In 2019, actress Lupita Nyong’o published Sulwe, her first children’s book. It went on to win several awards and become a #1 New York Times bestseller. Now the book will become an animated musical feature for Netflix — with Nyong’o involved as producer.
The book is about a girl named Sulwe who “has skin the color of midnight” who “ wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.”
You can watch Nyong’o read Sulwe on Netflix’s YouTube channel:
“The story of Sulwe is one that is very close to my heart,” Nyong’o said in a press release. “Growing up, I was uncomfortable in my dark skin. I rarely saw anyone who looked like me in the aspirational pages of books and magazines, or even on TV. It was a long journey for me to arrive at self-love. Sulwe is a mirror for dark-skinned children to see themselves, a window for those who may not be familiar with colorism, to have understanding and empathy, and an invitation for all who feel different and unseen to recognize their innate beauty and value.”
Netflix has been investing heavily in animated features, including upcoming projects from Richard Linklater, Henry Selick, and Guillermo del Toro, along with a sequel to the stop-motion favorite Chicken Run.
Gallery — The Best Animated TV Series in History:
25. Muppet Babies
Most of the great animated shows are not, specifically, for the toddler set. It’s not that these shows are bad — as a father, I can assure you that there are plenty of them — but that they’re simply designed for such a young audience that there’s less attention paid to the quality of animation and stories being told. The 1980s version of Muppet Babies (which has also served as the source of a recent reboot on Disney Junior) was a rare outlier. While the show was, as its title suggests, very much for little kids, it still captured the same sense of wonder and playfulness found in both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. It was lower-key, but no less charming.
24. The Flintstones
Some shows are on this list more for being influential than anything else. Just as The Simpsons can partially thank the success of The Flintstones for its existence, so too can The Flintstones thank the success of Jackie Gleason’s seminal sitcom The Honeymooners for its own existence. The premise of a grouchy-doofus husband with a very pretty, much smarter wife, paired with a moon-faced doofus neighbor and his much smarter wife, is awfully similar to what Gleason did with his show. The big twist is, of course, that The Flintstones is set during the Stone Ages, full of caveman gags, wordplay, and more. The Flintstones is not the greatest of all TV animation, but the kind of thing that served as a major influence for the shows to come.
23. Tiny Toon Adventures
The success of a show like Muppet Babies likely gave way to the possibility of Tiny Toon Adventures. The Muppet Show was, of course, subversive, while Muppet Babies was decidedly not. That wasn’t the case with Tiny Toon Adventures, which was just as snarky and clever as its Looney Tunes forebear (forebunny, perhaps) was. With Buster and Babs Bunny as the leads, Tiny Toon Adventures aimed to bring back the anarchic spirit of Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes. Steven Spielberg served as executive producer, so the show may have gotten a little more cred than another version might have; however, as we’ll see later on in the list, Spielberg’s producing talent led to better shows that just weren’t as directly tied to Bugs, Daffy, and the rest.
In the 1980s, probably the most memorable aspect of DuckTales was its catchy theme song, but even the original version was a decent adaptation of the Carl Barks comic strips of the 1940s and 1950s treating Scrooge McDuck as a roving adventurer as much as a stingy trillionaire. The recent revival from Disney XD has an A-list treatment, including its regular cast (Ex-Doctor Who David Tennant voices Scrooge, while comic actors Ben Schwartz, Bobby Moynihan, and Danny Pudi voice Huey, Dewey, and Louie), and a more directly exciting and thrilling take on the story of Scrooge, his nephews, and Uncle Donald. Not every reboot is worth making, but this one has been made with both love and high spirits.
21. Darkwing Duck
The superhero craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s did not elude Disney, either in film (with its criminally underrated The Rocketeer) or on TV, with the cult hit Darkwing Duck. The show was something of a play on Batman, in which an unassuming lead character fought crime by night thanks to a well-placed cowl and cape. Darkwing Duck wasn’t exactly adult — it’s from Disney, of course — but the animation and storytelling did lean a bit more into the darker style of the modernized Batman movie, despite hero Drake Mallard being more of a family duck. Darkwing Duck only got three seasons in the 1990s, but became a well-earned nostalgic touchstone for many.
