Does anyone remember those hour-long movie specials for cartoons, back in the day?
Yeah, you know them. The over-hyped specials that would be advertised at every opportunity, the ones that Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and of course, Nickelodeon were notorious for. But did we, as viewers, really expect anything amazing from the newest Spongebob hour-long special, or the newest Fairly Oddparents movie?
No, of course not. But that being said, there were several gems among them–special stories that really took advantage of the extra time, to create something that really stood out from the rest of the series.
I’ve been feeling a little bit nostalgic as of late, so here’s a quick top ten for you–my favorite movie specials of Western Animation! To qualify as what counted, the series had to be generally advertised as a special event. Even if there were technically separate episodes, or if it was just a singular movie, it doesn’t matter–so long as they were aired together at some point, telling a single narrative–season finales, TV movies, whatever!
And yes. Nine. I couldn’t think of a tenth, sue me.
9. Operation Z.E.R.O. (Codename: K.N.D.)
Codename: K.N.D. was a fun show. It lacked a concrete structure, a concrete story, based far more off of the episodic madness that the K.N.D. went through, but it was crazy enough that it worked. The common themes, of a hyper-intelligent network of kids fighting evil adult super-villains, provided ample opportunities for hilarious, action-packed, creative, and entertaining episodes!
So what happens when you take that concept, and take it to eleven?
You get Operation Z.E.R.O.: a surprisingly serious, over-the-top special that 12-year old me was rather surprised by. As a kid, I honestly didn’t enjoy the series that much, thinking it was rather devoid of serious moments, and the art style just…didn’t do much for me. However, somehow, this movie did something for me.
Z.E.R.O. was a movie that operated on a scope that K.N.D. hadn’t been able to reach before–with a rather exceptional ability to focus on world-wide stakes, as well as some ludicrous, memorable moments that have stayed in my mind for almost a decade now, I can’t help but think that Operation Z.E.R.O. is a gem.
Perhaps it’s not the best movie in the world. It’s probably viewed through a lens of nostalgia. But that doesn’t change the fact that I look back on it quite fondly.
8. Phineas and Ferb: The Movie–(Phineas and Ferb)
If Operation K.N.D. was a fun, over-the-top show characterized by action, then Phineas and Ferb is a fun, over-the-top show that is characterized by cleverness.
Setting up a structure from the very first episode, we got to learn all about Phineas and Ferb’s genius, Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s and Perry the Playpus’s rivalry, and the latter’s double life. It was a formula that was tweaked in every way imaginable, toyed with to create some genuinely entertaining scenarios. But in terms of creating a story, a genuinely engaging special, that would draw people in, that same, comedic, occasionally over-the-top formula…wouldn’t have worked.
So, the movie did something interesting–tossed in a bit of action, drama, and spy-movie influence, and made something…well, rather worth watching.
It’s been a while since I watched this special, but all my memories of it remain positive. The animation quality was great, the creativity of the original series remained constant, but it was all framed in a new context–having a villain that was actually competent. It was a stereotypical, “fight the bad guy” plot, but it was pulled off very well, and forced the characters of the original series into situations that they hadn’t been into before. Overall, the movie did a lot of new things, and turned out great because of it.
After all, with the creative, casual genius of Phineas and Ferb, what better place would there be for them, than in an action movie?
7. Channel Chasers–(The Fairly Oddparents)
Of the specials for nostalgic, childhood “cash cow” shows, The Fairly Oddparents’ Channel Chasers special is probably the best.
We all know that The Fairly Oddparents, similarly to Phineas and Ferb, and K.N.D., isn’t exactly the most serious show, to say the least. It’s one that makes use of a static formula, based around a singular premise: the eternal youth of Timmy Turner, and his misuse of his Godparents’ magic. The characters aren’t exactly the most complex, but they did the job–after all, it’s The Fairly Freaking Oddparents, the second biggest cash cow of Nickelodeon.
So then, why exactly does Channel Chasers stand out so much?
Of all the entries on this list, I have to say that Channel Chasers probably embodies a love for animation the most. Butch Hartman was a great writer, and a person who obviously loves the medium of animation–I mean, we can see it through this special! With shout outs to everything from Speed Racer to Dragonball Z, all presented in a fun, concise context, Channel Chasers conveyed a feeling of pure nostalgia.
The plot, and execution of Channel Chasers wasn’t bad either. It was obviously a fun movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, but somehow, it still managed to provide a rather solid exploration of the themes of the actual series. Timmy Turner’s aging, his incessant desire to relax, enjoy his youth, and not deal with his problems, are dealt with in an honestly touching fashion–one that makes me wish this had been the true ending of the series.
