I’ve written a metric ton by now about cartoons. Today’s cartoon-related topic, however, is still a good one: what are the most famous Western animated cartoons? Given the current fractured state of media (with streaming, cable, etc.), and changes in animation over the past few decades, it seems like an interesting question.
My main criteria for this list: if I showed pictures of these characters to grade-schoolers, most adults, and older people, how many could name or recognize the characters without prompting? While plenty of kids love “Paw Patrol” and Gen Zers love “Rick and Morty,” many older adults likely never heard of them. Similarly, older adults might fondly recall Yogi Bear or Woody Woodpecker, but good luck finding kids who recognize those two.
- I’m just focusing on Western animation, not anime.
- I’m also just focusing on animation and not comic book/strip characters, which is for another post.
- Despite the use of the word “Western,” I admit all of my examples are cartoons made in North America.
Disney classic shorts
The Disney classic shorts include such characters as Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale, and others. I’d also throw in related and spin-off characters, most famously Uncle Scrooge.
Mickey is hands down not just the most famous Western cartoon character, but the world’s, period. He’s the logo and signature mascot for Disney, and is heavily marketed everywhere. Mickey also continues to appear in new material, such as the current series of shorts for the Disney Channel and Disney+. He’s also been a major influence on American copyright laws (for the worse).
That said, Donald’s also very popular, especially in European-published comics. Donald’s also received his own share of spin-off material, such as “DuckTales,” “The Three Caballeros,” etc.
Disney and Pixar animated feature films
While Disney and Pixar are technically two separate studios, for this list’s purposes, I’m including them together. Disney’s current marketing often promotes both studios’ output together, anyway.
The Disney animated feature film canon consists of all the films that are officially considered Walt Disney Studios theatrical animated films. That excludes direct-to-video releases, TV spin-offs, etc. Over 60 films make up this list, including everything from “Snow White” to “Encanto.”
At this point, there’s likely very few people who haven’t seen or heard of at least one of these films. Even the most cynical Disney parodies on Adult Swim, “Saturday Night Live,” etc. assume the audience is familiar with Disney’s output.
The Looney Tunes’ star has dimmed a bit in recent years. Still, nearly all adults recognize characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the Road Runner. The Warner Bros. cartoon stars have had a huge impact on Western animation.
Whether kids still recognize the Looney Tunes characters might be debatable. However, Warner Bros. has put effort into marketing the Looney Tunes again in recent years, with new spin-offs such as a 2021 “Space Jam” sequel. Bugs and company also have their own dedicated top-level category on HBO Max, and are prominently featured on the streaming service’s kids-only profiles. So for now, I’ll still include the Looney Tunes here, even if kids might only know them as “those characters in that basketball movie.”
I’ve written before about Scooby-Doo’s fame. However, I think he’s reached the point where he’s now near-universally recognizable. President Obama had a Scooby doll in a Christmas photo; there’s plenty of merchandising; Scooby now has a US postage stamp; and new spin-offs are made to this day. Scooby is also heavily advertised on HBO Max, with his own section in the Cartoon Network category. HBO Max’s kids-only profiles also prominently feature the Great Dane.
Even the cliches of the show have become famous, fueling countless parodies.
While “The Simpsons” has clearly seen better days, it’s still the most famous cartoon from the 1990s. “The Simpsons” also has had a major impact in animation, including making adult-oriented animation popular. Disney also heavily promoted “The Simpsons” as part of their Fox buyout and Disney+ launch.
Between the show’s longevity and impact, I assume nearly everyone recognizes Bart, Homer, and company by now.
Runners-up: “Merely” well known cartoons
Below are my runners-up, or “honorable mentions.” These are cartoons that have risen or fallen in prominence, but aren’t at the ubiquitous levels of the cartoons listed above. (Or “not yet,” in the “rising” cartoons’ case.) Thus, these cartoons are “merely” well known.
Before the 90s, “The Flintstones” was probably considered Hanna-Barbera’s flagship show. A 1990 anniversary special for the studio even used Fred’s catchphrase (“Yabba-Dabba-Doo”) in the title. Since then, however, a lack of new material, changing times, and the revival of “Scooby-Doo” since the late 1990s has seen the “modern Stone Age family” fall off in prominence. These days, Scooby’s clearly the face of Hanna-Barbera as a brand, to the point the 2020 movie “Scoob!” tried centering a “Hanna-Barbera Universe” around the Great Dane.
While the Flintstones are well known by adults, I imagine kids today either don’t recognize them or only know them as “those weird-looking guys on the cereal boxes and vitamin bottles.”
Since his 1999 debut, SpongeBob has become Nickelodeon’s most popular program, eclipsing everything else on the channel. A whole generation’s grown up on constant airings at this point. However, plenty of adults also enjoy the show, or at least have heard of it.
After 20+ years, SpongeBob is still the face of Nickelodeon, and shows no sign of declining in prominence, versus other early aughts cartoon stars like Shrek. Mr. SquarePants is also heavily promoted on Paramount+. While I’m not sure if he’s quite ubiquitous yet among older adults, I suspect SpongeBob is getting there.
Tom and Jerry
The cat and mouse duo have been mainstays of TV reruns for decades. The duo and their imitators even inspired parodies like “Itchy and Scratchy” on “The Simpsons.”
That said, like other non-Disney theatrical-era cartoons, Tom and Jerry have declined in prominence in recent years. The recent series of made-for-video movies have been met with mixed reception; ditto the 2021 theatrical “Tom and Jerry” theatrical film. While the cat and mouse are on HBO Max, they’re just mixed in with other older cartoons, versus the Looney Tunes getting their own top-level category.
Whether kids still recognize the cat and mouse is debatable, though being on HBO Max might help. Cartoonito, Cartoon Network’s preschool block, also plans on making a new series of Tom and Jerry shorts.
The Minions are the newest characters in this post, but for good reason. Since the original “Despicable Me” came out in 2010, the Minions have become one of the most popular cartoon characters in recent times. They became so popular that they got bigger roles in “Despicable Me”’s two sequels, and even their own two spin-off films.
As of this writing, the original 2015 “Minions” movie is the fifth highest-grossing animated film of all time (not adjusting for inflation), earning $1.159 billion at the box office. “Despicable Me 3” (2017) is the eighth highest grossing, earning $1.034 billion. Just outside the top 10, but at #11, is “Despicable Me 2” (2013) at $970.8 million.
While kids all know who the Minions are, plenty of adults do also. Given the communal nature of movies (versus the fractured nature of modern TV), plenty of adults likely also know about the Minions—between taking their kids/grandkids to the films and said films’ heavy TV advertising. The Minions also are popular online for memes, some of which fueled an attendance of twentysomethings to the 2022 film “Minions 2: The Rise of Gru.” It also helps that the Minions are well merchandised.
After a dozen years, the Minions still seem to have strength. Whether they decline in prominence (and fall off this list) remains to be seen.
How do you feel about these choices? Please let me know in the comments.