While formulaic dramas amass attention and minutes, animation flies under the radar as one of the streamer’s biggest strengths. Here are a few of a critic’s current favorites.
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Earlier this month, Netflix won the Emmy for outstanding animated program for the first time, for “Arcane.” A little over a week later, Netflix Animation laid off 30 people.
The news items weren’t entirely synchronous — the layoffs were in the film division, not series — but the symbolism was valid. Animation, across a wide range of styles and target ages, has always been a strength of Netflix’s catalog. But it has never received the attention, or the promotion, devoted to the service’s cookie-cutter dramas and true-crime documentaries.
To get into the Netflix spotlight, animated shows have needed to be more than just good. “Bojack Horseman” and “Big Mouth,” previous nominees for the outstanding-series Emmy, drew attention with voice casts full of brand-name TV-comedy stars. “Arcane,” a spinoff from the League of Legends video-game franchise, had a built-in audience.
Meanwhile, other adventurous, inventive, great-looking animated series come and go with little notice. (Netflix’s anime series, many of which have been distinctive — “Dorohedoro,” “Baki Hanma” and “Aggretsuko,” to name a few — are their own category, and can generate considerable noise within the anime fan base.) In a week when the streamer’s self-reported top shows include “Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” and “Fate: The Winx Saga,” here are some lesser known series from Netflix Animation (all with recently posted new episodes) that deserve to be seen.
Dave Wasson’s slapstick series about a pair of rambunctious brothers with cups for heads looks like nothing else, unless you happen to be looking at American animation from the 1930s, particularly the pulsating work of Max Fleischer. Based on a video game that inspired a cultlike fervor, “The Cuphead Show” is a lovingly, almost maniacally detailed homage to a classic tradition that vibrates with its own thoroughly modern energy.
Like the cartoons it honors, “The Cuphead Show” sets everything onscreen swaying and bopping, from the fancifully constructed characters to the vehicles, buildings and landscapes, which often turn into vocal characters in their own right. The beautiful designs are rendered in rich, saturated colors and set in motion to jazzy music by Ego Plum, who also scores “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Somewhat along the lines of Mickey and Goofy or Popeye and Olive, Cuphead is the troublemaker and rule-breaker who drags his more timorous brother, Mugman, into continual misadventures. Some of them involve a comically angry Devil who lusts after Cuphead’s soul; others revolve around the Betty Boop-like Miss Chalice or the torch-singing sea monster Cala Maria, who provides Dietrich-accented Hollywood glamour.
Wasson and his collaborators produced 36 episodes, which Netflix has been releasing in batches; 25 are now available. They can be a little exhausting — another commonality with 1930s cartoons is the sameness of the stories and the one-dimensionality of the characters, and episodes can feel longer than their 10-to-20-minute running times. But if the art grabs you — and it’s hard to imagine it won’t — the time doesn’t matter.
Natasha Allegri’s evanescent story about a seemingly ageless young woman named Bee and her companion — a grouchy, perpetually frowning cat-dog that falls on her head from outer space — began to appear in 2013. Its arrival on Netflix this month feels timely, however. Bee was a gig worker and aspiring retiree before her time.
The pilot and first season of “Bee and PuppyCat,” which appeared on YouTube from 2013 to 2016 and totaled about an hour and a quarter, were a small marvel — delicate but tough-minded, drawn in an arresting, cheerfully psychedelic style that invoked anime, video games and flowery children’s cartoons like “My Little Pony.”
In terms of storytelling, the primary reference was “Adventure Time,” where Allegri worked in the art department. “Bee and PuppyCat” was a similar magical-heroic story, part science fiction and part slice-of-life, but from the perspective of a young woman. The plots, in which Bee and PuppyCat paid the rent (to their solemn child landlord) by taking temp jobs on other planets, were elliptical and cryptic, but there was a consistent emotional logic; every whimsical leap or illogical pratfall felt right.
Those original episodes are still on YouTube, and you should watch them before starting the 16-episode season on Netflix. The “new” series — pay attention — consists of three new episodes, produced last year, in which Allegri reworks the original series; and then the 13 episodes of “Bee and PuppyCat: Lazy in Space,” a second season that was officially distributed briefly in 2019 and has been available since then to those able to track it down online.
The new episodes condense and reorder the adventures, and they add exposition and explicit clues to the histories and true natures of Bee and PuppyCat; they’re kind of a drag. The others are lovely, though they’re also substantially different from the first series. Employing Japanese directors for the first time, “Lazy in Space” looks and moves like well-budgeted mainstream anime; while more sophisticated than the original in a surface manner, it feels less adult.
Netflix’s truncated rendering is still a gift, though (as long as you watch it in tandem with the original series). “Bee and PuppyCat” remains a blissful and wryly comic meditation on the joys of aimlessness and the possibility of transformation.
There is possibly no cuter current series than “Dogs in Space,” a science-fiction comedy-adventure that is the first project of Jeremiah Cortez, a young artist who reportedly drove a forklift and put in time at Starbucks while painstakingly developing the show.
“Dogs in Space” is a “Star Trek” hommage, part of the unofficial family of shows, like Hulu’s “Orville,” that hover outside the boundaries of the franchise. Its premise is that humans have sent dogs out to explore strange new worlds, looking for one that could serve as a new human home. Their mission: to fetch a planet. (The “Trek” connection is reinforced by the employment in minor voice roles of franchise stars like Michael Dorn, Kate Mulgrew and Wil Wheaton.)
The show, which added a second season this month, is part of Netflix’s “family” offering, officially sanctioned for viewers 7 and up. But it’s a total blast for adults. The crossbreeding of space-exploration formulas and talking-animal humor is consistently smart and deft — just snarky enough, just silly enough and just sentimental enough.
The throwback 2D animation by the studio Atomic Cartoons (“Jonny Test,” “Little Demon”) is crisp and endearing. And the voice cast is terrific, starting with Haley Joel Osment as the overeager, Kirk-like captain, Garbage (a corgi), and including Kimiko Glenn as the hyper, guns-blazing pilot (Shih Tzu) and Chris Parnell as a duplicitous first-contact specialist (terrier). “Dogs in Space” won’t knock “Squid Game” or “Stranger Things” out of the Netflix Top 10, but if you’re looking for an unselfconscious good time, it’s the smart pick.