Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: The Owl House (Disney), She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power (Netflix), Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Netflix), and Adventure Time, Steven Universe Future, Summer Camp Island, and Craig Of The Creek (Screenshots: Cartoon Network).

8 kids’ cartoons that embrace compassion as much as adventure and comedy

Clockwise from top left: The Owl House (Disney), She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power (Netflix), Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Netflix), and Adventure Time, Steven Universe Future, Summer Camp Island, and Craig Of The Creek (Screenshots: Cartoon Network).
Graphic: Allison Corr
Field Guide To ParentingOur A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes.

What if the shows you steer your kids toward could actually help them become better people? We know, seems like a leap. But in the current bumper crop of animated series, many standout programs promote compassion, acceptance, and individualism right alongside their interplanetary adventures and fantastical explorations. These various journeys—which place your kids on a surreal train or in the magical Land Of Ooo—accomplish this without ever being preachy, which is useful as the topsy-turvy world of adolescence gets closer every day, and you find your kids needing guidance that they might otherwise resist. And having your children watch a few of these emotionally intelligent shows may help you feel slightly less guilty about their screen time—and who knows, you may even enjoy viewing them yourself.

Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)

At first blush—and in its first seasons—Pendleton Ward’s Cartoon Network phenomenon mostly seemed like a dose of pure candy-colored absurdity, a translation of internet randomness to the cable airwaves, cut with childlike swords and sorcery silliness. It was only over time that the melancholy at Adventure Time’s core became more obvious, as Finn The Human (voiced by Jeremy Shada, a 13-year-old who grew up a little more every year the show was on the air) got older, more wounded, and occasionally a bit wiser in the process. As Adventure Time progressed, Ward and company became more and more comfortable with tossing threats at their heroes that swords and punching couldn’t master, and the Land Of Ooo became ripe territory for a host of metaphors for them to face. Puberty—confronted most elegantly in the mysterious and lovely sixth-season episode “Breezy”—was only the start, as Finn and friends were forced to face realistic takes on despair, heartbreak, and even something as specific as the fear of caring for an older loved with dementia. But even at its heaviest, Adventure Time never lost the spark of creativity and humor that made it resonate with viewers both young and old. “Come along with me,” the song’s gentle, beautiful closing theme asked at the end of every episode, a promise that, whatever emotionally affecting paths it might end up taking viewers down, Finn and Jake (John DiMaggio) would always be by their sides. [William Hughes]
Suggested ages: 9+
Available: Cartoon Network, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon

Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Netflix)

Nothing, not even its spellbinding trailer, can prepare you for the varied adventures that await in Dreamworks and Netflix’s Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts. Hopeful and dazzling, the story follows a chipper underground dweller named Kipo (Karen Fukuhara), whose hidden community is ripped apart by a merciless beast. Separated from her family and forced to the “surface world,” Kipo links up with a number of lone wanderers—an emotionally stunted spark plug named Wolf (Sydney Mikayla), a young music enthusiast named Benson (Coy Stewart), and Benson’s mutated beetle companion, Dave (Deon Cole)—and traverses the land in search of her father. Their journey is littered with some of the strangest and coolest hybrid communities one could hope to meet, like lumberjack kittens, perpetually hungover rocker snakes, and a pack of Mensa-ready wolves—one of which is voiced by RZA. Throughout their search for stability, the motley crew of young adventurers often find themselves weighing the benefits of solitude versus their packlike dynamic and begin to understand what it means to sacrifice and legitimately care for others, which can be especially difficult if you’ve never felt properly cared for yourself. In Kipo, a group of castaways learns to become a family against mesmerizing backdrops and an unfairly amazing soundtrack. [Shannon Miller]
Suggested ages: 7+
Available: Netflix

Steven Universe Future (Cartoon Network)

Steven Universe has always been beloved in my family, but I couldn’t have predicted what a gift Steven Universe Future would be. With everything being settled between the Diamonds and Gems in the show’s final season, Steven (Zach Callison) finds himself at odds and uncertain of his purpose. The Gems want him to hang out and eat pizza and watch Dogcopter, but he’s just not that person anymore. Meanwhile, Steven’s friends are all changing: Sadie and Lars have broken up, his dad went on tour with Sadie’s new band, and Connie headed off to college. Steven can’t seem to get a grip, and his rapidly escalating insecurity and anger eventually manifests as a giant pink horned monster. If there’s a better metaphor for puberty, I have yet to discover it. All of this made total sense to my 13-year-old son, who had been having difficulty dealing with his new mood swings, wondering why he would rage against taking out the garbage one minute, then come tearfully apologizing to me the next. Now we point to his rollercoaster moods as not unlike Steven’s feelings, knowing that they too will pass. We both cried at the series finale: him because his favorite show was over, me because I know that, like Steven, my son will soon be setting out to see the world on his own. But I am honestly so happy to have a kid who points to the compassionate Steven Universe as his emotional role model, and will be forever grateful to this show. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested ages: 10+
Available: Cartoon Network, Hulu, Amazon

She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power (Netflix)

