It’s a general rule that, as animated shows find success and run over a long period of time, the animation invariably changes.
It’s down to a combination of factors. As shows run and run, animators refine their techniques and hone their characters.
The ‘toons that last longest are also that ones that have the budgets to go onto bigger and better things as the years go by.
As time passes, animation techniques also inevitably become more sophisticated, while older techniques fade away.
For example, in the 23 years since Toy Story changed everything, CGI has become commonplace, while hand-drawn animation has become more scarce.
It’s for these reasons and more that some of our favourite characters from some of the more popular ‘toons out there look a little different from how they used to.
While you might still recognise them, animated stars of long-running shows today tend to bear only a passing resemblance to who or what they were in the beginning.
Here are 23 cartoon characters from their first outing to their most recent – and what’s changed in between.
23. Homer Simpson – The Simpsons
When you think ‘early Simpsons,’ if you’re a longtime fan, you probably picture something like this:
That’s a screenshot from Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, the very first full Simpsons episode, which aired in 1989.
The Simpsons goes back further than that, however – and the earliest iterations of the characters are virtually unrecognisable.
That’s right: that’s Homer Simpson as television audiences saw the character for the first time, a whole 31 years ago.
The Simpsons went to series in 1989, but the characters originate in a series of shorts made for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987.
Though these early Simpsons look like crude imitations, they have been drawn under the stewardship of Matt Groening since the very beginning.
22. Marge Simpson – The Simpsons
Homer isn’t the only member of the Simpsons family to have made a drastic image change since the early days.
Our familiar image of Marge is that of the obelisk-like blue hair, plain green dress and red necklace.
In the beginning, however, the former Marjorie Jacqueline Bouvier looked like this:
Though the basics are the same, Marge’s ‘do was once more of a beehive and the green dress has grown a flower pattern.
The mouth has also developed an overbite so severe it protrudes far out of Marge’s face.
It’s a style for Marge even more drastically different than that of the early Homer.
21. Bart Simpson – The Simpsons
The 1987 versions of Homer and Marge may look very different to today’s, but the Simpsons kids take the biscuit.
Though consistently voiced by Nancy Cartwright since the Tracey Ullman Show, Bart has gone through a serious aesthetic revolution.
His current look has been in vogue for almost three decades, but in 1987, Bart looked like this:
The hair is spikier, giving Bart a more punky look, while the features generally are more exaggerated.
The ears, nose and top lip are all also larger, leaving Bart with more of a resemblance to Homer.
This became more apparent in the 1987 short where Bart lost his trademark hair for the last time:
Revealing in him a look of his father, the shaved look is one Bart wisely hasn’t gone for since.
20. Lisa Simpson – The Simpsons
Lisa, like Bart, has experienced a pretty serious glow up from 1987 to now.
Her signature look is a plain orange dress, pearl necklace and, more often than not, a disapproving scowl.
Before The Simpsons team refined the style, however, this is how Lisa first appeared:
Like Bart, rather than her current starfish-style, Lisa used to go for a punkier, spikier haircut.
She also had the more extreme overbite that was a characteristic of early versions of the Simpsons.
Rather than child genius, the prototype Lisa Simpson – with her shocked eyes and hair – instead looked like a borderline wild child.
19. Maggie Simpson – The Simpsons
It’s not just Bart and Lisa – all the Simpsons children look rather different to how they used to.
Maggie, the silent Simpson, has gone through the least serious changes out of the family.
Still, like her siblings, there are a few noticeable differences:
Like Bart and Lisa, the 1987 Maggie’s hair was spikier, while her nose was rounder.
Maggie’s eyes also used to have something of a crazed look about them, perhaps stemming from frustration regarding her sheer inability to communicate with the rest of the family.
Otherwise, the rest was all present and correct: the orange pacifier, the bow in the hair (both of which were far larger) and the bright blue onesie.
18. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
On the small screen, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, like The Simpsons, go all the way back to 1987.
Based on a comic book series that began in 1984, the TV show for more than 30 years has starred four crime-fighting anthropomorphic reptiles – though the characters have changed somewhat over time.
From 1987 to 2009, the TMNT – taking their cue from the comics – were hand-drawn.
Lately, however, the turtles have looked rather different.
Beginning with the third iteration of the series, which ran from 2012 to 2017, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael have all been CGI.
The gang are also drawn in a less ‘realistic’ way, going from sketches rooted in the real world to blocky computer-generated animation.
17. Charlie Brown – Peanuts
Originating in the Peanuts comic strip that started life in 1950, Charlie Brown and his beloved dog Snoopy finally got their own show in 1983.
This was the year that the original Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show first started airing.
From 1983 to 1985, the characters reflected the cartoon strips themselves in their simple, child-like 2D animation style.
The pair’s most recent outing, however, saw Charlie Brown and Snoopy go the way of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
2015 saw the release of The Peanuts Movie, the first feature featuring Charlie and Snoopy in 35 years.
