A cartoon is an inherently limitless medium. It is not bound to our world, or even our physics, and so can communicate in ways that humans in front of a camera simply can’t. Anything goes in the world of cartoons, which are shackled only by the imaginations of writers and animators. Stories can be bigger, wilder, darker, and more fanciful than anything bound by the gravity of our reality. Can you tell how much we love cartoons? We love cartoons a lot.
So, we put together a list of our favorite cartoons and animated shows and movies on Netflix, ranging from kids’ hits that adults will love to gory adventures for the moodiest among us. If that sounds like a diverse range of picks, that’s because it is. Cartoons, people! They can do anything!
1. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobson, Mike Rianda, and Danny McBride star as the (voices of the) titular Mitchells.
Take your typical family road trip comedy, toss in a robot apocalypse, and top it all off with a heavy smattering of meme-worthy filters, doodles, and GIFs, and you might end up with something like The Mitchells vs. The Machines: a truly fun-for-the-whole-family feature that hinges on whether an artsy teen (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her Luddite dad (voiced by Danny McBride) can set aside their differences long enough to save all of humanity from being launched into space by
Come for the jokes about our impending AI-led dystopia, stay for the heart-tugging moments of Mitchell family bonding. Seriously, we might never hear T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” without tearing up again. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor (*)
How to Watch: The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming on Netflix.
2. The Dragon Prince
Set in a rich fantasy world, The Dragon Prince is a fun and adventurous epic full of dragons, magic, and evil courtiers. The story centers around a young, idealistic human prince, his caring half-brother, and a playful elf-assassin, all brought together by a quest to heal the rift between their two peoples. They and their friends are deeply relatable, in part because the show allows them to make mistakes and to change their minds. It’s certainly an achievement for a cartoon to explore both the nuances of the human condition and deliver a sweeping magical set-piece in under 30 minutes, but The Dragon Prince does so with grace — and a whole lot of whimsical jokes.
Need another reason to watch? The Dragon Prince’s cast of characters features a full spectrum of skin color, sexual orientation, and physical ability, and all are treated with simple, almost mundane respect by those around them. This casual normalization of under-represented groups elevates The Dragon Prince from a great show to an exceptional show, and one of the few in the fantasy genre to get diversity right.
How to Watch: The Dragon Prince is streaming on Netflix.
3. BoJack Horseman
Will Arnett voices talking horse and philosophical train-wreck BoJack Horseman.
The king of adult animation, BoJack Horseman needs no introduction. The series has been nominated for multiple Emmys and was a critics’ darling for most of its six-season run. In a world where animals and humans live side-by-side, BoJack follows a washed-up actor (and horse!) trying to make a comeback while struggling with addiction. While the cast deserves a write-up of its own (Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Aaron Paul to name a few), one reason this show has remained such a fan favorite is its dedication to realism. It explores dark topics like depression, sexism, trauma, and more with sobering honesty — which is all the more interesting coming from characters like a talent agent (and cat) named Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris).
The only explanation you could have for avoiding BoJack this long is some sort of misguided rebellion against the dozens of people in your life insisting you should watch it. We’re sorry, but it’s time to let go. Accept it. BoJack is every bit as compelling as your friends claim it to be.
How to Watch: BoJack Horseman is streaming on Netflix.
4. Surf’s Up (2007)
Cody Maverick, a young, Antarctic penguin, has dreamed his entire life of being a pro surfer, but does he have what it takes? Not before he’s had a Karate Kid-style training session, of course! Surf’s Up stands out from other CGI family flicks because of its mockumentary style, complete with penguin confessionals. Shia LaBeouf charms as the headstrong Cody, but the star performance belongs to Jeff Bridges, in his most Jeff Bridges role (besides Lebowski) as Cody’s burned-out-beach-bum teacher. Hilarious and surprisingly grounded for a movie about penguins on surfboards, Surf’s Up is a solid choice for your next movie night — kids or no kids!
How to Watch: Surf’s Up is streaming on Netflix.
‘Clone Wars’ star Gwendoline Yeo is Ichika in ‘Yasuke’
This LeSean Thomas original anime series is inspired by the story of Yasuke, a real-life 16th-century Black samurai. Through flashbacks, we piece together the events that led Yasuke (LaKeith Stanfield) to abandon his warrior’s life and hole up in a small town. In the present, after years of solitude, impending danger forces him to once again pick up his katana. Set in a mystical feudal Japan, and elevated by a fresh soundtrack from Flying Lotus, this alternate reality story of an actual historical figure is moody, well-paced, and engrossing. Though far too heavy and gory for kids, Yasuke is a cool treat for those adults who love anti-heroes and stunning sword fights.
How to Watch: Yasuke is streaming on Netflix.
Hilda is, simply put, a gorgeous show. Based on a graphic novel series, this whimsical tale follows the young, blue-haired Hilda’s endless adventures in a modern but mythical Scandinavian landscape. She’s precocious, kind, and has a knack for making friends with all manner of wilderness creatures, each more imaginative than the last. What sets Hilda apart from other animated series is its unique sense of style. Colored exclusively in autumnal hues, Hilda does not shy away from moments of silence and often will pan quietly across a beautifully drawn mountainside between scenes. The result is spellbinding, with each new visual imbued with a sense of wonder. You do not need to be a kid to fall for this lovely and ruminative show!
