20 Best ’80s Cartoons for When You’re Feeling Nostalgic
Saturday-morning cartoons were legend back in the day. Here are some of the best '80s cartoons that will make you feel like a kid again.
The best Saturday-morning ’80s cartoons
These days, you can watch animated TV shows whenever you want—on streaming channels, YouTube or any of the cable channels devoted exclusively to cartoons. There are endless ways to watch funny kids movies too. But for many of us, ’80s cartoons were a Saturday-morning exclusive. It was the highlight of the week to wake up earlier than your parents and plant yourself in front of the TV.
Though cartoons from the ’80s can feel dated now, they paved the way for what came after, including the best ’90s cartoons and some surprisingly good movies. It was also the decade that introduced us to The Simpsons, who are still going strong all these years later. If you want to take a trip back in time, here’s a roundup of some of the classics. You may not remember where you left your wallet this morning, but you probably still know all the words to every one of the theme songs from these beloved ’80s shows.
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Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies
The Muppets are one of the most beloved groups of characters in entertainment history. And whether we’re talking about the cartoon or the many great movies the Muppets appeared in, creator Jim Henson blended sharp comedy writing with an unforgettable cast of characters. Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies showed what these characters would be like if they were babies with big imaginations. Tiny versions of Kermit, Scooter, Animal and the rest of the gang would go on adventures, dreaming up grand scenarios that would take them to outer space and all over the world.
The series, which ran until 1991, featured the talents of legendary voice actor Frank Welker (who worked on more than 10 other shows on this list alone) and co-starred June Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsly, as Nanny. In 2018, the Disney Channel rebooted the series, and the new version lasted three seasons.
For those of you too young to remember, Inspector Gadget was a trench-coat-clad policeman who was half-man, half-cyborg. He could turn himself into almost any kind of gadget he needed while hunting down criminals. We all wanted to be this guy. Voiced by actor Don Adams, the cartoon was a riff on the classic TV show Get Smart, where the bumbling detective somehow always managed to get his man. Even though he was all tricked out, Gadget himself was fairly inept. He often relied on his resourceful niece Penny (voiced by Cree Summer) and her dog, Brain, to defeat evil criminals like Dr. Claw (Frank Welker).
The show also had what became an iconic theme song, which has been sampled in several hip-hop songs. A series of live-action movies starring Matthew Broderick as the titular inspector were released in the late ’90s and early 2000s, in case you’re looking for some classic family movies to watch with the kids.
The Care Bears
What little girl wasn’t in love with these happy, kind and furry characters? Before hitting the Saturday-morning cartoon circuit, The Care Bears started off as characters found on greeting cards. Their animated show was rooted in teaching kindness to kids through a group of colorful bears, each with cheery names like Friendship Bear, Good Luck Bear and Cheer Bear, who lived in the kingdom of Care-a-Lot.
The bears would often face off against villains using their signature “Care Bear Stare,” which generated warmth and positivity to defeat any bad vibes. The show helped create a massive market for popular toys featuring the bears, from plush dolls to small action figures. Over the past 40 years, there have been four reboots of the TV series and nearly 10 feature films starring the Care Bears.
G.I. Joe is one of several cartoons from the ’80s on our list that was inspired by a beloved toy. First released in the 1960s, the toy line, which featured small plastic soldiers representing the major branches of the military, was turned into one of the most popular ’80s cartoon shows, running until 1986. This one wasn’t necessarily for the Care Bear crowd, but it was beloved nonetheless.
In the show, animated American servicemen would defend civilians against the evil terrorist organization known as Cobra, and it featured the iconic catchphrase “Knowing is half the battle.” Several action movies inspired by the toy series have been produced in the years since the TV show aired, and another is expected to be released in 2024.
There were two major players in the doll game back in the 1980s: Of course, there was Barbie (we all know who she is), and the other was Jem, a rock star with pink hair and magical earrings who could shift her identity with the push of a button. Her accessories seemed a little cooler than the ones Barbie had.
On the Jem cartoon series, she was actually the alter ego of a record executive named Jerrica Benton. When she pressed her magical earrings, a computer called Synergy would transform her into a rock star. As the leader of rock group Jem and the Holograms, Jem worked hard to fight against the rival band The Misfits, while protecting her secret identity and providing for a group of foster children called The Starlight Girls.
In 2014, a live-action Jem and the Holograms movie was released, and though it wasn’t particularly well-received, it does star one of the most iconic actresses from ’80s movies: Molly Ringwald.
Garfield and Friends
Anyone else in the mood for lasagna? Jim Davis’s comic-strip character Garfield was one of the most popular characters in the 1980s, period. If you think about it, he was the original Grumpy Cat, so it made sense for the famous cat to turn up in a Saturday morning cartoon. (The “And Friends” portion of the show featured a group of farm animals; they were part of another Jim Davis comic called U.S. Acres.)