Though still faithfully recalling the original comics, the characters have had an upgrade – they’re now all-CGI.
16. Snoopy – Peanuts
Like Charlie Brown, Snoopy goes back a long way – but changing times have meant a changing look for the iconic cartoon dog.
Back in the day, Snoopy’s blankness was part of his comedic appeal; the iconic image of the character is of the dot that is his eye staring ahead, deadpan.
While Snoopy in his 2D form had minimal features, his 3D counterpart is more expressive.
Whether there will be further adventures for Charlie Brown and Snoopy on either the big or small screen is unclear, but expect the pals to be computer-generated going forward.
15. Peter Griffin – Family Guy
Now one of Fox’s biggest hits, Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy nonetheless had a very shaky beginning.
Cancelled not once but twice by the network before later being revived due to popular demand, the show has also undergone a few significant aesthetic changes over time.
The Griffin family has by now settled into a familiar look, but in the show’s 1998 pilot the style was less recognisable.
Griffin patriarch Peter for one appeared larger, with his facial features smaller and less prominent.
Overall, the animation was cruder and less defined, while the glasses were thicker.
Most glaringly, the nose was far larger.
There was also a small costume change.
Where the more modern Peter’s trousers are light green, the 1998 Peter’s pants were much darker.
14. Lois – Family Guy
Of all the original Family Guy characters, Lois Griffin underwent the biggest change of all.
Today, she’s red-headed, and typically wears an aqua blue top with beige trousers.
In the 1998 pilot, however, Lois had yet to have her makeover. Instead, she looked like this:
Before she was made ginger by MacFarlane, Lois was a blonde who typically wore a pink top with jeans.
It would seem that, along with a costume change, the animators have also made Lois slightly curvier.
Though the look has changed, Lois has been voiced by the same person from the beginning: Alex Borstein, also a Family Guy producer and writer.
13. Meg – Family Guy
Meg might be the least-loved member of the Griffin family, but the Family Guy animators at least have taken great care in getting her look right.
Meg, as we know her today, more often than not wears a pink hat, pink top and blue trousers.
This is how Meg looked in the pilot, however:
Rather than her pink and blue combo, Meg used to wear a blue hat, blue trousers and white top with red strips on the sleeves.
Meg hasn’t just had a makeover through the years – her sound is also significantly different now compared to the early days.
This is because, as Meg’s look has changed, so has her voice. Though in the first season Meg was voiced by Lacey Chabert, since 1999 she has been voiced by Mila Kunis.
12. Chris – Family Guy
Chris, unlike the rest of his family, hasn’t seen any major changes from the first Family Guy episode to now.
Voiced by Seth Green for close to 20 years now, Chris’ look has remained almost as consistent.
There have, however, been a couple of changes.
Like Peter, Chris’ nose used to be slightly larger, while his features were generally rounder.
The other glaring change? The fact that Chris started out with a hoop earring, which was dropped for all episodes subsequent to the pilot.
Otherwise, Chris is more or less the same now as he was at the very start, give or take the ‘8th Grade is Friggin’ Crap’ message that would occasionally appear on his trademark blue shirt.
11. Stewie – Family Guy
Even in the Family Guy pilot, Stewie Griffin is the same homicidal infant viewers have come to know and love.
The classic Stewie look wasn’t established until later, however.
Stewie as we know him wears a red and yellow dungaree combo, leaving only his American football-alike head exposed.
For 1998 Stewie, the nose is slightly larger and the mouth is a little sharper.
The real difference is in the colour of the clothing, though.
In the show’s 1998 pilot, Stewie had a bolder fashion sense, going for a purple and green number.
Rest assured that his head has always roughly been the shape of a football, though.
10. SpongeBob – SpongeBob SquarePants
On television at least, SpongeBob SquarePants goes all the way back to 1999.
The character has been around for even longer than that, however, with creator Stephen Hillenburg’s idea for the character going back to 1989.
That was the year Hillenburg first came up with Bob the Sponge, for his educational comic book The Intertidal Zone.
He looked like this:
Ten years later, ditching the educational nature of his creation, Hillenburg created SpongeBob as we know him.
SpongeBob Squarepants’ first episode aired in May 1999.
Not surprisingly, the animation two decades ago was a little cruder, and SpongeBob appeared less defined:
Though more or less the same character, SpongeBob’s sponge is a slightly different colour – more orangey – while he originally appeared more svelte than he does today.
The eyes were also darker (and a tad more crazed) than the SpongeBob of 2018, with the front teeth smaller.
9. Patrick Star – SpongeBob SquarePants
Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s trusted starfish pal, has undergone a makeover as years have passed.
Today, the show is made using digital ink and paint animation, meaning the characters are all well-defined and richly-coloured.
In the beginning, however, SpongeBob and friends were hand-drawn, meaning they looked more like this:
Like SpongeBob, Patrick’s colour was duller, while his look was generally less well-defined.
The character also had a more prominent underbite than he does now.
