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The coolest animated movies and shows that are worth watching

While general audiences might limit their perception of animation to the next big-budget Pixar movie hitting theaters, the medium has made strides in recent years as more people recognize just how versatile it can be. HBO is reported to be dabbling in animation with one or two animated Game of Thrones spinoffs in early development.

But in the here and now, animation has arguably been a saving grace for video game adaptations and other IPs that might have a hard time getting a green light or being successfully translated into live-action TV or film. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have several of these productions, with HBO Max also being a notable streaming platform for worthwhile animation.

Castlevania

Collage of the main cast of Castlevania season 3 on Netflix.

Netflix’s Castlevania was the first great video game adaptation in a while, as the medium has been floundering after cheap live-action cash-grabs in the theater. But with some solid writing and stellar animation courtesy of Powerhouse Animation Studios, this series proved to be a love letter to longtime fans of the neglected Konami gaming franchise.

The anime-inspired character designs and action are clean and dynamic, the voice cast and character drama are compelling, and it makes creative use of the games’ JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure-like lore. Even with a criminally short first season and a few somewhat rushed storylines at the very end, Castlevania is an engrossingly stylish dark fantasy series with interesting worldbuilding and a satisfying overall story.

Where to stream: Netflix

Arcane

A character collage poster of the cast of Netflix's Arcane.

League of Legends‘ first TV series and one of Netflix’s most recent gaming adaptations, Arcane was a critically acclaimed hit that few saw coming. Visually, the show boasts some of the most awe-inspiring animation work in TV — and it has an incredibly well-written story and cast to match.

Hailee Steinfeld gives an excellent and commanding performance that fans would expect of the Oscar-nominated actress, but the talented cast also includes such lesser-known but equally good actors Ella Purnell, Kevin Alejandro, Jason Spisak, Toks Olagundoye, and others. The animation is impressively slick, blending both 2D and 3D in action sequences, and it tells one of the most emotionally resonant stories — from main characters to supporting — you’ll find in an animated show.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf

Vesemir in a promo poster for The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf.

Following in the footsteps of Netflix tentpole Stranger Things, The Witcher quickly made a name for itself in the last few years thanks to its live-action adaptation. The streamer seems to recognize this, with Netflix expanding its on-screen Witcher universe beyond the flagship show. There’s more to come, but the first of these spinoffs was the animated The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf movie.

The team at veteran studio Studio Mir did a beautiful job animating the prequel movie in an anime-like design akin to Castlevania, with Kwang Il Han directing. Actors Theo James and Graham McTavish team up from their Castlevania tenure as well, with the former giving a charming rendition of a “young” version of Geralt of Rivia’s mentor Vesemir. It’s a good and concise plot that tells a touching origin story amid all the stylish and gory action, even if Han and Studio Mir could’ve easily earned a longer runtime.

Where to stream: Netflix

DOTA: Dragon’s Blood

The main trio of DOTA: Dragon's Blood, with the elder dragon flying overhead.

Another MOBA video game adaptation, DOTA: Dragon’s Blood is a solid medieval dark-fantasy show on Netflix. Its second season was recently released on the streamer this January, building off the foundation and drama laid by the first. Studio Mir also animates the series, with the premise centered around a young Dragon Knight whose soul gets merged with an elder dragon to stop a demon from becoming omnipotent.

The cast includes video game industry veterans like Yuri Lowenthal (Marvel’s Spider-Man) and Troy Baker (Batman: Arkham City), as well as Lara Pulver from Nightmare of the WolfDOTA: Dragon’s Blood has a compassionate cast of characters worth caring about, with the second season showing how high and gripping the story’s stakes are willing to go.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Legend of Vox Machina

The main cast of The Legend of Vox Machina answering a wanted ad for mercenaries.

Though not on the same level of mainstream acclaim as Arcane, Amazon Prime Video’s The Legend of Vox Machina wi another well-received surprise that throws in a tasteful dose of adult comedy along with flashy action. It’s also a good example of a great concept and adaptation that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if its only option was to go live-action.

It’s an adaptation of the Dungeons & Dragons web series Critical Role, featuring a cast studded with video game industry veterans like Ashley Johnson, Matthew Mercer, Liam O’Brien, and Laura Bailey. The show embraces its tabletop RPG roots and has fun with it, putting together a memorable cast of endearing characters that each have personal bonds and dynamics worth getting emotionally invested in.

Where to stream: Amazon

Invincible

Mark, an Invincible, flies above the cityscape.

Prime Video made a big statement eith itscommitment to original animated content with Invincible. The series was an acclaimed hit, so much so that it was given a green light for seasons 2 and 3 at the same time. Invincible is an adaptation of the Image Comics series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley, and has an art style reminiscent of classic superhero animated shows of the past like Justice League.

With a stacked cast including Steven Yeun, J. K. Simmons, Sandra Oh, others more, the performances are massive highlights of the show, which tells an unrelenting story of a young man who is in over his head but determined to do the right thing. Invincible is violent, gory, and shocking, but it’s not without purpose. Everything serves the emotional significance of the story. The show earns its TV-drama-length episodes that don’t hold back with its portrayal of a protagonist who can fail — even miserably — but through will and support from those close to him gets back up again until he gets things right.

Where to stream: Amazon

Harley Quinn

Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn falling together, with Clayface and Doctor Psycho in the background.

The superhero genre tends to exist more in live-action, and while these films certainly rake in box office profits, the Harley Quinn TV series shows that there’s still a place for animated fare. The fan favorite’s raunchy dark humor is endlessly entertaining, and Kaley Cuoco’s vocal performance nails the characters manic humor.

Fans will easily tell how Harley Quinn revels in its loose restrictions in censorship, but it also features some surprisingly heartfelt and insightful commentary from its characters. Likewise, it also handles its nostalgia and fan-service jokes in an exceptionally witty fashion. Though Harley Quinn started as supervillain in Batman’s iconic rogues’ gallery, this HBO Max series makes a good case for her role as an antihero.

Where to stream: HBO Max

Smiling Friends

Pim and Charlie stand in a forest in Smiling Friends.

Undoubtedly the most outlandish animated production of this bunch, Smiling Friends is a surreal and hysterically bizarre watch. This Adult Swim animated comedy — now also available on HBO Max — is a must-watch for those nostalgic for the early 2010s YouTube and Newgrounds humor of psychicpebbles.

It’s one of those TV shows that feels amazing that it even exists, with a creative blend of comedy from the time smartly used in tandem with a mix of 2D and 3D animation, stop-motion, and live-action to create gags that are equally hilarious as they are grotesque. They’re an easy watch if you’re a fan of this brand of absurdist humor, and watching all eight episodes is like watching a short movie.

Where to stream: HBO Max

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