On the series, Lorenzo Music voiced the titular entitled cat who lives with his owner, Jon, and an overly enthusiastic dog named Odie. The animated series lasted seven seasons, and in the time since, there have been two reboots and multiple prime-time specials. If you’re feeling nostaligic and looking for funny Garfield movies to stream, check out Garfield: The Movie and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, which star Bill Murray as Garfield.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
By the Power of Greyskull! People throw around the phrase “he-man” so frequently even 40 years later that it’s easy to forget its origins. The 1983 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was designed, like Transformers, to advertise an existing toy: Mattel’s He-Man action figure.
A wild cast of characters rounded out He-Man’s animated world, from the day-glo supervillain Skeletor to the magical, troll-like Orko. Even though at times He-Man simply felt like a commercial, kids couldn’t get enough, and we were eventually blessed with a version meant to appeal to girls, She-Ra: Princess of Power. In 2021, Netflix rebooted the series, and that new version ran for three seasons.
Everyone wanted to know how Smurfette got the gig as the only girl in town. The Smurfs originated in Belgium in the 1960s, but they shot to superstardom when the series was brought to America in 1981. These tiny characters who were just “three apples high,” as the legend goes, lived in a forest in homes fashioned from toadstools and spoke a unique dialect flecked with the word “smurf” throughout.
Each of their names reflected who they were, from Vainy Smurf to Brainy Smurf, and they were often fighting against their sworn enemy, the wizard Gargamel and his cat, Azrael. The popularity of The Smurfs hasn’t waned much in the years since the original cartoon went off the air in 1989; it has run in syndication on both the Cartoon Network and Boomerang, and three smurftacular feature-length Smurfs movies have been released since 2011. (You can head over to Amazon Prime Video to watch all three Smurfs movies, as well as tons of other funny movies.)
Everyone loved to hate Scrooge McDuck. Disney’s DuckTales starred the cranky bird and his grandnephews, Huey, Louie and Dewey, as they went on adventures, often in search of treasure, and tried to thwart villains who wanted to steal Scrooge’s fortune.
The series played on classic themes, often using mythological stories as inspiration, as well as parodying action and adventure stories like Indiana Jones, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. The indelible theme song from the series was written by songwriter Mark Mueller, who also penned the theme song to Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. A reboot of DuckTales, which premiered in 2017 on DisneyXD, featured a who’s-who of comedic actors as well as Doctor Who star David Tennant as Scrooge.
An animated show about anthropomorphic alien cat people? OMG, yes. The 1985 ThunderCats series featured that zany crew who drew their superpowers from the Eye of Thundera, a sentient red gem housed in the Sword of Omens that created all Thunderan life and could control machines, weather patterns and geological forces. Obviously.
The Japanese Pacific Animation Corporation was hired to animate the show, and it has a distinctly Japanese look that separates it from other shows of the era. But it may be surprising to learn that it was actually co-created by Rankin/Bass, the American company behind the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman Christmas cartoons.
Another fun fact: While many of the ’80s cartoons on our list were inspired by comic books or toys, ThunderCats was a TV series first. It eventually developed into a Marvel Comics series that lasted three years.
These toys were so popular in the ’80s, they were giving them away in Happy Meals. The original Transformers cartoon aired from 1984 until 1987, but the Transformers are somehow even more culturally prominent today, thanks to Michael Bay’s 2007 theatrical reboot and its sequels.
The original animated series was created to help market a line of toys that could be twisted around, Rubik’s Cube–style, to turn various vehicles, animals and devices into humanoid robots. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and their evil-fighting robot pals have never really left us since. This year’s theatrical Transformers: Rise of the Beasts stars Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos and features Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh as Airazor, a robot falcon.
Adventures of the Gummi Bears
Bouncing here and there and everywhere, Adventures of the Gummi Bears may be one of the forgotten ’80s cartoons, but it’s worth revisiting. Plus, it’s the only show on our list inspired by candy. This Walt Disney Animation series was set in a medieval-inspired landscape known as Gummi Glen, where seven gummi bears fight off villains and ogres with the help of a magic potion known as Gummiberry Juice. In case you missed the series on its first go-round, episodes are now available to watch on Disney+, along with the rest of the vast library of great Disney movies and TV shows.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Here’s the premise, if you don’t know: Four young turtles are dropped into a sewer and fall into some unidentified glowing ooze that makes them become humanoids. They band together with a humanoid rat named Splinter, also exposed to said goo, who teaches them ninjitsu and gives each of them the name of a Renaissance artist: Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo. Pretty ordinary stuff, right?
It’s hard to wrap your head around how all those details could fit into one cohesive storyline, but kudos to the comic book writers and TV producers who made it happen for us. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of the most popular and enduring cartoons of the ’80s. Oh, and did we mention that the turtles and Splinter fight against evil villains like Krang and Shredder, fueled entirely by pizza? (The pizza got all the kids excited about these turtles.)
