As someone who grew up in the era of the Disney Afternoon, I am objectively, unequivocally qualified to be the best judge of quality children’s programming.
Okay, that’s a load of fecal matter, but regardless, there is something to be said about many of those shows from the late eighties, early nineties. And I can at least say I think newer shows deserve a fair shake and some older shows are not above reproach. Plus, I wanted to take a look specifically at the ones that were spun off the animated Disney films. And since they varied wildly from decent to terrible, I found them more fascinating than the average Disney cartoon series.
See, these shows had to live up a standard. That standard is arguably one of the highest bars in animation: a follow-up that has to at least feel somewhat equal to the original film. So how have these shows stood as continuations of the movie’s we’ve all come to know and love?
As a quick disclaimer, I am excluding The 7D, The Mighty Ducks, Bonkers, and TaleSpin. While all three had their basis to movies, it’s clear the movie was simply a conceptual springboard rather than a true continuation of the franchise. So let’s dive into the top five best!
But first, an honorable mention:
Honorable Mention: The Legend of Tarzan (2001-2003)
This show flew under a lot of people’s radar, and I get it. Tarzan (1999) was a hit, but in the mildest sense. It made money, got some radio hits, and got its own Disneyland attraction and a temporary musical show at Animal Kingdom. Not bad. But Disney won’t do much else. Even now, Tarzan is not wholly owned by Disney, so they can’t do much with it unless they pay royalties and get permission from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ estate. So Disney gets by by doing as little with the character as possible, and that seems to suit them just fine. Then in fall of 2001, Disney kicked off a TV series featuring Tarzan as well as Jane, Terk, Tantor, Professor Porter, Kala, and the rest of the jungle, while the memory of the film was still fresh.
Supposedly, the idea came from the fact that since Burroughs wrote 24 novels based on the adventures of the ape-man, there ought to be plenty of fodder for a television series. Add on top of that, all the new stories that could be told with the new additions Disney provided. And on that front, they succeeded. They did write a bunch of new stories that brought about a whole new world that the original film never so much as hinted at. In one episode, they even went so far as to add U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt in an episode! So, in terms of conception, this one was great!
The problem was in the execution. Tarzan was lauded in the late nineties for software called “Deep Canvas”, which basically allowed the jungle to look detailed, deep, rich, and move fluidly when the camera did. Basically, it allowed all those awesome scenes where Tarzan tree-surfed to look as cool as they did. The backgrounds and animation that were used in the TV series were pretty underwhelming in comparison, making the animation rigid and lifeless, and the jungle as deep as a piece of cardboard.
Also, they added more humans to the stories, which distanced itself from being a story about the jungle and the terrain and the animals to one about Tarzan fighting other humans, which really saps out a lot of the mystique of the franchise. In addition to Roosevelt, we ended seeing a French trade merchant whom Tarzan befriends, as well as an arrogant pilot, some diamond thieves, some of Jane’s friends from England, even Clayton’s sister all just happen to drop by this remote section of the world. Even weirder, they added magic to the show, particularly in Queen La of the leopard people. While adapted from the books, it just didn’t really jive with the show so grounded in reality, including the fact that one of its main characters was a scientist. And despite as inherently awesome as it sounds, even Tarzan facing off against friggin’ dinosaurs was a bit too ridiculous to bear.
While by no means a bad show, it just wasn’t able to achieve the levels of grandeur the original film did, a sentiment you’ll see me cite in the latter half of this list. I just couldn’t fit it either columns A or B, so here it is, tucked neatly in the center. Too good to not say something, and just bad enough to warrant mentioning. All that being said, let’s get to the real thing already with the…
TOP FIVE BEST!
5. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (2000-2001)
In the first Toy Story (1995), the original opening was planned to have Buzz facing off against Emperor Zurg, only for the viewers to realize that what they were watching was the tail end of the in-universe Buzz Lightyear TV show. This was ditched, obviously, and reused as the intro to Toy Story 2 (1999) as a video game. But the notion that Buzz was a toy based on a TV show was still used, and references were hinted at in the first movie.
