For the last several months, I’ve been taking a bit of a historical journey through detective series. I started in the 1970s, and moved into the 1980s, but once I got to the 1990s I found the decade to be a bit lacking, at least when it comes to the number of new shows produced. I’m going to save the topic of 1990s detective dramas for another post and instead turn to something that it turns out there was a lot of in the 1990s: children’s cartoons featuring detectives.
Having been born in the mid-1980s, the 1990s were really my formative years and the ubiquity of the detective trope in cartoons can explain how it was that I became such a huge mystery fan. There were only a few such cartoons in the 1980s, but all this changed towards the end of the decade and, as the list below shows, the 90s brought with them at least 13 such shows.
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Heading into the 90s
In the 80s, pretty much the only mystery cartoons produced belonged to the Scooby-Doo franchise produced by Hanna-Barbera. (Inspector Gadget and Mister T, both of which first aired in 1983, are the only other ones that I know of.)
The Scooby-Doo franchise took a major hiatus in the 90s, but just prior to that it gave us A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-1991), a reimagining of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! gang as young children. As was typical for much of the franchise, these were paranormal mysteries that turn out to have a real person behind them. In true mystery fashion, the episode ends with Velma providing a breakdown of all the clues that led the gang to solve the case.
Early 90s and Disney cartoons
While the Scooby-Doo franchise no longer produced new episodes in the 90s after 1991, there were many other companies and cartoon franchises that took over for the remainder of the decade. The biggest of these was Disney, who reigned supreme at the time.
At the turn of the decade, Disney produced Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (1989-1990). The show re-imagined the two chipmunks, Chip and Dale, as members of a detective agency that also included a mouse, a rat, and a fly in its employ. Their status as adventurer-detectives was further enhanced by their wardrobe, with Chip being dressed up as Indiana Jones while Dale was dressed up as Magnum, P.I.
Other Disney detective-themed cartoons of the 90s include Darkwing Duck (1991-1992), a crime-fighting superhero spin-off of another Disney cartoon Tailspin; and Bonkers (1993-1994), an anthropomorphic bobcat police officer that was reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Although all of these cartoons were about detective-type characters and crime fighters, after recently re-watching a few episodes of each, I’ve come to realize that they didn’t really include a mystery for the viewer to solve. This was particularly true of Bonkers, which focused more on the characters rather than any crimes they are meant to be solving.
Mysteries and Non-Mysteries
Disney wasn’t the only company producing detective-themed cartoons. But just as was the case with Disney, not all of them were necessarily mysteries.
During their hiatus from producing Scooby-Doo, Hanna-Barbera focused on other projects. One of them included a re-imagining of Tex Avery’s Droopy character. This re-imagined character got his start on Tom & Jerry Kids before getting his own show as Droopy, Master Detective (1993). However, aside from Droopy’s occasional hard-boiled detective attire the show isn’t much more than a “cat chases mouse” cartoon in the vein of Coyote and Road Runner.
Slightly closer to being a mystery was Warner Brother’s Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). Not only was this show arguably the best Batman adaptation, it featured fantastic voice actors such as Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker. The show’s inclusion in this list of detective cartoons is due to its film noir aesthetic and focus on crime fighting.
Another Warner Brother’s show that was even more about solving a mystery was Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries (1995-2000). This is another case of previously-known cartoon characters being re-imagined as detectives. In this case, Granny runs a detective agency and her pets, which not only include Sylvester and Tweety but also a bulldog named Hector, help her out.
Yet another company that reprised its role as a detective cartoon producer was DiC. DiC had produced Inspector Gadget in the 80s, and starting in the mid 90s it produced the computer-game spin-off Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? (1994-1999). The show incorporated a bit of live-action and was book-ended by scenes of a boy starting up the game, but its predominant animation was meant to depict the action within the game itself, where the player is trying to solve the mystery of yet another Carmen Sandiego crime. Thus, out of all the shows mentioned so far, this was probably the show that was most focused on having the viewer solve along. Additionally, given its focus to action happening inside a computer, it was in very good company with another (non-mystery) game that came out in 1994: ReBoot.
Nelvana and Canadian productions
The 90s was also a big time for Canadian animation. (So much so that I remember seeing a Just for Laughs stand-up show featuring Craig Ferguson telling Canada to stop making cartoons.) The Canadian-produced shows were not only fantastic shows in general, but were some of the more mystery-focused shows of the decade.
At the beginning of the decade, the Canadian animation company Nelvana was partially responsible for producing The Adventures of Tintin (1991-1992), based on the Belgian comic books about a young reporter in the 1930s.
Following that, Nelvana teamed up with Jim Henson Productions to put together Dog City (1992-2994). Dog City started as a fully-puppeteered movie before it got picked up as a series. The series includes puppeteered book ends about a dog cartoonist intermingled with animated sections featuring the cartoonist’s hard-boiled dog detective.
Finally, towards the late 90s, Nelvana once again co-produced a detective-themed show: Sam & Max (1997-1998). Like Dog City, it featured anthropomorphic animals as private investigators. The show is based on a comic book series that debuted in 1987 and follows the titular characters solving puzzles and mysteries all over the world, all the while parodying various aspects of popular culture.
Late 90s nostalgia
While in the early 90s, the focus was on referencing the detective (particularly the hard-boiled detective) trope in general, towards the end of the decade the shows became more specifically nostalgic.
This was a time when the Archie comic book universe was revived as a setting for paranormal mysteries in Archie’s Weird Mysteries (1999-2000), while Sherlock Holmes was brought three hundred years into the future in Sherlock Homes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001).
Do you remember watching these cartoons in the 90s? Which was your favourite? Were there others you watched in the 90s that I forgot to mention above? Let me know in the comments!