This ’80s cartoon show spawned several movies and reboots, including the upcoming movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which co-stars John Cena, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd. Some people love dog movies, but we’ll take a movie about crime-fighting turtles any day.
Some ’80s kids were Garfield fans, but others were on Team Heathcliff. The Heathcliff animated series has a pretty spectacular pedigree. The title character (catacter?) was voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc, who was famous for his voice work with the Looney Tunes cartoons. Writers on the series included Chuck Lorre, creator of several of the funniest sitcoms of the ’90s and 2000s and author Laura Numeroff, who created the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie children’s series.
Heathcliff ran for five seasons and was based on the 1970s comic strip created by George Gately about a mischievous cat who gets into trouble with everyone in town, including the owner of the local fish store, the milkman and all the local dogs, who he often reports to the dog catcher.
The Real Ghostbusters
Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Ivan Reitman’s wildly popular flick was one of the classic movies of the 1980s, so it made a whole lot of sense to turn it into a cartoon. Two years after the movie’s 1984 premiere, ABC introduced The Real Ghostbusters to its Saturday-morning lineup. A more lighthearted, kid-friendly take on the movie, it brought back the core team of Peter, Egon, Ray, Winston and Janine, and introduced Slimer as a series mascot. Slimer proved to be so popular that by season 4, the show was retitled Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters.
The show featured various supernatural baddies each week and followed the gang from their iconic New York City firehouse to far-off encounters in New Orleans, Russia and Tokyo. A two-season sequel, Extreme Ghostbusters, launched in 1997 and featured a team of younger Ghostbusters under Egon’s tutelage.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers
You had us at cute talking chipmunks. First released as a syndicated weekday series in 1989, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers gave the classic Disney characters Chip and Dale something new to do: start a detective agency. The two chipmunks enlist the help of friends Gadget Hackwrench, Monterey Jack and Zipper to take on cases the police won’t touch.
Chip’s look was inspired by Indiana Jones, complete with leather jacket and fedora, while Dale’s Hawaiian-shirt aesthetic was a nod to TV private eye Magnum P.I. The series was the inspiration for the 2022 Disney live-action remake Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, which starred John Mulaney, Andy Samberg and KiKi Layne and blended animated characters with live actors for a hilarious, meta comedy about what happened to Chip and Dale after their show was canceled.
Were there any ’80s kids who didn’t fist-bump and say “Wonder Twin powers, activate”? Certainly not any that we know. There were several iterations of the DC Comics Super Friends series, which ran from 1973 until 1986, and they all featured superheroes like Superman, Batman and Robin, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and, yes, the Wonder Twins with their monkey buddy Gleek. They all faced off against villains like the Riddler and Lex Luthor, who all belonged to a sinister club called the Legion of Doom.
This series, simply called Super Friends, ran until 1983 and was produced by the legendary animation studio Hanna-Barbera Productions, which created other legendary cartoons like The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. If you’re still a superhero fan all these years later, here are a few fun and surprising facts about superheroes that you may not know.
My Little Pony
Your little brother may have hated it, but wow, did My Little Pony appeal to the little sisters. This show was another TV series built around an existing toy line—this time, the colorful, magical My Little Pony figurines. Hours could be spent playing with these pastel horses, brushing their rainbow-colored manes.
The animated TV series featured a group of kind ponies who lived in the magical world of Paradise Estate and had to defend their peaceful kingdom against villainous creatures and magic spells. While the series was successful, the 2010 reboot called My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic became a cult favorite among adult viewers, who called themselves “bronies.” You do you, brony!
D’oh! This one wasn’t one of the Saturday-morning cartoons from the ’80s. But it’s legendary. Considered to be one of the funniest primetime sitcoms ever, The Simpsons started out as a series of animated shorts featured on The Tracey Ullman Show. Its influence on American culture cannot be overstated.
The show, which takes place in the fictional American town of Springfield, has provided social commentary and satire blended with goofy gags for the duration of its run, thanks to the lovable but often misguided family at the heart of the show. In addition to the many memorable catchphrases (“Don’t have a cow, man!”) and countless unforgettable episodes, like the classic annual Halloween-inspired “Treehouse of Horror” anthology, legions of famous guest stars have appeared as animated versions of themselves, including Paul McCartney, Meryl Streep and even Johnny Cash.
Nearly 40 years after its premiere, Voltron is one of those ’80s cartoon shows that are still part of the zeitgeist. That is, in part, due to the fact that the show remains the go-to reference for when a bunch of things come together to form a bigger thing.
The series centered around the Voltron Force, three teams of expert fighting forces whose lion-shaped vehicles could combine to form a larger one. When all three of those robots combined, it became the Mighty Voltron. We ’80s kids ate it up, and its influence can be felt in everything from the Power Rangers to Pacific Rim, and references to Voltron can be found in countless hip-hop songs by artists like Eminem, Nelly and the Wu-Tang Clan.