This show took full advantage of what it could have been. Buzz and pals Mira Nova, XR, and Booster all worked together to stop Emperor Zurg, and it fully dedicated itself to the Saturday morning aesthetic. It was goofy and crazy, but it further elevated Buzz’s stature as a no-nonsense straight man whose demeanor was as by-the-book as you’d expect. Even the casting of Patrick Warburton as Buzz was absolutely perfect.
If you were looking for something as serious and straightlaced as G.I. Joe or Transformers, you would have been extremely disappointed. This show in no way took itself remotely seriously, and it worked to its benefit. It seemed to know that no amount of grit or intensity would have lived up to the imaginary hype the movies created, so it just went nuts.
4. The Legend of the Three Caballeros (2018-)
The original 1945 film is kind of a hot mess. As much as I like it and understand its cultural and historical significance, it’s the kind of movie I wouldn’t readily recommend to friends. It’s certainly an acquired taste.
In 2018, Disney sprung a new TV show that used that film to loosely spark a new TV series, but it used what it had to great effect. In this show, Donald Duck inherits a cabana along with José Carioca and Panchito, only to find out his great-grandfather, Clinton Coot, bequeathed it and all the treasures inside to all three of them. They find a magic atlas, which brings around the goddess of adventure, Xandra. The trio also accidentally set free an ancient malevolent sorcerer named Felldrake, who corrupts their snobby neighbor, Sheldgoose. Now, after learning the three are descendants of the legendary Three Caballeros who stopped Felldrake, Donald, José, Panchito and Xandra are tasked to stop him again.
I’d hardly call the original film fodder for great stories, but the three are such great personalities bouncing off each other as they are tasked to save the world from dark magic. Other characters like Daisy, Daisy’s nieces, the Aracuan bird, and even Humphrey Bear make for a fun, wacky time. But it still takes itself just seriously enough that it feels like there are serious stakes at hand. The most riveting character here is Donald, who wants as little to do with all this as possible, and just wants to get back together with Daisy, frustrated he has to keep everything a secret from her, never mind Donald is not exactly what you’d call an action hero. I mean, most will argue he can’t even heal properly.
3. The Lion Guard (2016-)
Ah, The Lion King (1994)…what a saga. Much like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, Simba is not the type to continue going on adventures to save his pride lands. So what stories can be told of the pride lands…that don’t have to deal with Timon and Pumbaa centrally?
A well-crafted mythology gave us The Lion Guard, starring Simba and Nala’s second cub, Kion. Much like his father, he’s a bit foolhardy and reckless, but when it’s discovered he has a power called the Roar of the Elders, Rafiki and Simba agree Kion must command a new lion guard. It’s their job to protect the Pride Lands and the Circle of Life. Kion brings aboard his closest friends and utilizes their strengths to help animals in distress and stop those who seek to disrupt the balance.
Now, why didn’t we hear of this before? Well, apparently, Scar was the leader of the last lion guard until he abused its power, and so he lost it, hence why it went into remission. Now Kion has all the more reason to use it wisely.
What makes this show work is it balances out the fact that Kion and friends are still young. Unlike most shows where kids are the stars, they still have to mature, learn, and report to their parents. The kids take their responsibility seriously and in full view of their parents, proving that kids in cartoons don’t always have to be up to something or hiding from their folks. It encourages doing the right thing for the right reasons.
All the original characters are brought back, even Kiara from The King II: Simba’s Pride (1998). In fact, one episode even featured Vitani, Nuka, Zira, And Kovu! It was a great way to acknowledge the canon.
The animation is great, the action is great, the use of Swahili is consistent, and the new characters flesh out a world we all love. And perhaps best of all, as a Disney Junior show, it does not feel the need to talk down to its audience.