But then, you know. Gotta keep milking the cash cow, even when the well’s run pretty dry.
6. Stoneheart–(Miraculous Ladybug)
The origin story of the Ladybug and Chat Noir, the ending to Season One of Miraculous Ladybug, is a special treat that takes everything good about the series so far, and crams it into one episode.
Up until this point, Miraculous Ladybug is mostly a feel good superhero show, with a bunch of personality, and some absolutely fantastic 3D animation to boot. The characters are fun, the action is fun, and the villain, while having a cool design, is reminescent of antagonists like Dr. Doofenshmirtz, existing for the sole purpose of creating conflict.
But man, Miraculous Ladybug hints at so much more–and Stoneheart really shows that, and what makes Miraculous Ladybug far more than the basic kids show.
Stoneheart, giving us a look into the beginning of Marinette’s and Adrien’s careers as superheroes, does everything the series has done exceptionally well, exceptionally well. A lot of it is the same plot–Hawkmoth, or Papillon, corrupts an ordinary citizen, creating a stony monster for our heroes to defeat, and purify!
However, beyond this normal plot, little tidbits of knowledge, about the mystical world that lies behind it all are presented, strongly hinting at the massive potential that Miraculous Ladybug has to grow. Add on some great character moments for everyone, and a sense of tangible emotion to the heroics we normally see, and you have a special that grounds the series, setting the stage for so much more.
The series has been great, and judging by the finale, there’s still a lot of growth still to go. I don’t know about you, but I personally can’t wait.
5. Weirdmageddon–(Gravity Falls)
The finale of Gravity Falls is one that I both love, and hate, for rather petty reasons. But that doesn’t stop me from acknowledging it as something pretty damn good.
Gravity Falls has been one mystery after another since its beginning, and with Weirdmageddon, there were multiple worries to be brought up regarding how exactly it ended. How would its mysteries be resolved? What sort of people would our characters ultimately end up being? Would any sacrifices be needed to stop the dream demon Bill, or would there be some mysterious, alternative way to finish the story? Weirdmageddon had a LOT of holes to fill, to say the least.
And luckily, it can certainly be said that the special was able to do a pretty great job at finishing the series strong.
Pushing the town of Gravity Falls into apocalypse, Weirdmageddon forced every one of Gravity Falls’ lovable characters into situations that tested their resolve, and showed off the best of what they had to offer. The relationship of the Pines twins was explored in a genuinely touching way, to contrast Stan and Stanford’s pained history. Some extremely solid animation, action, music, and overall technical prowess made sure that the series went out on an extremely high note, that tied together almost every single loose end there was!
For the strange mystery series, Weirdmageddon was, in my view, a fantastically crafted finale–one that balanced action, character development, and plot progression in an undeniably great way. There were some plot decisions that I disagreed with, but ultimately, the ending of Gravity Falls was one that did a wonderful job, especially considering the unique kind of series it was.
After all, not many shows have been able to be quite as mysterious as this one. Weirdmageddon was…a strange finale, one that is, similarly to the strange show it finished, undeniably great.
4. Wanted–(Steven Universe)
You know, I’m sure there’s other Steven Universe specials that stand a chance here, but as Wanted is the most recent one, I’ve got to put it here.
This special, detailing the exploits of Steven Universe and Lars as they explore the gem Homeworld, is a great one. Giving us insight into the strange, alien world where the villains of the series dwell, this special answered a lot of questions that fans have been asking for a long, long time. What does Homeworld look like? What sort of social hierarchy, what sort of culture, is prevalent on the gem planet? Although not fully answered, Wanted gave us a lot of answers, that the series had been presenting for quite a while.
However, beyond this, Wanted provides a lot of insight to both Steven, and Lars–the latter, a character that desperately needed more development. Further exploring the selfish motivations of Lars, as well as more potential drama between the diamonds and Rose Quartz, Wanted gave us a lot of plot information to swallow.
Yet, somehow, the episodes on their own merit were actually pretty great as well, beyond just giving us a lot of character development.
The alien environment of Homeworld is a stark artistic contrast to the warmness of Earth, further accentuating the threatening feel of the situation. The individual episodes provided some very charming, interesting moments–The Trial, in particular being a funny, intriguing way to gain insight into the history of Rose and the Diamonds. And of course, this special did two great things for the antagonists of the series: it made them geniunely threatening, and paradoxically, humanizes them, to the point where it’s clear that there’s still a lot of room for gray morality here.
Steven Universe is clearly playing the long game, and you know, I’m perfectly fine with that.
3. The Last Stand–(The Legend of Korra)
Perhaps this was a bit predictable, but you can’t blame me. One of the most inspiring, yet controversial episodes in the history of western animation, and you expect me not to talk about it?