20. The Tick
It stands to reason that some of the best animated shows are all about superheroes. And it stands to reason that some of the best animated shows are just plain funny. So of course, at least one of the entries on this list would be a fusion of both superheroes and humor. The Tick, one of the more subversive Fox animated shows to air on weekend mornings, was extremely funny and so hard to top that when the first live-action version aired in the early 2000s, the well-cast Patrick Warburton was judged against the version who only lived in animation. The early-1990s take on the Tick balanced straight-up parody with charm and sweetness, a strange and heady mix.
19. Rocko’s Modern Life
It is probably not unfair to say that without Rocko’s Modern Life, you don’t get SpongeBob SquarePants (a show that’s not on this list, but hey, it’s popular). The creative team behind the former show only made the latter after Nickelodeon canceled Rocko after four seasons in the mid-1990s. Though it wasn’t quite as scandalous as Ren and Stimpy (about which more later), Rocko did have its fair share of adult references in its story of anthropomorphized animals in the fictional O-Town. Rocko often set the right balance of appealing to kids who were either aging out of elementary school or right in middle school, and appealing to their older siblings or parents. Though it lasted just four seasons, the show’s quirky charm endured.
18. Beavis and Butthead
Mike Judge’s career has had some famous ups and downs, but one of his earliest heights came when he found success at MTV with the pair of idiots known as Beavis and Butthead. These two dolts were tailor-made for breaking through pop culture with their oddball catchphrases, their easy-to-imitate voices, their quips during 90s-era music videos, and their general brainlessness. Judge did move on to another animated show, the Fox show King of the Hill, in the late 1990s (and that show ran through 2010), but the anarchic Beavis and Butthead remains both his stepping stone to larger fame and his best animated work.
17. Robot Chicken
The setup of the Adult Swim show Robot Chicken is deceptively simple — a character seen only in the credits is forced to flip the channels on a TV, and we get to watch little bits of what they see before changing the channel. While each episode is made up of bite-size sketches, it’s all done in stop-motion animation. The show’s very idea is hit-and-miss, but Robot Chicken, from co-creators Matthew Senreich and Seth Green, hits much more often than it misses. Robot Chicken is insubstantial in its own way, but it’s also solely interested in making you laugh, and works a lot.
16. Dexter’s Laboratory
Before he was the director of the Hotel Transylvania films, Genndy Tartakovsky was the pioneering mind behind a number of animated shows, the best of which was Dexter’s Laboratory. The nerdy lead Dexter had a secret lab in which he tried to pull off all manner of experiments, hiding his powers even from his own family. The show’s style and design are what made it stand out, even decades later. Dexter’s Laboratory set the visual template for what makes Tartakovsky such a remarkable animator, with sharply designed characters, inimitable gags, and an off-kilter balance of tones. He was only involved in Dexter’s first two seasons, but his influence was undeniable.
It’s not a guarantee, but if you want to ensure that your animated show starts on the right foot, cast H. Jon Benjamin as the title character. (This rule will come into play later on the list.) Benjamin’s raspy deep voice fits incredibly well when he’s voicing Sterling Archer, secret agent who’s gone to seed over time. Though Archer cuts a dashing figure, he’s just like his fellow agents and co-workers at a hidden agency: embracing his vices to extreme degrees. From creator Adam Reed, Archer boasts a great ensemble cast, including Jessica Walter as Archer’s mom (in a role that equals her work on Arrested Development), and a gleeful willingness to change up locations, styles, and more. It’s one of the most adventurous shows on TV.
