2023 Was A Great Year For Streaming Animation
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2023 Was A Great Year For Streaming Animation
Tons of animation releases every year; it's impossible to watch it all even when someone isn't removing shows from streaming entirely to nudge their bottom lines. But 2023 in particular was especially good for streaming animation. This list will highlight some of our favorites. Of course, we may have missed a few, since it is--again--impossible to watch it all.
Among this list are shows with remarkable imagination, exciting action direction, fresh storytelling, and new takes on old ideas. Animation styles tend to take over and become dominant in their times--think of the Pixar movie look, the style of Cartoon Network shows in the mid-'00s, or '80s anime for example--but it seems like we're in an experimental period right now and so many of these new shows look so different from each other, while also being visually striking, that they'd be a joy to watch even on mute.
8. Fired On Mars - Max
The mantle of BoJack Horseman is a heavy one to take on. The Netflix animated series is still one of the service's unique and most beautiful creations, mixing incisive parodies of pop culture with harrowing looks into addiction, mental illness, and abusive relationships. Fired On Mars follows Jeff (Luke Wilson), a graphic designer fired from his job. There's just one thing--he took the job as a one-way trip to help settle a colony on Earth's nearest neighbor. His girlfriend is 34 million miles away, and he can't exactly pack up and move to another community.
Jeff searches for purpose and meaning in a place that actively resists it. The settlement of Mars isn't being done by intrepid explorers, but by a corporation called Mars.ly, with all the problems that come with big corporations, from double-talking executives to power-tripping middle managers to nonsensical rules. Fired On Mars can be a difficult watch for some of the same reasons that BoJack is a trying experience--it's asking some tough questions about modern life. The Mars part is there mostly to turn the dial up to maximum and snap it off. In this first season, Fired On Mars is still searching for its own voice, but it's a strong contender.
7. Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
Whether it's thanks to Bryan Lee O'Malley's original comic, the 2010 film directed by Edgar Wright, or the Ubisoft side-scroller game, the concept of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is pretty well known even to many casual viewers. This animated series seeks to turn the idea on its head, though we won't spoil how--this is no mere adaptation.
Even without a word about the plot, it makes for an appealing package. The series is animated by Science Saru, a studio known for creative and fresh animated series like Ping Pong: The Animation and Devilman Crybaby. The soundtrack comes via chiptune rock band Anamanaguchi, who also provided the sound for the aforementioned Ubisoft game. Notably, though, the series also features the voice talents almost the entire primary cast of the film, including Hollywood heavyweights like Chris Evans and Brie Larson, and an otherwise star-studded cast with the likes of "Weird Al" Yankovic, Finn Wolfhard, and Will Forte providing voices.
6. Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake - Max
Recreating the magic of Adventure Time--without simply remaking Adventure Time--is a tall order. And yet, it's one that series creator Pendleton Ward and showrunner Adam Muto have taken and run with. Fionna and Cake acts as a continuation of the show in some ways, but it's not simply "more Adventure Time."
Fionna, Cake, and characters like Marshall Lee began as fictional creations of the original series' Ice King, who concocted a gender-swapped version of the land of Ooo, with Fionna replacing Finn, Cake replacing Jake, and so on. It becomes a multiverse-hopping adventure and a story about grief and finding your place in the world. It has all the outlines of Adventure Time but explores different color palettes and vibes throughout. Also, '80s sitcom Cheers makes several appearances. This is a show made to reward long-time fans of Adventure Time but has enough going for it that you could jump in here and still find stuff to enjoy.
5. Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur - Disney+ / Disney Channel
Here comes a show based on one of your favorite card combinations in Marvel Snap. MG&DD is unquestionably a kid's show--let's get that out of the way immediately. But that doesn't mean it can't be gorgeous or that it doesn't have anything to say. This show feels, visually, like a halfway point between Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and animated series from Cartoon Network and Disney Channel throughout the late '00s and 2010s. The visuals are made up of vibrant colors, specially purple and yellow, and have a hand-drawn feel to them. Movement is often accompanied by literal on-screen text, owing to its comic-book roots and to the Spider-Verse movies. Characters are given different textures, but a Ben-Day dot pattern (the dots you see in pop art images and older comics) gives the whole show a fun print-y feeling.