The Legend of Korra’s finale is a rather interesting beast, in that it concluded a series that was only meant to be 12 episodes, but ultimately grew into something far beyond that, with beloved characters in its own right. Being able to explore darker, more interesting topics in the world of Avatar has always been a huge draw of the series, and with Season Four’s exploration of psychological stress, commentary on nuclear power, and overall strong character development for Korra, we got those darker topics in spades.
With the series’ finale, we got all this, and more. With some pretty good development that works pretty well to sum up Korra’s final character, a wonderful thematic wrap up for the fourth season as a whole, as well as multiple poignant, powerful, and thrilling moments regarding most of our main characters, the finale turned out to be pretty great. But then, of course, the bomb drops. The bomb that made the internet lose its mind.
Yep. Korrasami. A relatively believable friendship-turned-romance that took the world by surprise. Perhaps people criticized its relative lack of development, but you know what? I find it to be fine. Unexpected, yet making enough sense to work, this relationship, on top of being rather great fanservice, was ballsy, a powerful statement, even outside of the show, and personally, I think that deserves some recognition.
So, when you think of The Legend of Korra’s finale, what comes to mind? Is it the giant robot that was taken down? Do you think of some awesome bending, highlighted by exceptional animation? Or the music, which, in my humble opinion, was some of the best in the entire Avatar series?
Well, I mean, all these things are true. But man, being one of the most progressive, unexpected, and somehow pretty well-done endings of all time has gotta earn you some points.
2. The Ultimate Enemy–(Danny Phantom)
Perhaps this is the ultimate outlier on this list, but The Ultimate Enemy is number two for good reason.
Almost universally acknowledged as the high point of Danny Phantom, this special took a concept that I don’t think anyone asked for, and did it exceedingly, exceptionally well. I’ve been talking about how many of these shows stick to certain conventions, and how the specials exemplify these repetitive themes, but in the case of The Ultimate Enemy, what it did was introduce an entirely new idea, one that is so engaging, you can’t help but remember it.
What if a simple mistake, caused Danny’s life to go spiraling out of control? What kind of person would he be, and what sort of future would that create?
For Danny Phantom, a show focused on the casual heroics of being a half-ghost, a show focused on action, and snarky comedy above all else, this special blew everyone’s expectations out of the water. Pulling off one of the most abrupt tone shifts in any series I’ve seen thus far, will do that to people. The concepts explored, the ideas presented, and the overall presentation of the whole thing–it was a whole lot darker than anyone could have guessed, and I loved it.
I mean, who would have guessed Dan Phantom would turn out to be a murdering, psychopathic blood knight with a penchant for sadism? Not me, that’s for sure. Add on top of that some genuinely interesting thematic ideas, some intriguing, new characters, and the most high-stakes action the series has ever presented, and you’ve got a formula for a good damn special.
Murder, regret, and the inevitability of fate, in Danny Phantom of all things. I guess you never know what you want, until you get it.
1. Sozin’s Comet: The Final Battle–(Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Undoubtedly the most intense, thematically satisfying, and epic animated movie special, Sozin’s Comet was a televised event, the likes of which, had honestly never been seen before.
ATLA had always been renowned as one of the most quality animated shows on television, from its inception, all the way up to its final episodes. In fact, as the show goes on, it could be argued that it gets better and better, all the way up until the end. With escalating conflict, character development, thematic significance, everything is clearly building to a head, a final battle to end it all. Fire Lord Ozai versus the Avatar, on a day where the fate of all four nations hangs in the balance.
And man, Sozin’s Comet delivers on every single account.
Where other shows exceeded in pure thematic delivery, such as with Steven Universe’s “Wanted,” or others exceeded in taking the series to a place no one expected, like with Danny Phantom, Sozin’s Comet just…does everything. The art, the action, the sheer climactic, cinematic feel was absolutely fantastic. From the thematic significance of Aang’s moral conflict, to Zuko and Katara’s final fight with Azula, Sozin’s Comet provides a plethora of memorable, series-defining moments that, quite frankly, have become rather iconic.
Sozin’s Comet achieved a sense of scale that was simply uncontested. In any finale, Sozin’s Comets’s sheer sense of fear, of intimidation, of world-changing consequence has remained unchallenged. Fire Lord Ozai, was an absolutely imposing villain that commanded attention whenever he was on screen, a worthy adversary to a group of heroes that, in every way, legitimately felt up to the task.
This movie special was everything Avatar had become renowned for, and far more, and for that, it’s definitely got to be my favorite western animated special.
Now, that said, what do you think? Agree, disagree, have another suggestion, to fill in that missing 10th? Let me know in a comment down below!