Top Ten Expansive Animated Worlds
By: Justin Cummings
Some cartoons start with a simple premise and never really go beyond it. Spongebob lives in a pineapple under the sea, Alvin and the Chipmunks live with Dave and sing, The Flintstones are the modern stone age family, and so on and so forth. For some shows that’s totally fine as they can entertain with a simple premise and episodic plots; some shows go beyond that however and deliver expansive worlds and interconnected plots that truly make the shows come alive and invite readers in. Today I want to look at just ten of those shows, and a little bit about the way in which they create those bigger universes. Not all the shows worthy of this list will make it, and I’ll be focusing on shows aimed at a younger demographic. This isn’t to mock shows such as Rick and Morty, but rather show that it’s possible for a show to be child friendly and not talk down to the viewer. With that caveat out of the way let’s get started.
It honestly took me a while to realize this show was worthy of the list as its world building was done so seamlessly. Think about it though, at the start we had five kids and the villains they fought. By the end of the show we had seen multiple other branches of a sprawling organization shown, character developments, betrayals, plotlines built up over time, stuff even primetime dramas sometimes struggle with. It was all handled in such a way though it never felt overwhelming or even out of the ordinary. You could still watch episodes randomly, but you might miss big moments and certain plot points would either seem confusing or lack their intended oomph. If you skipped this show or just haven’t seen it in a while go back and give it another go, you might be surprised how much you find yourself caring about its world.
While Kids Next Door used a subtle introduction of plot points and elements while maintaining its core cast, Total Drama hit the reset button each season. Yes certain elements, plot points and recurring characters are introduced in each season, but it’s its Survivor-like structure of adding new locations and or cast members each season that really allows to add to the size of the world. Take this from a fanfiction writer’s perspective, the show started with twenty-two contestants to draw from, now there’s over fifty, each with a decent amount of content to draw from. Most shows couldn’t get away with this method but here it works beautifully. Of all the world building examples on this list Total Drama’s is the least repeatable but the most admirable.
As you might already be able to see I’m more of a Cartoon Network guy, but I still acknowledge that when Nick hit a homerun they truly knocked it out of the park. As the first Nick show on this list, Danny Phantom was probably Butch Hartman’s finest work. The show, like the others, started rather simple; teenage boy gets superpowers. Even there though the show had its twists by giving him ghost abilities, something more or less unique especially in cartoons. From there the show began introducing its villains slowly but surely, all of whom would go through arcs and grow in their level and threat and relation to Danny (yes even Box Ghost). This show is so binge worthy as a lot of times plots carry directly from one episode into the next, specifically the Val storyline comes to mind. Danny Phantom used the same methods of slow and steady world building that Kids Next Door used, but let it bleed more into the foreground. Even as a kid I was aware this show had more to it than others, and that earns it a higher rank on this list.
Now we start swinging into the more serial stuff. Each episode of Samurai Jack played off the last one as we followed Jack through his journey of trying to get home. Each episode took place somewhere new and we got a sense of just how big and varied a world Jack knew, and how epic his quest truly was. The main characters never changed, but the location always did and that led to a gigantic cast of one time characters, many of whom left a long lasting mark. The show had such a sense of adventure that Adult Swim is picking up back up for a new season. Yes Adult Swim is picking up a TV-Y7 show, which goes to show that child appropriate doesn’t have to mean children only.
Is putting two shows by the same creator back to back cheating? Potentially but both of these shows deserve merit and show two sides of one coin. Sym-Bionic Titan was very much serial like Samurai Jack and each episode gave us not only a look into more character development on Earth but also on the characters’ home planet. Neither got a chance to go as far as they wanted as production was cut short, but the dual storylines led to twice as much world building and a sense of not just the world they were living on but the one they were fighting to return to. Sym-Bionic Titan wasn’t perfect and didn’t build as much as others on this list, but it had the structure where given more time it could have, and the structure deserves to be seen in action.