Lunella is a 13-year-old girl living in the Lower East Side of New York City with her parents and grandparents. When the city is experiencing random blackouts, she puts her Marvel Character-level genius to work trying to find a solution. Instead, she accidentally teleports a (surprisingly friendly and trainable) fire-breathing tyrannosaurus rex from another dimension. The first episode tackles the idea of gentrification, with the idea that communities of people of color, communities of immigrants, and those like them are often given lower priority compared to more affluent communities--meaning the blackouts are considered low priority by the government and the Avengers. Even while tackling serious issues and trying to stay realistic, the show's community focus keeps things on the fun and positive side.
4. Castlevania Nocturne - Netflix
Somehow, Netflix accomplished the seemingly impossible with the original Castlevania series. It took a bunch of disparate plot points from games going all the way back to Castlevania III on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and made a coherent and, more importantly, engaging story that felt true to its source material. Toward the end of the show's four-season run, though, Netflix cut ties with writer Warren Ellis. The first Castlevania show finished off in a pretty satisfying way, but it left the future of the series in question.
Castlevania Nocturne put those concerns to rest this fall, introducing us to Richter Belmont. The series features all of the exciting anime-style action of the original series but finds new and interesting ways to engage with vampire and Castlevania lore. Annette's journey from enslaved child to fearsome warrior, and Richter's from a flippant boy running from his past to a self-actualized member of the powerful Belmont family, both stand out, and that just scratches the surface.
3. My Adventures with Superman - Max / Adult Swim
The last decade or so of superhero movies has left many moviegoers and potential comic fans with the notion that Superman is a very dark, serious superhero. While the weight of the world is indeed on his shoulders, here's the thing: He's really strong. My Adventures with Superman feels closest to Christopher Reeve's take on the Man of Steel, which is seen by many as the gold standard for the character across all the mediums he's appeared in.
Clark is Kal El's dorky, corny side, and Superman is his courageous and determined side. This Superman is a happy person who wants other people to be happy. He's a fighter by necessity and a protector by nature. This show rethinks many elements of Superman's lore and history without completely rewriting them, and it uses Lois Lane's point of view as a jumping-off point to let us see what both Clark Kent and Superman look like from the perspective of those that know him--rather than from his point of view. Visually, the show is bright and clean. The focus here is on the performances and the rethinking of Superman's origins and outlook.
2. Blue Eye Samurai - Netflix
Even in today's world, the interplay between gender, sex, race, culture, and one's place amongst all of that is complicated at the very least. For the titular Blue Eye Samurai, Mizu, that is also true and often quite literal. Mizu is a swordswoman who lives as a swordsman, the product of a Japanese woman and a Western man in a time when Westerners were banned from Japan by decree of the Shogunate. She binds her chest and wears amber-tinted glasses to hide her eyes. For her, there is only one mission in life: kill her father and the men who accompany him.
Slavers, weapons dealers, and schemers see Japan as a backwoods place ripe for plundering. Mizu, meanwhile, is seen as an outcast, a demon, for the color of her eyes. The show, co-produced by husband-wife team Amber Noizumi and Michael Green, is as much about the modern world that Asian-American women live in, stuck between what they want and the expectations and stereotypes associated with both their gender and their race, as it is about Edo-era Japan. The series features stunningly choreographed and animated sword fights and thoughtful, interesting characters voiced by an Asian-American cast including George Takei, Masi Oka, Ming-Na Wen, and starring Maya Erskine as Mizu (Erskine herself is Japanese-American). At just eight episodes, Blue Eye Samurai is a relatively quick watch and leaves us anticipating a second season.
1. Scavengers Reign - Max
This 12-episode Max series is one of the most distinct pieces of science fiction you'll see all year. The show features a gorgeous art style inspired by French artist Moebius (aka Jean Giraud) that uses muted earth tones, crisp but understated outlines, and deep shadows to create a world that feels truly alive.
Scavengers Reign follows a small group of passengers from a damaged freighter and picks up some time after they landed on an alien planet called Vesta. After one pair of travelers manages to call the ship down to the planet's surface from orbit, the other stranded passengers each make their way from their landing places, hoping for a way off the planet. Each of the journeys is different from each other, but they're all mysterious, emotional, and deadly in equal measure. Vesta is one of the few examples of a truly alien planet. There is no intelligent life on the planet, but Vesta teems with flora and fauna, and for once they don't just seem like two different Earth animals combined, or just "lizards, but big" or something like that. Each new interaction with the life of Vesta is tense and unsettling, and is joyous and brutal in equal measure. You should prepare for an intense viewing experience, but this show is not to be missed.