It’s worth pointing out that the version of Doug I’m calling out here aired on Nickelodeon. In the mid-1990s, Doug (one of the first Nicktoons) shifted from Nick to ABC’s Saturday morning lineup, and lost a lot in the transfer. On the Nick version, you can hear none other than Billy West (whose vocal talents appear on a number of the other shows on this list) as the eponymous character, a slightly less depressed version of Charlie Brown who can’t quite seem to find the right words to woo his schoolboy crush Patti Valentine. Doug was a low-key coming-of-age story with some striking character designs, a show whose charm was precisely in not being loud and obnoxious, unlike so many other kids’ shows.
13. The Critic
At one point in the 1990s, The Critic was the source of a bit of controversy, when its title character Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz) appeared on The Simpsons, despite creator Matt Groening’s protests. As it turns out, the episode where Sherman appeared is one of the series’ best, and it’s no surprise — though The Critic had a criminally short run, it was extremely funny and incisive, capturing the world of a film critic with a TV show struggling to be taken seriously. (What, I wonder, would it be like for a film critic to struggle in the business? Hmmmmmm.) Its movie parodies, critical cameos, and more made The Critic a standout show that burned brightly and quickly.
12. Pinky and the Brain
The world of Animaniacs was never restricted to Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. Each week, there would be stories with other characters, from an old-school squirrel to pigeon parodies of the title characters in GoodFellas. But the duo who took such a hold with audiences that they got their own delightful spin-off were two lab rats, one of whom was extremely nice and stupid, the other of whom was super-intelligent and always wanted to try and take over the world. Of course, Pinky and the Brain always failed, but the show documenting their exploits, aided by the loose and funny voice work of Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche, was a true winner.
11. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast
Before Adult Swim was really Adult Swim, Cartoon Network would sometimes experiment with the form of animation at night. One of the earliest examples was the network’s foray into a late-night talk-show with animation, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. The ’60s character Space Ghost was brought out of mothballs to “host” this alt-comedy talk show, in which he and a group of animated characters would interact (somewhat) with real celebrities, ranging from “Weird” Al Yankovic to Monty Python’s Terry Jones to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. The show was pure anarchy, and a jumping-off point for a number of other animators. If you like Adult Swim, thank Space Ghost.
10. Ren and Stimpy
The very existence of Ren and Stimpy seems kind of impossible to fathom now. There was, if you can harken back to it, a time in the 1990s when Nickelodeon had more than just bright and loud shows for little kids. One program that raised the network’s profile appealed as much to the rambunctious kids of the world as it did to teenagers, college students, and some adults. Ren and Stimpy had a familiar, cartoon-y setup, about a fast-talking dog and a dumb but well-meaning cat. But creator John Kricfalusi used that setup to craft truly jaw-dropping and very adult scenarios. Despite his crusade against censorship, Kricfalusi was eventually pushed out of the show, but it still lasted 5 seasons on Nickelodeon.
9. South Park
Like another show we’ll get to soon, it’s easy to say that South Park’s best days are behind it. (Some might even argue that the show’s highest point wasn’t even on TV, but in the 1999 feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.) But it’s also next to impossible to deny the massive impact that this deliberately cheap, lo-fi raunchfest on Comedy Central has had, both to that network and to animation in general. There were adult animated shows before South Park, but the weird combination of cardboard-cutout kids, extreme violence and language, and X-rated versions of famous people and events has made for a truly distinctive, outrageous, offbeat show, even if it’s too long in the tooth now.
8. The Venture Bros.
Adult Swim has pushed the boundaries of live-action and animated comedies, but one of its very best shows is all about looking to the past. The Venture Bros. is, on the surface, a riff on ’60s-era adventure shows like Jonny Quest, in its depiction of a dysfunctional family made up of a super-smart scientist dad, his wannabe whiz-kid sons, and his beefy bodyguard Brock. Where The Venture Bros. excels is in its layered characterization of both its purported heroes and the massive amount of bad guys who tried to take down the Venture family and their compound at one time or another. Because of the creators’ attention to detail in animation and story, the show’s only aired a few seasons over more than a decade, but each season’s vitally important to check out.
The success of The Simpsons was a guarantee that there would be more animated shows with bright colors, big-eyed characters, lots of adult jokes, pop-culture references, and more. But Matt Groening himself took nearly a decade to create a new show, one that had some raw similarities to The Simpsons, but on the surface only. Futurama was never quite as popular a show, but its science-fiction premise, in which a man from the year 2000 is inadvertently cryogenically frozen for a thousand years and has to deal with what it’s like in 3000, made for a distinctive, surprisingly emotional, and snappy show. A show that lived both on Fox and Comedy Central, Futurama was stealthily quite brilliant.
6. Bob’s Burgers
This show is a lot humbler and simplistic in its design, but its demented undercurrent and weird family dynamic make it one of the very best on TV. Bob’s Burgers has a straightforward enough setup, focusing on the eponymous family-owned business in a small beachfront town, but each character, from patriarch Bob to his nasally wife Linda to their two odd children, Gene and Louise and the rest of the denizens of the town, is so uniquely drawn. In its ability to flesh out the characters and town, Bob’s Burgers comes closest to The Simpsons in world building. And its punnery is second to none. The upcoming film (slated for release in 2020) can’t come soon enough.
5. Batman: The Animated Series
We’re in a brief fallow period in American cinema where no single actor is playing Batman (though that will likely change soon with Matt Reeves’ new film). And that’s all well and good, because one of the very best Batmen wasn’t on the big screen. He was voiced by Kevin Conroy in the remarkably stunning Batman: The Animated Series, which began airing in the middle of the 1990s, piggybacking off the success of Tim Burton’s films. But the show leaned into the darkness of Gotham City more than a decade before Christopher Nolan got there. Also including the first iteration of Harley Quinn, and the chilling version of the Joker voiced by Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series has aged very well, unlike so many superhero animated shows.
4. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
The 1960s were an era of fairly unremarkable animation, a period in which making animation cheaply was more important than giving it depth or complexity of any kind. But The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was at least able to balance its low budget with a cheeky spirit that’s hard to find even now. The kind of Borscht Belt humor, mixed with loving parodies of old-fashioned movie serials, made Rocky and Bullwinkle stand out. Its core friendship between a flying squirrel and a dumb moose, mirrored by the evil Russian agents constantly trying to take them down, were heavily influential on a lot of the great modern TV shows. And it too was really funny, full of puns and double talk and goofy wordplay. You can’t deny moose and squirrel.
Some of the best animated shows for children stand the test of time because they rely on a sense of subversion from the word go. On one hand, you have to imagine that the creators and writers of Animaniacs were pretty sheltered by the show’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg. But still, the quirky, inside-baseball depiction of the Warner Brothers (Yakko and Wakko, of course) and the Warner Sister, Dot, who wreak havoc on the studio lot is another example of a show that felt like it was getting away with something. Animaniacs also introduced a series of other characters, including the aforementioned Pinky and the Brain, and it also created earworm songs about world geography. And it referenced pay-or-play contracts in the theme song. Animaniacs, in its own way, offered something for everyone.
2. BoJack Horseman
There’s plenty of content that you can watch on Netflix, but arguably its best TV show is one of the most unlikely candidates: An animated series set in an alternate version of Hollywood called Hollywoo, in which humans coexist with anthropomorphized animals like the eponymous antihero (voiced masterfully by Will Arnett). What could have just been an inside-baseball look at the entertainment industry is one of the richest, most layered, saddest, and somehow still very funny shows on television, period. It’s got a great ensemble, also including Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins, and is both formally and creatively daring. BoJack is a genuinely delightful surprise through and through.
1. The Simpsons
On one hand, you could very strongly argue that The Simpsons has not had anything close to a consistent run in its 30 years on television. It’s hard to think of any TV show that has aired for even half that length and been consistently great. But while The Simpsons episodes that air now may not be great, the show’s first eight or nine seasons are among the very best that any show could ask for, live action or animated. For its massive impact, as well, you can’t ask for a better top pick than The Simpsons one of the most quotable, witty, intelligent, and outlandish shows ever to air.