In this inspired take on the character best known in the ’80s for being He-Man’s twin sister, the new She-Ra has the most powerful female presence on this list. Adora (Aimee Carrero) is an orphan who’s been raised by the Horde, an evil army that aims to take over the planet Etheria. Then she finds a magical sword that turns her into She-Ra, and winds up leaving the Horde to hang with the brave rebel princesses of the show’s title. This fairly straightforward tale of good versus evil becomes more nuanced through the feud between Adora and Catra (AJ Michalka), former best friends now on opposite sides of the fight, as well as fantastical battles that span portals and dimensions. She-Ra’s gripping season-long quests and adventures will keep kids riveted, especially as it veers into alternate realities or mysteries. Throughout, the family that Adora has formed is always rock-solid, even if she and Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) disagree about battle plans; and Catra’s lackey, Scorpia (Lauren Ash), eventually stands up for herself by realizing that Catra’s constant putdowns make her a bad friend. Not only do female characters dominate the series, but same-sex relationships are also the norm in the Etheria universe, not the exception; last season also saw the addition of a non-binary character named Double Trouble (voiced by Jacob Tobia). The show’s progressive approach toward sexuality and gender is undeniably refreshing. Season five drops next week. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested ages: 8+
Available: Netflix, Amazon

Craig Of The Creek (Cartoon Network)

I’m an absolute sucker for shows that play on the unique sociopolitical ecosystem powered by children. (Case in point: The first thing I binged after Disney+ launched was Recess.) Craig Of The Creek, created by Matt Burnett and Ben Levin, who were story editors and writers on Steven Universe, peeks into the complex world of the titular protagonist—a sincere, kind-hearted adventurer with a penchant for problem-solving—and his two loyal friends, Kelsey and JP. Their beloved creek is populated by a number of colorful cliques, like the equestrian-loving Horse Girls and the war-ready Paintballers, who harbor their own traditions and mannerisms. Craig (Philip Solomon) and his team are rarely interested in battling these factions, but finding ways to coexist and play peacefully. When he’s not a playground ambassador, Craig is a doting son and brother among one of the most emotionally healthy families onscreen. Togetherness and support are pervasive themes throughout the series, and putting a Black family at the center of such wholesome expressions has worked to obliterate a number of negative stereotypes. What’s more, casual kindness—where it’s not so odd for the older “cool kids” to halt their garage band practice to give Craig’s friends an impromptu guitar lesson—permeates the show in ways that signal a truly remarkable universe. [Shannon Miller]
Suggested ages: 6+
Available: Cartoon Network, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon

Infinity Train (Cartoon Network)

With a protagonist and a creator—Regular Show alum Owen Dennis—who both spent their youths designing amateur computer games, Infinity Train has plenty of elements kids might recognize from their favorite digital pastimes. Set on an endless train where each car is a world unto itself, every episode of the series is essentially a new level, full of puzzles for smart, headstrong teenage hero Tulip (Ashley Johnson) to think (or feel) her way through. She even gets a score of sorts, in the form of a mysterious number on her hand that seems to change as her personal growth expands and contracts. It’s an un-subtle metaphor, but one that Infinity Train handles with decidedly subtle grace. Nowhere is that clearer than in “The Cat’s Car,” the central point of the show’s first season. Tricked into reliving memories of her parents’ recent divorce by the titular feline (voiced with purring glee by the always wonderful Kate Mulgrew), Tulip is forced to confront the fact that some of her recollections of that time aren’t as happy as she might want them to be—but also not as awful as she’d feared. Tellingly, this epiphany does not resolve all of Tulip’s problems instantly; instead, it realistically takes several more episodes of surreal characters—corgi kings, cheerful robots, weirdo turtle people—for her experiences on the train to start helping her grow and heal. [William Hughes]
Suggested ages: 10+
Available: Cartoon Network, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon

The Owl House (Disney Channel)

The Owl House’s Luz (Sarah-Nicole Robles) has a hard time fitting into the real world, due to her proclivity for fantasy (especially fantasy that freaks out her classmates). She finds a more accepting new home in the magical Boiling Isles, apprenticing under powerful sorceress Eda (Wendie Malick) and eventually enrolling in Hexside Academy to study more witchcraft. The bizarre residents of Boiling Isles tell Luz that no human has ever become a witch, but she’s nevertheless undeterred, carving out a path of her own and reveling in the weirdos she now gets to hang with. As Luz asks, “Why does everyone think that being a weirdo’s so bad?” Why indeed. Series creator Dana Terrace worked on Gravity Falls before this, and fans of the Disney series may find some similarities: The diabolic Bill’s eyeball shows up in various places, and Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch uses his Bill voice for the Owl House character of King, an adorable little demon. But it’s Luz’s brave journey that will be most entrancing for kids to witness. As she declares, “I’ll never know unless I try!” she shows how she’s a trailblazer for both self-confidence and non-comformity. Disney has already renewed the show for a second season. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested ages: 8+
Available: Disney Channel, Amazon

Summer Camp Island (Cartoon Network)

While it definitely doesn’t match the occasional intensity of Adventure Time, fans of the surreal cult favorite will recognize familiar beats in the especially light and whimsical Summer Camp Island. There’s a good reason for that: Julia Pott, a former animator and staff writer on Adventure Time, created this series about a magic-infused summer camp run by a group of anthropomorphic animals/teenage witches. It’s a world fully immersed in wonder, where the campers can have a hearty chat with the moon (voiced by Cedric The Entertainer), and it’s perfectly plausible to be friends with a set of sentient pajamas. Couched in boundless fantasy and sharp humor, Pott places the healing, very real comforts of friendship at the center of the series. And while, sure, there aren’t too many youthful cartoons that warn against the dangers of friendship, Summer Camp Island—with its talking trees and potions—normalizes frank expressions of platonic affection. Hearing young friends plainly state that they miss and love each other resonates in its unfortunate rarity, and it’s reassuring to see a show like this make it look as easy as it should be. [Shannon Miller]
Suggested ages: 9+
Available: Cartoon Network, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon