From merchandise to insane amounts of product branding, Hollywood is constantly looking for ways to expand the reach and appeal of their movie properties. That’s why it’s no surprise when they take a popular live-action film typically meant for adults and turn it into fully animated cartoon series meant not only for kids but also many adults.
Just like feature films, some of these animated adaptations turn out to be so good they were must-watch after school or Saturday morning material for every person who loved and appreciated cartoons. For most shows, the cartoon medium was a way to explore a movie’s universe that just couldn’t be done in one or two (or seven) movies, while generally keeping show topics light-hearted.
There have been dozens of cartoons based on movies, and these are the 10 that stand out as the best.
The Real Ghostbusters (1986)
There’s no better way to start this list of great cartoons than with, what is arguably, the greatest movie-adapted cartoon series in history – The Real Ghostbusters. The show was co-produced by DiC (creator of hundreds of popular cartoons) and managed to run longer than any other series on this list – amassing a staggering 173 episodes over its entire seven season run.
The show was popular with viewers because, while being funny and entertaining, it didn’t stray far from its live-action roots – bringing most of the characters from the big screen to the little one. All the regular guys – Peter Venkman, Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore – were there, but one important cast member was added to the regular rotation – Slimer. The omnivorous, floating spectre became such a popular character that in its third season, the show was retitled Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters and the little green spirit was given his own spin-off episodes within the series.
Rambo: The Forces of Freedom (1986)
The Army veteran-turned-mercenary with a penchant for violence, John Rambo, isn’t the first thing someone would think of when adapting a movie into a children’s cartoon, but that’s what makes Rambo: The Force of Freedom so good – it goes against the stereotype. Rambo, a character based on David Morrell’s best-selling novel First Blood, was only supposed to be a 5-part miniseries, which then turned into a daily cartoon, only to be canceled later that year. This explains why the show managed a whopping 65 episodes in just one season.
The cartoon had everything a young (typically male) viewer could ask for – a tough American hero, a group of highly-trained mercenaries each skilled in a different field of combat, megalomaniacal bad guys with big, dumb bumbling henchmen and of course, lots of explosions. Unlike G.I. Joe and other cartoons from the eighties, Rambo didn’t include a PSA at the end of each episode.
Director Tim Burton lent his executive producing services to this fantastic animated series based on his hit film, Beetlejuice. This series is a great example of how an animated show can properly explore and expand a movie’s universe. It follows a young goth girl Lydia Deetz (played by Winona Ryder in the movie) as she summoned her best friend and ghostly con-man Beetlejuice, to take them on wacky adventures through both the Netherworld and, occasionally, the real world.
The show ran for an impressive 94 episodes over its four seasons, and much like the Animaniacs and Phineas and Ferb cartoons, Beetlejuice was not just popular with kids because of its sight gags and fun wordplay, but it also entertained adults with its smart parodies on books and movies usually considered more oriented towards grownups – such as, Brigadoon, It’s a Wonderful Life and Moby Dick.
Police Academy: Animated (1988)
If you ever need help solving a crime then you’d definitely want this loveable, bumbling police force from the Police Academy to be there. The team of officers are straight from the movies: Mahoney and his human noise maker partner Larvell Jones, the accident prone Sweetchuck, the imposing Moses Hightower, the soft-spoken Laverne Hooks, the bazooka-wielding Tackleberry and his main squeeze, the gorgeous but deadly Callahan. Over the course of 65 episodes, much to the dismay of Captain Harris, the gang is either solving a caper or foiling the dastardly plans of the Kingpin.
The creators took a decidedly classic approach to the animation and the heist stories were reminiscent of old Scooby Doo cartoons. Unlike some other cartoon series in this list, Police Academy: Animated keeps with the continuity of the entire franchise – 7 films and a 26-episode live-action TV show – by taking place between the fourth and fifth films. The only change made was the addition of a group of talking dogs, known as the K-9 corps. On a personal note, the opening theme song was performed by 80s hip-hop group The Fat Boys – and it’s fantastic.
The Mask: The Animated Series (1995)
In the early nineties, several of Jim Carrey’s classic comedies found their way into cartoon land: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and The Mask. Of those three, only The Mask was worth watching. For three seasons, Stanley Ipkiss and his dog Milo used the mysterious, magical mask to defeat his arch rival Pretorius and his bevy of henchmen. Like Beetlejuice before it, The Mask relied heavily on sight gags and wordplay humor – much to delight of fans, young and old.
A couple of minor changes in canon were made from the movie – Stanley can use the mask during the day (he could only use it at night in the film), Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz’ character in the film), is noticeably absent, while bad guys Niko and Dorian Tyrell (who died in the film) fail to make an appearance in the show. The Mask was also fond of spoofing other properties, most notably Marvel and DC characters. Though the sexual innuendo from the film was obviously removed, the show wasn’t without controversy. One episode, “Flight as a Feather”, was never aired in the US because it featured an exotic dancer, Cookie BaBoom, being stripped naked by The Mask (watch the scene HERE.)