2. The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-1991)
I grew up loving Winnie the Pooh. I had the original four featurettes on cassette, which were and still are amazing cartoons. But I also had this show, which, out of all of Pooh’s TV shows, was the most faithful. No creepy costumes teaching kids about molestation, no detective agency, and no traditional puppetry matched to weird CGI. Just simple stories starring plush pals of the Ashdown forest.
There’s nothing I can really say about the premise because the shows were allowed to just…happen. Pooh and friends didn’t have to report to a narrator. They didn’t have to go solve mysteries. They didn’t have to pander to young children. They just were themselves. There were morals and messages, but it wasn’t the focus.
They kept Christopher Robin. They kept Gopher. They kept the highly appealing hand drawn animation. And even when the characters would have escapades beyond the Hundred Acre Woods, it was contextualized as in their imaginations, which makes sense considering they are, in fact, stuffed toys that come alive.
1. Tangled: the Series (2017-)
One huge question that must be tackled every time a new TV series is suggested is asking what the status quo is. Movies like Aladdin (1992) end on an ambiguous enough note that make sense that Aladdin and his friends would go off on other adventures. Beauty and the Beast (1991) loses a huge chunk of its appeal because at the end of the movie, there are no longer talking objects or a beast to market with. Tangled (2010) ended similarly, with Rapunzel’s hair gone and Mother Gothel dead. So how do you go continue her story?
In Tangled: the Series, Rapunzel – or “Raps” as her friend Cassandra calls her – finds a bizarre rock that is impervious to even sword. But when the princess touches it, all seventy feet of her golden tresses pop right back out of her head all over again. That’s bad enough, but now not only can her hair not be cut, but the rocks are cropping up all over and encroaching upon the kingdom of Corona. Rapunzel still deals with all sorts of minor kerfuffles, alongside Eugene, Pascal, Cassandra, Maximus, the ruffians, and even her loving parents, but between learning her princess duties and the bigger issue, Rapunzel needs all the help she can get.
A huge hook for this show is Rapunzel herself, and she’s just as wide-eyed, clever, and cheerful as you remember her to be. She’s never cloying, and it often clashes with her cynical boyfriend and equally cynical best friend. More significantly, the show has a bright and cheery tone while still being just intense enough that adults can get invested. A character named Varian starts out as a friend, using his skills in alchemy to try to help Rapunzel, but a series of bad decisions angers him to the point where he swears vengeance, and it’s believable. It’s…well, mature.
So, let’s tackle that top five worst list, shall we?
TOP FIVE WORST!
5. 101 Dalmatians: the Series (1997-1998)
At the end of the 1961 film, Roger giddily declares to his dumbstruck wife that not only will they keep all ninety-nine puppies, but they will simply move to a farm in the country, prompting the final song of the movie, “Dalmatian Plantation”. I assumed Roger would then spend his days cleaning up after every single accident and pay for every shilling for the moving expenses, but I never thought it’d take them 36 years to finally get around to it. See, in 1997, a continuation of the story premiered, and it took place in the countryside…strangely enough, not only did they manage to purchase the run-down farm that was home to the Colonel, Sergeant Tibbs, and the Captain, but it also came stocked with cows, chickens, and pigs. And, coincidentally, right next door to Hell Hall, the haunting abode of Cruella DeVil.
The show focused on Lucky, your typical bratty, adventurer kid who often goaded his friends into all his crazy escapades. His best friend is Rolly, the fat one whose identity was summed up in constantly being hungry. Cadpig rounded out the trio as the quirky runt, though it was implied she was the one whom Roger rubbed awake in the movie. Lastly, a chicken named Spot…was a chicken. There were other characters, to be sure, but rarely did they ever deal with Roger, Anita, Nanny, or even Pongo or Perdita. In fact, almost none of the other puppies were used. There was literally a template to make over ninety cool personalities, and the show squandered it to focus on only three of them.
Arguably one of the biggest issues was the total de-Britishization of the movie. Aside from Cruella, Horace and Jasper, none of the characters had British accents. Nothing about the show’s premise was uniquely English, leaving out what could have a charming flavor (or flavour, as it were) it could have had. It was cheesy, pedestrian, and unremarkable. Not the worst, but we got four more entries to go.
