For an animated series, a movie is more than an event, but an opportunity. A cartoon’s TV movie enables not only a push in production quality and a feature length format, but a chance to work outside the comfort zone of the typical episode scale and tell a grander cinematic story. So many cartoons like Futurama, Kim Possible, and Animaniacs have all produced TV movies. At their best, TV movies allow their shows to dive deeper into their characters by placing them in new environments and situations that can either set a new standard for the series or even end them.
Here is a list of the top eleven movies based on animated series that dazzled the small screen with heightened stakes and stellar spectacle.
11. Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus (2019)
In recent years, Nickelodeon’s primary capital has been to celebrate and reinvent its back catalog of favorite Nicktoons for a new age. Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling and the 2021 CGI Rugrats reboot have each brought back classic 90’s toons with their original creators in tow and have been met with much applause from an audience and cult fandom that have loved them since childhood. The standout among Nick’s neo-nostalgic events is Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus. The Netflix exclusive serves as a quasi-finale to the original Jhonen Vasquez series as Dib (Andy Berman) faces off against his Irkan nemesis Zim (Richard Horvitz) to stop his most diabolical plan yet for global conquest. Florpus is the most visually striking Zim adventure as a combination of mixed media flourishes and a vivid color pallet render Vasquez’s style in an aesthetic that is colorfully slick, but still with the wild grungy expressionism that made the series a cult phenomenon.
10. Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip (1999)
*insert Spider-Man: No Way Home joke here*
Ego Trip delivers exactly what it promises. The culmination of the series-long rivalry, Dexter (Christine Cavanaugh) jumps across the spacetime continuum to rally together alternate future versions of himself to defeat his rival Mandark (Eddie Deezen) and his alternate selves. While the fate of the world and the future is at stake, both Dexter and Mandark’s endgame is the same as it’s always been throughout the original series; selfish glory. Whether it’s being the top student of the class or ruler of the future, the clashing egos of these maniacal boy geniuses has been taken to its grandest and most literal scale in an earth-shattering epic directed with the same cartoony elegance that Genndy Tartakovsky puts into each of his works.
9. Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation (1992)
While most cartoon series used their movie event as a way to heighten the stakes of their plot and push their characters to their thematic limits, Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation operates as an extended bunch of episodes in the strongest way. Based on the Steven Spielberg produced Warner Bros. show, the film follows the students of Acme Looniversity as they each explore different ways kids spend the months away from school, told through interconnected segments and vignettes surrounding the Acme crew. At its best, the film serves as a template for how a proper Looney Tunes movie should function. While Space Jam and Back in Action are fun, Summer Vacation takes advantage of its freeform pace, menagerie of characters and spectacular animation to permit the Toons to do what they do best in a mile-a-minute collection of gags, songs and slapstick insanity without the hindrance of a traditional three-act structure or shared screen-time with live-action stars.
8. Wakko’s Wish (1999)
After years of running amok on the Warner Brothers studio lot, Yakko, Wakko and Dot finally have a movie of their own in Wakko’s Wish. Serving as the last appearance of the Warner siblings before the 2020 Hulu revival, Wakko’s Wish finds the entire Animaniacs crew, along with Pinky and the Brain, as impoverished villagers on a cross-country race to make a wish on a fallen star. The film operates in the same way that films like Muppet Treasure Island or The Muppet Christmas Carol do as the whole cast of characters takes on roles to tell a grand-scale adventure outside the familiar premise and setting of the original show. Much like Summer Vacation, the film also uses its ensemble cast and their common goal to propel the story through sequences and vignettes that allow their entertaining personalities to embody their parts with the same wit and charm that made the series such a delight.
7. Regular Show: The Movie (2015)
JG Quintel’s Regular Show takes something as menial as park maintenance and turns it into an absurdist odyssey in practically every episode, blowing the ordinary out of proportion and into a reality-bending scenario. Regular Show: The Movie raises the stakes even higher by pitting the fate of the galaxy’s future on a teenage mistake. Mordecai and Rigby’s friendship is put to the ultimate test as the mistakes of the past clash with the destiny of the future in a battle of spaceships, exploding volleyballs and college admissions. What makes the film a perfect love-letter to the series is how much dramatic gravitas and thematic heft is effectively conveyed amidst its bizarre characters and situations. For as complexly strange as the adventure gets, the emotional core is not only omnipresent, but hits gut-wrenchingly well as a story of wasted youth.
