Animated shows--or "cartoons"--have a bit of a bad rep. While the concept of adult cartoons and introduction of anime to American media have done a lot to counter that attitude, plenty of people out there still believe that animated shows are "just for kids," or, worse, don't have good storytelling.
I have compiled a list of seven of my personal favorite sci-fi and fantasy animated shows. These are a mix of kid-friendly and explicitly adult, with links to more in-depth reviews. So if you're thinking of venturing into the field of animated television--or are just looking for your next show to binge on Netflix--give one of these a try.
Avatar: the Last Airbender
3 seasons, finished
Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best animated show for children, if not best animated show period, and that is not hyperbole. There's a reason I reference this show repeatedly in almost all of my "on writing" articles and videos: great worldbuilding, engaging plot, stellar characterization, heart-renching redemption arc, diversity, cute animals, intense fight scenes, catchy music, everything is just damn-near perfect.
If you haven't heard me gush about this show, Avatar: the Last Airbender follows the story of Aang, a twelve-year-old Chosen One who has to bring peace to a world at war for the last one hundred years. But all Aang wants to do is be a kid. Kind of hard to do when he's being chased by the entire Fire Nation and all of his people were wiped out in a genocide.
One of its greatest strengths is the nuance. Not everyone on team bad guy is evil. Not everyone on team good guy is a good person. And there's more than one morally gray character: the Fire Nation prince Zuko, the freedom fighter Jet, even Katara--the most heroic member on Aang's team--has some dark moments.
And yes, this is a kids' show doing this. I love it!
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
5 seasons, finished
I'll admit, at the time of my posting this I am not done watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. But I've finished season four and will binge the rest of it by the end of the week.
It has a similar premise to Avatar: chosen one, war, save the world, etc. Also like ATLA, it has more nuance than the surface level good vs evil would have you believe. A lot more nuance.
There are two marked differences. The first is the chosen one in question: Adora starts the series a member of the Evil Hoard, having been raised by them since she was an infant. The minute she realizes that they're destroying the land and hurting innocent people, she joins the rebellion and becomes She-Ra, a powerful warrior with a variety of useful powers that she has no idea how to control.
The second difference, and what initially caught my eye, is the worldbuilding. While there's plenty of magical elements, it also has a lot of technology and science fiction elements, as well. Essentially, the world of Etheria blends magic with technology in a way I've never seen before.
It also has a lot more gay. Always a plus.
3 seasons, unfinished
The Dragon Prince has one of the same creators and the voice actor of Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender, so I was all over this.
Also, it seems I have a thing for anti-war stories, because this follows the same concept as the other two: rag-tag group of kids set out to end a conflict that's been plaguing their world for the last several generations. This one doesn't have a chosen one, though, so that's a difference.
I broke this one down in detail in my review, but we've basically got a human kingdom that killed the dragon king of Xadia a while back and destroyed his egg, which triggers a band of elven assassins to go after the human king and his two sons. But one of the elves discovers that the egg wasn't destroyed, but rather stolen, and she works with the two human princes to make things right between their peoples.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
64 episodes, finished
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is an anime based on the manga Fullmetal Alchemist. It follows a pair of teen brothers who seek the Philosopher's Stone so they can fix their big magical screw-up. They tried to bring their mother back from the dead and it did not go well: the eldest brother Ed lost an arm and a leg, and the younger brother Alphonse lost his whole body, so now his soul is attached to a suit of armor.
To do this, they join the army in their highly-militarized country, which is hiding a big secret going back centuries and proves deadly to anyone who gets too close.
The magic system here is alchemy, and heavily science-based. You can't make something without giving up something of that exact same value, which is why bringing people back from the dead never works. For instance, in an earlier episode, Alphonse uses the broken pieces of a radio to make a brand new one. This makes for some creative problem-solving on Ed and Al's part.
1 season, unfinished
During a nasty war, one side resorted to illegal magic experimentation and turned their soldiers into shapeshifting monsters. They can change at-will into terrifying god-like beings with unique powers that ultimately won the war. The problem is they slowly lose their sanity and humanity, stealing from and murdering innocent people instead of soldiers on a battlefield.
To make matters worse, when the war ended, their captain Hank--our main character--was betrayed and shot before he could find a way to fix it. Two months later, all of those unstable, insane supersoldiers are back home, endangering their families and communities. So Hank, left with no other choice, hunts them down one by one.
Like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, this show is inspired by a manga. But as I said in my review, I actually prefer the anime to the manga. Season two was supposed to release this year, but with COVID throwing everything out of whack, who knows when that'll happen?
Rick & Morty
Adult (rated R)
4 seasons, unfinished
If you haven't heard of Rick & Morty, can I come over to the rock you're hiding under? It sounds fantastic.
It's genuinely difficult to pin down what, exactly, I like about this show. Normally I prefer stories with hopeful messages and less chaos. Rick & Morty is full of dark humor, near-irredeemable characters, and a "screw it, I do what I want" attitude toward worldbuilding. And yet, I love it.
As Rick says, "don't think about it." Just enjoy watching a dysfunctional family have crazy space adventures.
Season five will hopefully start sometime next year, which is probably the earliest we can hope for with the pandemic.
Adult (rated R)
3 seasons, unfinished
When Dracula's wife is murdered by an overzealous bishop, he decides that humans suck and declares war on all of humanity, unleashing his undead army to butcher them all. A trio of heroes--a vampire hunter, a mage, and Dracula's own half-vampire son--fight to stop him.
As I said in my review, Castlevania is a very grimdark story. Almost everyone is either a villain or anti-hero, and only half of the story is actually dedicated to the heroic trio. The other half is spent on the infighting in Dracula's forces. But it's also got a handful of genuinely bright, funny moments.
Season four likely won't premier until the second half of 2021, but if the other seasons are any indication, it'll be well worth the wait.
What are your favorite sci-fi/fantasy animated series?
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!