4. Timon and Pumbaa (1995-1999)
I’m not going to lie, I loved this show when I was younger. I loved Timon and Pumbaa, and a show focused on them was catnip to my senses. But looking back on it now, I really question my taste in children’s programming.
For one thing, the show was no longer bound to the Pride Lands. Our hedonistic heroes travelled the world, and would wind up getting involved in all sorts of nutty hijinks. Free from the constraints of the National Geographic-esque realism, the pair took on a more cartoony feel, allowing much greater freedom for indulge in all sorts of slapstick. I could gripe about how this seriously detracted from the integrity of the original – which I have – but my biggest complaint is the utter sabotage the show committed against the protagonists.
In the movie, Timon was a bit snarky, but overall a decent character. Like George to Lenny, Timon was considered the smart one, full of ideas and plans. Pumbaa was simple, but kind-hearted, and his idiot savant joke (the stars being “balls of gas burning” line) was one of the best jokes in the movie. Unfortunately, the writers ran with these traits and brought out the worst in the two. Timon was reduced to an arrogant, self-centered con man who thought himself better than anyone else, and his schemes would often be the impetus for many of the show’s plots. Pumbaa was shown to be almost dumb, but was constantly implying he was much smarter through his overexplaining shtick. It got really annoying really quick.
There was only so much that could be done with the two before you got sick and tired of the two. For my money, I’d rather watch The Lion King 1 1/2 (2004), which may still focus on the pair, but at least feels grounded in reality and expands upon their real personalities.
3. Hercules: the Series (1998-1999)
Much like the next entry, the idea of teens living in a bygone civilization with anachronistic references seems like a fun idea, but when faced with jiving with the canon of the original film, it just falls apart. In this show, Hercules is still training to become a true hero, as evidenced by his scrawny physique. So not unlike Smallville, Herc is learning to be a hero and controlling his powers…while still going to school and learning to be a better person overall.
The first problem was the animation quality. While the draftsmanship never got as bad as Legend of Tarzan, it still wasn’t top quality. I’m assuming the relatively low box office numbers of the 1997 movie probably forced several budget cuts no one was thrilled about, but deal with the hand you’re dealt with, I guess.
The creative choices made in the show are baffling. When Phil takes Hercules to train in the movie, they’re on a secluded island where its only other inhabitants are goats and nymphs. For whatever reason, now he goes to high school, where his best friends are a prophet named Cassandra and the wax wings legend himself, Icarus. Why is he best buds with the most infamous figure of hubris in civilized history? No idea. Oh, and he can hang out with all of the gods of the Greek pantheon at will. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t even talk to his own father unless he prays before a massive statue. And never mind all of this already flies directly in the face of any continuity established in the movie, but the most egregious one of all is this: why does Hades know he is alive? If you recall, Hades believed his minions killed Hercules as a baby until Meg brought him up. I guess since Hades was the most popular character in the franchise, it sorta makes sense to keep him as the main villain, but at the cost of the established continuity?
The one redeeming factor was the episode “Arabian Nights”, where Hades teamed up with a deceased Jafar and they pitted Hercules and Aladdin against each other. It was one of the first major crossovers Disney ever did, and for all its faults, that episode alone is pretty cool. But it definitely does not compensate for all its other sins.
2. The Emperor’s New School (2006-2008)
This show’s theme song begins with the lyrics:
“He’s on his way to the throne,
He’s on his way to success,
But he has to go to school,
He’s got to ace that test!”
To which I ask, why? In this extension of The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), after Kuzco’s llama drama, The emperor now suddenly has to enroll in high school so he can…be emperor? Now, don’t get me wrong, the farcical nature of the movie allows for A LOT of anachronistic, over the top humor. But this setup is so flimsy it flies in the face of the general continuity. Maybe if this was a prequel with a younger, brattier Kuzco before he became emperor, sure. If it had to take place after the movie, maybe it could be a means in which Kuzco could try to better himself and fight his selfish impulses, sure. But as is? I mean, if he’s the emperor, why is there some random authority governing him?
