Brad Bird should know what he’s talking about – and looking at how the medium’s evolved over the last 30 years, it’s impossible to disagree.
As recently as the early ’90s, cartoons were still widely regarded as something for the kids. Since then, however, The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park have paved the way for more adult-oriented animation on TV, while the groundbreaking likes of Pixar, DreamWorks and Laika have pushed the boundaries of what animators can achieve on screen.
These days animation is a broad church taking in everything from comedy for pre-schoolers to sophisticated examinations of the human soul. As with its live-action programming, Netflix’s animated content explores a huge range of styles, genres and themes – and a lot of its shows are absolutely essential viewing.
In this list, TechRadar has brought together 15 of the best Netflix Original animated series you can watch right now – whether you’re into gritty sci-fi, family comedy or sword-wielding warrior princesses, there’s something for you here.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
The original She-Ra was a spin-off from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, an ’80s cartoon that was much better at flogging toys than telling stories. Few seriously believed it needed a comeback, until this hit Netflix show proved otherwise. Series creator Noelle Stevenson put the emphasis on reinvention, crafting a fun, intelligent, sophisticated saga that couldn’t be further from the po-faced source material.
With He-Man nowhere to be seen, twin sister Adora takes centre stage, wielding the magic sword that turns her into She-Ra and displaying refreshingly 21st century attitudes to representation. The kind of Saturday morning cartoon you encourage your kids to watch.
Love, Death + Robots
With the likes of Black Mirror, a rebooted Twilight Zone and Inside No 9, the anthology series has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years. The genius at the heart of Love, Death + Robots, however, is that by telling its one-off tales via the medium of animation, the show has ensured its only limitations are the imaginations of its writers.
Luckily it has an ingenious plan for navigating that particular obstacle – adapting short stories from some of the finest genre authors on the planet, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and John Scalzi among them. Among the best sci-fi currently on TV.
After creating The Simpsons, Matt Groening would have been forgiven for throwing away his pencil and stepping away from animation for good. Thank goodness he didn’t, because then we wouldn’t have been treated to the peerless 31st century adventures of Futurama – or Disenchantment, a deliciously twisted take on epic fantasy.
With plenty of trademark Groening overbites, lots of pop culture references, and some razor-sharp skewering of the modern world, there’s no doubt the new show comes from the same stable as its predecessors. But it’s also home to more grown-up themes, and boasts a more serialized arc plot – perfect for the era of binge TV.
A cartoon about a talking horse who was once the star of his own hit sitcom? BoJack Horseman looked – on paper, at least – like it was going to be the height of silliness when it cantered onto Netflix back in 2014. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s undefinable show has been defying expectations ever since, evolving from a hilariously acerbic satire on Hollywood – albeit one where animals and humans live alongside one another – into something much more ambitious.
By turns funny, bleak and toe-curlingly awkward (and sometimes even heartwarming), few TV shows have ever delved further into the human (and equine) condition. One of the jewels in Netflix’s impressive crown.
The long-running, vampire-infested console actioner that’s been scaring players since the ’80s gets reinvented as a TV series – and puts most other videogame adaptations to shame. The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage voices monster-hunting hero Trevor Belmont, teaming up with Dracula’s half-human son Alucard (Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis) against the infamous Count.
With plenty of gore, every episode written by comics legend Warren Ellis, and anime-inspired visuals, it’s clearly aimed at old-school fans of the franchise – indeed, chances are you wouldn’t want your kids tuning in.
Voltron: Legendary Defender
A re-dubbed, re-edited reinvention of Japanese anime show Beast King GoLion, Voltron has retained plenty of cult appeal since it debuted in the ’80s. This latest incarnation picks up the story of five teen pilots whose robot lions come together to form a giant mecha fighting machine called Voltron – Earth’s last defence against the evil Galra Empire.
Luckily, showrunners and Avatar: The Last Airbender veterans Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim dos Santos realize cool iconography isn’t enough to carry the show, and load the series with epic outer space action and fun character beats – along with surprisingly dark themes about PTSD and bereavement.
Dragons: Race to the Edge
TV spin-offs from movies don’t have to be cheap cash-ins. Just as the Star Wars universe was undeniably enhanced by the existence of The Clone Wars and Rebels, this long-running series is a vital addition to the soaring Viking adventures of How to Train Your Dragon.
Okay, Cressida Cowell’s stories don’t have quite as much dramatic scope as George Lucas’s saga, but nevertheless, Hiccup and Toothless’s adventures between the first two movies are suitably epic. The CG animation is much better than you’d usually expect on TV, and – with many of the movie cast reprising their roles – Dragons feels like a blockbuster sequel in episodic form.
From Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth, to The Devil’s Backbone to The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro has a long history of infusing tales of the supernatural with memorable characters and plenty of heart. It’s no surprise, then, that the animated series he created should follow a similar blueprint.
There’s a definite Buffy vibe to the show, as ordinary kid Jim discovers he’s the chosen one destined to protect his town from subterranean beasts, taking on the mantle of the first ever human Trollhunter. It’s part of a wider universe, too: the second series in del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia trilogy, the sci-fi-tinged 3Below, debuted in 2018, while final instalment Wizards is due in August 2020.
The Midnight Gospel
Pendleton Ward, creator of hit animation series Adventure Time, teams up with comedian Duncan Trussell to create another slice of trippy surreality. Where Adventure Time focused on the fantasy world of Ooo, The Midnight Gospel sets its coordinates for outer space, namely a weird dimension known as the Chromatic Ribbon.
From here a spacecaster called Clancy (effectively a podcaster with interstellar reach) uses his illegal multiverse simulator to interview beings from other planets. Despite only eight episodes being available so far, The Midnight Gospel has already proved itself infinitely inventive, visually stylish and emotionally powerful – and totally unlike anything else on TV. Cross your fingers it gets a greenlight for season two.
Tuca & Bertie
With a pair of anthropomorphized birds as its lead characters, Tuca & Bertie looks a lot like a BoJack Horseman spin-off. Despite the fact it was created by BoJack production designer Lisa Hanawalt, however, this one-season wonder is very much its own beast. At its heart are two avian best friends, loud-mouthed toucan Tuca, and her song thrush roomie Bertie.
Packed with clever puns and visual gags (anyone fancy posting to Facebeak?), the show delivers a unique perspective on life and love in the 21st century. Yet its trump card is the casting of top comedians Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong in the lead roles – this is one double act we’d love to have seen more of.
Don’t be put off by the unsophisticated animation style. Like Netflix stablemate Sex Education, Big Mouth is impressively candid when it comes to bodily functions and other issues associated with growing up – despite the fact its characters are regularly visited by surreal products of their imaginations such as a Shame Wizard and a Hormone Monster called Maurice.
Co-creators Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg drew on their own teenage experiences to tell the story of best friends Andrew and Nick, but it’s hard to believe their real lives were quite this funny – as with The Inbetweeners, Big Mouth shows that teens can get away with the kind of crude gags nobody else can.
F is for Family
If you thought that The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Family Guy were all the animated, suburban family comedies you’d ever need, think again because F is for Family is a worthy addition to the sub-genre. In fact, co-creator/star Bill Burr’s show instantly distances itself from those other shows with its 1970s setting, an era that puts a very different perspective on the world.
Family patriarch Frank Murphy is an angry guy, increasingly disillusioned with his lot in life and struggling to deal with society evolving faster than he’d like. With plenty of pathos to go with the humour, it’s impressively three-dimensional stuff.
If there are prizes given out for the most stylish animated series on Netflix, the elegant production design of Carmen Sandiego has to make it a contender. Based on a 1980s videogame (which also spawned two game shows and a cartoon series in the ’90s), this Netflix incarnation tells the story of the eponymous super-thief, voiced by Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez.
Of course, this being a kids’ show, Carmen isn’t really a criminal – despite what the authorities claim. Instead she uses her heisting skills to steal back what’s been taken by the despicable operatives of V.I.L.E – aka the Villains International League of Evil – in a series packed with fun adventures and plenty of backstory. Stranger Things and IT’s Finn Wolfhard co-stars as sidekick Player.
This cartoon series may look like something from the 1980s, but it actually debuted in 2018. Based on an award-winning series of independent graphic novels by British creator Luke Pearson, the show mixes a Scandinavian setting that evokes the Moomins with a visual style reminiscent of Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki.
It follows the exploits of titular blue-haired pre-teen Hilda (voiced by Bella Ramsey, the heroic Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones) when she moves from her magical village to the big city – and discovers there’s just as much supernatural stuff going on behind the scenes… The series clearly has younger audiences in its sights, but there’s also a surprising amount of emotional depth lurking beneath the surface.
A trio of teenage strangers wake up to find themselves in an underground bunker. With their memories erased, they have to come together to survive the bizarre, dangerous, puzzle-filled world they find themselves in – all while working out why the hell they were brought together in the first place.
If the ingenious Maze Runner-like premise of The Hollow isn’t enough to draw you in, rest assured that there’s plenty more to like in this super-smart kids’ show. It’s fast-paced, the core characters are memorable, and there’s plenty of genre-hopping in a gripping serialized story arc.