Otherwise, Patrick is the same old Patrick he’s always been.
8. Mr Krabs – SpongeBob SquarePants
Bikini Bottom businessman Mr Krabs has also benefited from the development of SpongeBob SquarePants’ animation style.
Today, Eugene Harold Krabs is a fine figure of a crustacean coloured a rich pink.
Not much has changed since the early days. This is how he used to look:
In the beginning, Mr Krabs was coloured a much deeper red, but otherwise his look has barely shifted in the years since.
7. Dora – Dora the Explorer
In 1999, 7-year-old wannabe-adventurer Dora Marquez was introduced for the first time in a TV pilot.
She has been reliably exploring ever since, in spite of several changes.
Though Dora the Explorer ended in 2014, the character of Dora continued to make appearances on television – albeit changed.
The first sign of change came in 2014, when Dora emerged on new show Dora and Friends: Into the City! looking like this:
Rebranded for the tween market, Dora went from precocious 7-year-old to confident teen for Dora and Friends.
Aside from the obvious – Dora is older and, let’s face it, much more chic – the animation style has also changed.
Whereas the original Dora was drawn in an exaggerated style, the teenage Dora is more detailed – she’s also no longer drawn at all, but animated in a computer.
6. Applejack – My Little Pony
Since 1984, My Little Pony has been delighting audiences with its whimsical characters, some of whom have become even more whimsical of late.
Based on an 80s toyline and following a successful 1984 animated movie, the original My Little Pony series ran from 1986 to 1987.
The show was then revived in 1992, as My Little Pony Tales, when the characters had a revamp.
The biggest change came in 2010, however, when the equestrian pals were given a candy-coloured, Powerpuff Girls-style makeover.
For My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, lead character Applejack ended up looking like this:
It’s the biggest transformation since Christian Bale as Cheney.
5. Twilight Sparkle – My Little Pony
Like Applejack, Twilight Sparkle first appeared in the 1984 My Little Pony movie.
Since rocking this fierce look, however, Twilight has undergone some major changes.
Courtesy of Friendship is Magic showrunner Lauren Faust, Twilight has like Applejack adopted an entirely new look:
As with Applejack, the animation style is exaggerated in Faust’s inimitable style, first seen on shows like The Powerpuff Girls.
The eyes are bigger and the legs are longer, while the colours are bolder, more vibrant.
Under Faust, the little ponies are also that bit more expressive.
Frankly, let’s face it, they’re just that bit more adorable.
4. Cartman – South Park
No one would claim that South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s oft-controversial high school satire, is an example of great or even good animation.
Indeed, ever since 1997 when the series began, the show has patently refused to bring its animation into the 21st century.
If you could believe it, however, the earliest version of what Parker and Stone cooked up was even cruder than it is today.
South Park began as a short film that the pair created in 1992 called Spirit of Christmas.
Made on the cheap and when Parker and Stone were still in college, the film features as its protagonists what would become South Park’s primary set of characters when the show debuted five years later.
You can just about make out early versions of the characters – just:
Most obvious is Cartman, with his same trademark blue hat, stocky frame and red coat – though you’ll barely recognise him as the same figure.
3. Stan – South Park
If Spirit of Christmas had the amoral Cartman, then Parker and Stone needed a moral compass for balance.
South Park’s voice of reason for 21 years now, Stan Marsh’s origins can be traced back to Parker and Stone’s first animated shorts.
He, like Cartman, is recognisable – but only barely.
Like South Park’s version of Stan, Spirit of Christmas’ has the familiar bobble hat and fur collared-jacket.
Otherwise, the colours are all different – rather than a brown jacket, the Spirit of Christmas Stan has a purple one.
The hat is also different: red and pink rather than red and blue, while the Spirit of Christmas Stan has gloves where South Park Stan does not.
2. Kyle – South Park
If you thought Kyle always looked the way he does in South Park, think again.
From Spirit of Christmas to South Park, in fact, Kyle made the biggest stylistic leap.
Here’s how Parker and Stone first envisioned Kyle:
Gone are the green trapper hat, green trousers and orange jacket.
In their place are a yellow-and-orange hat, green jacket and black trousers.
He also has the customary creepy Spirit of Christmas eyes, where there’s no white, just a dot in the middle of a skin-coloured eyeball *shudder*.
1. Kenny – South Park
Oh my God, they changed Kenny. Only barely, though – Parker and Stone had this one nailed almost from the start.
As in South Park, Parker and Stone’s original Spirit of Christmas Kenny wore a bright orange hoodie.
Spirit of Christmas Kenny also had his face on the whole obscured by the hood, much as he later would in the show.
There is still one difference: the gloves are green, as opposed to the more familiar South Park brown.
Spirit of Christmas Kenny also has a nose, whereas South Park Kenny’s only visible feature is his eyes.
There’s one other difference: just for a change, Kenny isn’t the only one to get killed in Spirit of Christmas, nor is he the first – Cartman is.