A new character named Malina was added to the roster as the token hot chick that more or less took over Pacha’s role as Kuzco’s conscience . Oh, and I’m not kidding about her being the hot chick: the show frequently refers to her as a hottie, even in the theme song. She tries to help Kuzco study and pass his classes, however, it’s clear she mostly has disdain for him. Still, she tries to be the better role model in the show, but it’s clear she’s just meant to be the overly-serious, eye-rolling hot girl. I’m not afraid of calling misogyny as I see it, and while this isn’t as bad as other shows at the time, it definitely has some uncomfortable vibes.
Yzma, disguised as principal Amzy, was constantly on the prowl to flunk Kuzco, and this may have been the best part of the show, since Eartha Kitt came back for the role, and her relationship with Kronk was gold from day one. But because the writers only had The Emperor’s New Groove for reference, most of her plots involved turning Kuzco into animals. The show felt like it hit a wall, like it wanted to teach some good morals but kept floundering with stale plots, general inconsistencies, and dilution of characters we loved.
1. Jungle Cubs (1996-1998)
I love The Jungle Book (1967). But this show just…boy, it just hit a new low. The premise was simple: the animals of the movie – Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Khan, Louie, Kaa, and Hathi – were all cubs who were all friends with each other. And…that’s it.
Sin number one: the stories rarely had much meat to them. For all intents and purposes, The Jungle Book novel was full of dark and dangerous instances exemplifying why the jungle was so dangerous. The 1967 film touched on this, but its focus was front and center on the music and the fun. Because the premise was based on six young animals just slumming around the jungle, there was little the plots did. On occasion there’d be a leopard or some other large, adult animal wanting to eat them, but, those stories or dangers rarely went there. As a result, most of the episodes were based on basic, Sesame Street-level lessons about sharing, jealousy, or friendships.
Sin number two: the voice acting. Now, don’t get me wrong, because I’m not knocking the talents of Rob Paulson, Jim Cummings, Elizabeth Daily, Cree Summer, Jason Marsden, Charlie Adler, Tress MacNeille, or Kath Soucie. They did great. It’s the choices that were made that were beyond their control. For starters, recall how Bagheera, Shere Khan, And Hathi all had British accents in the original film, courtesy of Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, and J. Pat O’Malley. Guess what they didn’t have in the cartoon? Also, in the first season, Marsden was cast to play Prince Louie, and he was the only one who actually sounded like a young version of their character. But in season two, he was traded out for Cree Summer (Susie from Rugrats, Numbuh Five from Codename: Kids Next Door, Elmira from Tiny Toon Adventures, Kida from Atlantis: the Lost Empire). This was vastly different and jarring, and sounded much less like the character she was cast to portray.
Sin number three: why was this a concept? Prequels develop due to some realization that whatever might have happened to certain characters prior to the movie, there must be some story worth telling. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, Lucas couldn’t have been the only one wondering how Darth Vader came to be. But Jungle Book? Judging from how the characters regard each other, it didn’t seem as though the characters had any significant relationships to each other. They just kind of all did their own thing. The only real connection they had to each other was Mowgli, and because Jungle Cubs took the Man cub out of the equation, there’s no real underlying relationships, however tenuous, that call for a prequelized exploration.
In contrast, The Lion Guard at least shows how the characters go off on adventures, but still report to their parents. For a show that was supposed to balance out how fun/how dangerous the jungle could be, their didn’t seem to be many parents keeping tabs on their offspring.
Like The Legend of Tarzan, the show tried to honor its source material by using original chapters for episodes, but they failed pretty bad. Red Dogs, Treasure of the Middle Jungle, and Trouble on the Waterfront all just felt like wasted potential due to focusing on a bunch of kids instead of adults where stakes could be serious.
So those are my picks. What are yours? Were my standards unreasonable? Let me know below!