How to Watch: Hilda is streaming on Netflix.
7. I Lost My Body
Dev Patel and Alia Shawkat voice Naoufel and Gabrielle in the English dub.
Seeking something more mature? Then, check out Jérémy Clapin’s animated French drama about a dismembered hand searching for the body who lost it. This setup might sound grisly. Yet there’s a sprightly sense of wonder in the journey of the hand, its fingers racing from rat-infested subways to cushy apartments and lofty rooftops. The heart of the film, however, is the interwoven tale of love and loss. In search of direction, dreamer Naoufel thinks the witty Gabrielle might be his North Star. But life and romance are rarely so simple. With unique style, sophisticated storytelling, and a challenging gimmick, I Lost My Body won over not only critics but also the Academy Awards voters, earning an Oscar nod for Best Animated Feature in 2020. For those who struggle with subtitles, Netflix also offers an excellent English-language overdub. — Kristy Puchko, Deputy Entertainment Editor (*)
How to Watch: I Lost My Body is streaming on Netflix.
8. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
If the opening sequence of Dreamworks’ She-Ra and the Princesses of Power doesn’t get you pumped up, then we’re sorry that you’re dead inside. The 30-second opener is a rapid-fire mosaic of unapologetic femininity — horses, rainbows, magnificent hair — set to a pulsing call-to-action: “We must be strong!” The juxtaposition makes it clear what this show believes: Anyone can be a warrior.
A welcome reboot of the 1985 cartoon, She-Ra follows Adora, a soldier who discovers she has the ability to channel the ancient hero She-Ra. Suddenly, she’s thrust into a new world — and on the other side of the battlefield from her former friends. With a narrative absolutely bursting with emotion, She-Ra soars on its diverse representations of female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ characters. It’s an absolute must-watch for anyone needing an immediate jolt of joy.
How to Watch: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is streaming on Netflix.
9. Arlo the Alligator Boy
Michael J. Woodard voices Arlo
For a road trip adventure proudly packed with every color in the rainbow, check out this Netflix original about the eponymous alligator boy. Raised in the bayous of the American South, Arlo (Michael J. Woodard) has never fit in with the humans or the critters. So, with a song in his heart and a gift for making friends, he sets forth to find his fortune — and his long-lost father — in New York City. Along the way, he’ll meet a parade of unorthodox characters, voiced by the likes of Jennifer Coolidge, Tony Hale, Jonathan Van Ness, Mary Lambert, Brett Gelman, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On top of silly shenanigans and heartwarming song numbers, director Ryan Crego creates a world of wonder and weirdness that’s sure to enchant. — Kristy Puchko, Deputy Entertainment Editor (*)
How to Watch: Arlo the Alligator Boy is streaming on Netflix.
10. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra
Two great shows set in the same fascinating universe! Avatar: The Last Airbender introduces us to a world in which people can harness the powers of the four elements — air, water, earth, and fire — through a power called “bending.” There, we meet the young and earnest Aang, the last airbender, who hopes to put a stop to the Fire Nation’s aggressive invasions outside of their borders. Though tackling big topics like indoctrination and totalitarianism, this Nickelodeon show remains cheerful thanks to the optimism of Aang and his friends.
The story continues decades later in The Legend of Korra with a slightly more mature tone. The world has changed. The people need a leader and are hoping to find it in Korra, a young woman with the potential to bend all four elements. Korra, on the other hand, is just trying to get her temper under control! The continuation retains the spark of the original series (get ready to see a few familiar faces!), but its compelling plot twists, 1940s-style narration, and talented vocal cast assure its status as a winning series in its own right.
How to Watch: Avatar: The Last Airbender is streaming on Netflix.
How to Watch: The Legend of Korra is streaming on Netflix.
11. Big Mouth
Thandie Newton as Mona the Hormone Monstress and Jenny Slate as Missy Foreman-Greenwald in ‘Big Mouth’
Though its characters are children, Big Mouth is not a show for kids. It’s a blunt and brazen exploration of the horror of puberty, stacking each half-hour with broken hearts, broken genitals, and lots of masturbation. It’s a gross-out comedy with a surprising amount of heart, perhaps thanks to the absolutely top-of-the line vocal cast: John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Slate, Ayo Edebiri, Andrew Rannells, Jordan Peele, and Nick Kroll — the show’s creator. Its biggest triumph is its frank look at mental health, manifesting everything from hormone monsters to shame and depression as walking, talking creatures the preteens interact with. That’s right! Hidden under that layer of jizz is a smart and relatable show.
How to Watch: Big Mouth is streaming on Netflix.
12. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Generally regarded as one of the best anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is an epic tale of magic, villains, war, and family. Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric attempt to bring their mother back to life using alchemy, but it goes horribly wrong. In the end, Edward loses an arm and a leg and Alphonse loses his whole body, his soul being relegated to a suit of armor, and the two set off to find the Philosopher’s Stone but wander into so much more. — Kellen Beck, Science Reporter (*)
How to Watch: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is streaming on Netflix.
Asterisks (*) indicate the entry comes from another Mashable streaming list.