Only six movies in 1995 could match the box office power of the action/adventure film, Jumanji. It’s comes as no surprise that an animated version of the show would hit the airwaves less than one year later. Most of the original characters found their way from film-to-cartoon: Alan Parrish (the man trapped in game while playing as kid), Judy and Peter Shepherd (the brother and sister who find Alan while continuing the game he started years ago), Aunt Nora (Judy and Peter’s aunt), Officer Bentley and of course, main villain big game hunter Van Pelt.
The show was popular enough to warrant 40 episodes over the course of three seasons, but not because it was “funny”, it managed to capture the adventurous spirit of the film. Each episode found the three main characters – Alan, Judy and Peter – trying to solve a clue or searching for Alan’s clue, so that he can solve it and get home. Unlike other cartoons, Jumanji has a finality to the over-arching story of Alan being trapped in the game – writers allowed him to eventually read his clue and escape in the final episode.
Men in Black: The Series (1997)
After finding success in the both the comic book and movie markets, Men in Black turned its aliens-among-us storyline into a very successful cartoon series. Unlike other cartoons, continuity from film-to-comic wasn’t important, as only a handful of aspects were kept for the TV series. Characters and personalities, such as Agent J, Agent K and Agent L, were brought over but they kept almost none of their backstory. However, those changes didn’t affect how the show was received by viewers, as they watched the M.I.B. of Division 6 protect not only the planet from alien onslaughts, but at times, also the galaxy.
Adding to its quality, Men in Black brought in the voice talents of Tony Shalhoub as Jeebs, Adam Baldwin as Agent X, Vincent D’Onofrio as Edgar Bug and Eddie Barth as Frank the Pug. The first three seasons of the show aired as part of the Kids’ WB Saturday morning lineup, with the fourth season becoming a daily afternoon show. Unfortunately, as popular as the show became, it never found an audience in the home video market. To date, only the first season has ever been released on DVD.
Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles (1999)
Robert A. Heinlein’s epic sci-fi novel about alien bugs waging war on Earth not only found its way into theaters but it also made a short, but awesome, appearance as a 3-D animated TV show. Roughneck: Starship Trooper Chronicles was a departure from the film, as it focused less on the politics of the invasion and instead, centered around the missions of the mobile infantry squad known as “Raczak’s Roughnecks”. The show also incorporated elements from the novel initially left out of film series: powered armor suits, drop pods and most importantly, the alien race known as Skinnies.
While the storylines were amazing, the show was completely mismanaged by Columbia Tristar and Sony Pictures. Roughnecks was originally ordered to run eight weeks as a five-day-a-week show, but the 3-D animation studio, Foundation Imaging, couldn’t keep up with the demanding schedule. As a result, only 36 of the planned 40 episodes would ever be finished. Compounding the show’s failure, it was often shown in reruns that were out-of-sync with the entire timeline and placed in unpleasing timeslots. The entire series (in its correct order) is now available on DVD and it’s worth a watch – especially for Starship Troopers fans.
Clerks: The Animated Series (2000)
One of the most underrated, and unfortunately rarely watched, shows on our list, Clerks: The Animated Series was adapted from the cult classic film of the same name. The show brought back all the core characters from the movie: Quick Stop clerk Dante Hicks, RST Video clerk Randal Graves, and of course, Jay and Silent Bob. A recurring protagonist was introduced, Leonardo Leonardo, who opens a Quicker Stop across the street, nearly putting Quick Stop out of business.
Throughout the 6-episode series, Dante and Randal’s hijinks are generally set in or concern the Quick Stop. Kevin Smith’s brand of witty, topical, juvenile and often misunderstood humor is on full display, as the pair of friends find themselves in unusual situations – from being trapped in a freezer, to surviving a monkey virus plague. Just because the show was canceled by ABC after airing two episodes in no way reflects how good it actually was. Executives most likely didn’t understand the point of the show, which is evident by them airing episode 4 first, followed by episode 2 which was a flashback to episode 1.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
The Star Wars universe is so massive that it has become a part of everyday life in many conceivable ways – so of course, that is going to include cartoons. The storyline for Star Wars: The Clone Wars takes place in the time between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It follows Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ashoka Tano as they battle the droid army of the Separatists, the evil Count Dooku and vicious General Greivous.
It’s notable that the multiple award-winning 3-D animated Clone Wars is the only cartoon on this list that is not only based off a movie, but also received a theatrical release, not once, but twice – the pilot episode received a wide release, while a season 3 trilogy enjoyed a limited release. Over its 121 episodes, the stories in the series grew bigger, better and more complex, drawing in an average audience of over 3 million viewers during its debut. In 2010, this led to the show eventually being hailed as “the highest rated sci-fi animation currently on television” during a panel at San Diego Comic Con.
There have been dozens of decent animated series adapted from live-action movies that didn’t quite make the top ten – Highlander, Black Dynamite, Spider-Man, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – and they are all good in their own ways. Even though the classic Saturday Morning cartoon lineup no longer exists, we sincerely hope this doesn’t deter Hollywood from continuing to adapt movies into cartoons we can all love.
Did we leave a cartoon off this list that you absolutely loved as a child (or adult)? Tell us about it in the comment section.