6. The Fairly Oddparents: Channel Chasers (2004)
Of the many movies and events specials The Fairly Oddparents had over the years, Channel Chasers remains the most celebrated among the fans who grew up with the series. In a ploy to remain young forever in order to never lose his fairies, Timmy Turner (Tara Strong) wishes for a magic remote to run away from home in the world of television forever, hopping from channel to channel. While the countless barrage of TV spoofs and references ranging from Rankin/Bass Christmas specials to The Simpsons are what made the movie memorable, many fans have argued that Channel Chasers should have served as the series finale. The film addresses the relationship Timmy has with his own parents and why he has needed fairies in the first place, culminating in some of the most emotionally driven dialogues the series has ever had.
5. Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007)
After its initial cancellation and a successful tenure of reruns on Adult Swim, Futurama came back (for the first time) with Bender’s Big Score. After discovering the secret to time travel on Fry’s less than flattering tattoo, Bender (John DiMaggio) is hijacked by alien nudist scammers to jump around the time-stream to steal history’s most valuable treasures. In a word, this movie is jam-packed! While the alien scammers are the brunt of the film’s story, the movie goes through a veritable season’s worth of dramatic storylines and emotional characters moments that would feel unfocused in lesser hands, but manage to flow naturally in a fittingly epic return for the cult favorite.
4. Ed Edd n Eddy’s Big Picture Show (2009)
Big Picture Show is surprisingly cathartic. Danny Antonucci’s Ed, Edd n Eddy is a series built on gross-out gags and slapstick humor to emulate the childhood suburban experience from a wacky and often cynical perspective. The series’ climactic film takes the Ed boys out of the cul-de-sac and out on the open road as they look to find shelter with Eddy’s fabled big brother after a scam goes horribly wrong. The film gives the Eds an opportunity to be vulnerable with each other to openly express what their friendship means to each other and examine what makes them who they are, reaching a point at the end where friendships are proven their worth against adversity. Big Picture Show finally gives the Eds a sense of belonging and acceptance that is more valuable to them than all the jawbreakers in the world.
3. Kim Possible: So the Drama (2005)
So the Drama is a gold standard in payoff. Along with finding dates for their junior prom, teen superspy Kim Possible (Christy Carlson Romano) and best friend Ron Stoppable (Will Friedle) must decipher their arch foe’s most puzzling scheme yet. Originally planned as the series finale until a fan campaign garnered a fourth season, So the Drama makes the missions more urgent, the motivations more personal and the espionage exploits even more daring. The film’s biggest accomplishment is finally cementing the series-long romance between the two leads in a way that felt well-earned and in character.
2. Codename: Kids Next Door – Operation: ZERO (2006)
A series as deeply engrossed in its own lore as Codename: Kids Next Door uses each episode as an opportunity to expand on its world of childhood operatives and adult tyranny. Operation ZERO takes every advantage of its scope to tell a story that landmarks the sheer size of the show’s universe. The film follows Sector V as they face an apocalypse of the enslaved elderly as Numbuh One (Ben Diskin) learns more of how his heritage is tied to the legendary Numbuh Zero. Along with being an all-around celebration of how far the series has come, Operation ZERO uses every moment of its screen-time to tell a grand scale epic, complete with mind-bending revelations and thrill-a-minute action.
1. Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)
Steven Universe: The Movie is a balancing act with a lot that it needs to accomplish. Unlike most of the films of its kind that sought to end their respective series, the film serves as a time-skip epilogue to the original Steven Universe finale and a pseudo-pilot to the limited-series follow-up Steven Universe Future. Because of this, the film has to show how much the Crystal Gems and their world have changed in reaction to the climactic events of the series and open the window for further stories to be told. Thankfully, Steven Universe: The Movie delivers on each of those margins and more in a film that is emotional, musical and champions the necessity and power of growth. Even the film’s ending denounces the finality of an idealized “happily ever after” and illustrates that change is not an ending, but a beginning.
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