Ah, Naruto. The anime adaptation of Masashi Kishimoto's long running shounen manga finally ends (though on the backend of some light novel adaptations and only a couple of weeks before the anime original Boruto anime starts, but I digress.) Busting into the 2000s alongside One Piece and Bleach as one of the Big 3, Naruto has been a phenomenon in the anime industry as one of the best selling manga of all time, and one of the exceptionally long running shows in the mainstream, ending at a total of 720 episodes.
Now, it's hard to talk about Naruto critically without offending anyone. On one hand you have it's diehard fans who cannot bear to fault it for anything, and on the other hand you might have some naysayers who will claim that it has no merit whatsoever. I may be conveniently generalizing but I think there is certainly some dissonance between people who love it and people who think it's just absolute trash. I personally did not grow up with it like I did Dragon Ball for example, so there is no nostalgia factor for me. I started watching it when I was 18, so I can't look at it and feel a magic that I felt from when I was younger, however I do understand the sentiment. Discovering a massive, bulky fictional universe with an enormous amount of characters is one of the most exciting things for a kid, and if Naruto has anything it's a bountiful amount of characters and worldbuilding, which does stir up the "kid" in me since I love both of those things. However I can understand the other side who can't ignore a lot of Naruto's flaws.
Specifically starting with the story of Naruto Shippuden, since it's like an anime branding sequel to Naruto (like how Z was to the original Dragon Ball), if you ignore the ridiculous amount of filler between the last arc in the original Naruto anime (Sasuke Retrieval) and the beginning of Shippuden, it started out bombastically. The biggest thing I will give Naruto Shippuden credit for is that, aside from filler, episodes 1-175 were incredibly well-paced and about as tightly adapted as you could possibly make that portion of the series. It is by far the best part of the anime and it has most of it's best moments within this timeframe. I don't really think any of it's contemporaries have matched the quality of that stretch either.
Now from the start of the Five Kage Summit (sigh) and onwards, Naruto Shippuden really goes through a 250 episode stretch of abhorrent mediocrity, if it wasn't filler at the time. Although Five Kage Summit has some good moments, it's when it gets to The Fourth Shinobi World War Arc where the rest of the show falls flat. This arc is laughably bad for many reasons, but on a fundamental level this arc was already awfully drawn out in the manga. You couple that with the anime studio grasping for straws to draw things out either with excessive monologuing or flashbacks so they could schedule their semi-decent key animators to work on cuts that fans actually cared about or just outright throwing fillers in the middle of nowhere. There is also the fact that their A-team who made the beginning of Shippuden so great were busy working on Naruto: The Last and Boruto: Naruto the Movie for most of the duration of this story arc in the anime (which are both very well animated movies by the way if you haven't watched them yet). I could go on and on about how awful this arc is, about how a "Naruto Kai" couldn't even redeem it, or how it makes the entirety of the Naruto anime unrecommendable to someone who hasn't started it, but I will leave it at that.
For characters, there's not much going on here. I will say that the anime is better than the manga at executing emotional moments between characters, which is the real strength of Naruto's characterizations. Naruto definitely has a plethora of characters, and they definitely go through "development", as in a lot of things happen that don't happen to the average 13-26 episode anime character. You have like a baker's dozen or so of characters who go through hundreds and hundreds of episodes full of development. That is a double edged sword, on one hand they are defined well. You could leave Naruto, pick it up a year or two later and you don't really need to explore their character again (if not for a lack of caring). That being said this extensive amount of development will turn a lot of people away, since you have this "quality vs. quantity" factor, a lot of people will say that you should be able to execute worthwhile character writing in a much shorter amount of time, and that is definitely a fair argument. If you strip the well done emotional execution of particular moments throughout the series, and put the characters on paper, there's not much going for me.
On a thematic level, Naruto is back and forth on a lot of things. It definitely lacks subtlety for it's messages, since its a long running manga it has the liberty of spelling everything out for you. Kishimoto is definitely a sentimental writer, who has a lot of ideals about politics and family, etc. There are questionable decisions however.
For example, he sets up Naruto as an underdog character. He is bullied and his whole town is against him as a child because he has the fox demon who ravaged the village when he was born sealed inside him. You fast forward to the ending of Shippuden and he is practically a Messianic figure. You have an underdog character who was born with the talent for greatness, it defeats the whole purpose of an underdog story. How are people who identify as an underdog supposed to identify with the Messianic Naruto?Not for a lack of trying, the anime does nail thematic execution, albeit rarely. Probably my favorite moment in particular was the backstory explaining how Naruto was born. I don't really think you can claim that Naruto is without merit if you don't at least get to this part of the story, because it's beautiful and well done.
Artstyle, I wouldn't say it's anything special. The characters are definitely defined by design, and starting with Shippuden the animation character designs are appealing and consistent, especially for the challenge that is long running anime. This is something Pierrot has excelled at in comparison to its biggest competitor, Toei Animation. Though this crashes again during the last arc, up until the last 20 episodes or so. Naruto can be misleading when it comes to it's OPs, if you've seen any of them (most famously OP 17 / Silouhette by KANA-BOOM, if you haven't seen it stop reading this and go watch that right now) they are incredibly stylized with beautiful palette choices. If you watch the actual show, the colors are very boring. There are moments in the first part of series that I talked about earlier that does some good things with artstyle, especially scenery. I really love the way fight scenes looked in Amegakure, the directing used the gloomy aesthetic and atmosphere to it's advantage.
Though it might come to the surprise at some, animation is another strong point of Naruto... for the most part. There are definitely some 'meme-betweens' as I like to call them (Sasuke's "I CAN SEE YOU!" or Pain's "My pain is greater than yours!"), but Naruto Shippuden's peaks are surprisingly high quality for a long-running shounen. There is a lot of material for people who are foaming at the teet for sakuga. Again, this quality leaves for the majority for the second half of the show, though there are a handful of incredible fight scenes as well.
The Naruto vs. Sasuke fight towards the end of the series is honestly one of the best directed and well animated fight scenes in the history of TV anime.
The biggest merit I have for Naruto Shippuden is definitely the music. There are some absolutely iconic anime OSTs on this series, such as Heaven-Shaking Event, Sengunbanba, Shitsui, to name a few. There are so many though and they are used well for sure. If there's a flaw, in the soundtrack, I'd stretch to say that I wish Yasuharu Takanashi made more music to keep the show fresher, then again not much could redeem the second half.
If you scrolled down just to see my rating, you're probably wondering "isn't it a waste of time to spend hundreds and hundreds of episodes and rate it that low"? That's a good question. I enjoy anime. When I say there is a lot I don't like about Naruto, I enjoy the process of disecting what I don't like about it, though the things I do like are just as much there. The amount of pros and cons are balanced, whenever I see that happen I think "average" or "mediocre". Though there are moments of Naruto Shippuden that I think are good, or great even. It managed to execute several cathartic, gripping scenes. It's just that the "dragged-out-ness", the excessiveness ruins a lot of that.
Though I did enjoy watching it, for all it's faults, I leave it with a