"Thundercats": A Critical Retrospective
Looking back, I see growing up in the UK in the 1980s as a uniquely soulless experience. When I was eight, my favourite drink was Coca-Cola, my favourite treat on a day out was a visit to McDonalds, and my favourite cartoon action hero was a guy designed solely to sell plastic action figures. (If you’re wondering, that was He-Man). I was an exemplary 80s child, a product of ribald capitalism, conditioned to feed the coffers of corporations. I adorned my bedroom walls with Transformers wallpaper, filled my toy cupboard to the brim with over-priced He-Man action figures, and owned pyjamas emblazoned with the M.A.S.K. logo. I was a living breathing advertisement for the 80s capitalist dream, a child of Thatcher, feeling the full benefits of her political alliance with Ronald Reagan. But amidst all those cynically formulaic, mediocre shows the Americans shipped us in the 80s—and there were a lot of them: He-Man, The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Inspector Gadget, Orson’s Farm, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Care Bears, The Super Mario cartoons, The Raccoons—there was one little shining light on the Saturday morning schedules. From the moment the unforgettable intro music hit, you knew you were in for something a bit different and a bit special. With its curious mix of high fantasy nonsense, sci-fi, half-nakedness and soft rock guitar licks, Thundercats was (and still is) the best of a quite uninspired batch of cartoons, even if it did little to alleviate the onslaught of American ideological hegemony.
Thundercats originally aired from 1985 until 1989 in both the US and the UK. It ran for two seasons and a total of 130 episodes. The show was repeated incessantly throughout the 1990s, on Cartoon Network and later Toonami in the US and on the BBC in the UK. Season 2 was never shown in the UK; according to Thundercatslair.org, this is partly because “the censors’ attitudes towards Panthro’s martial arts action changed between 1987 and 1990,” which is certainly news to me! In 2005, Warner Bros. released the first 33 episodes of season 1 on DVD in the US (region 1). After it garnered impressive sales, they released the remaining half of season 1 and all of season 2 in three volumes during 2006. In 2007, Warner Bros. issued the first two volumes of season 1 in the UK (region 2) as an HMV exclusive, and plans to release season 2 in 2008. There are even plans for a live action Thundercats film—a strong signal that Warner Bros. believes there is life in the franchise yet. So let’s take an unsentimental look back at the hit series that I (and millions of others) loved so much as a child.
For those unfamiliar with the show: The Thundercats were a race of anthropomorphic cats who had lived for centuries on the planet Thundera before its impending destruction forced them to flee. The upper echelons of the Thundercat community—an elite group led by Jaga the Wise (who wields the powerful Sword of Omens) and comprising Panthro, Tygra, Cheetara, the youthful twins Willy Kit and Wily Kat, and Jaga’s twelve-year-old heir Lion-O and his over-protective nanny Snarf—threw themselves into some ill-defined time-suspension capsules, escaped into space, and eventually landed on a strange world called Third Earth. During the long journey Jaga sacrificed his life for the good of the team, leaving the young and inexperienced Lion-O in charge.
For whatever reason, the Thundercats were followed to their new home by the Mutants —a group of anthropomorphic apes, jackals and lizards led by the cunning Slithe, cowardly Jackalman, and oafish Monkian—who were seemingly intent on destroying them. Shortly afterwards, they also encountered Mumm-ra the Ever-Living, an ancient sorcerer who resided in a dark pyramid and served the Ancient Spirits of Evil. Mumm-ra became intent on stealing the Sword of Omens, now entrusted to Lion-O, and quickly allied himself with the hapless mutants. Not to be outdone, the Thundercats made some allies of their own, including the half-bear, half-robotic Ro-Bear Berbils, and the Warrior Maidens, a group of female rainforest-dwelling Amazon warriors. Meanwhile Tygra designed the Cat’s Lair as their base, and Panthro compounded the mighty Thundertank from bits of scrap metal and an ingenuity that would have made the A-Team proud. These events, which were chronicled the series’ first four episodes (“Exodus”, “The Unholy Alliance”, “Berbils”, and “The Slaves of Castle Plun-Darr”) were later condensed into a feature-length movie called Exodus.
But that’s enough exposition. Is the show worth collecting on DVD?
Characters, ultimately, are what most shows live or die by. Without decent, distinct characters—memorable heroes and villains—there is no hook for the narrative or for the viewer’s interest. And let it be admitted that Thundercats‘ track-record with its characters was, at best, mixed.
Lion-O, Lord of the Thundercats, had to bear the greatest burden. From the outset, he was written as being a bit headstrong. In one of the show’s many illogical plot holes, he somehow developed into an adult whilst in the animation suspension chamber, even as he retained the mind of a twelve-year-old. So the series had for its main character a brash young man who needed to learn to become a wise leader like Jaga (who, incidentally pulled an Obi-wan and became an ephemeral blue figure who occasionally guided Lion-O). Dare I make the comparison? Yes, I will: It’s bit like Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays crossed with a slice of Hamlet. In the early episodes Lion-O is surprisingly foolish and stubborn, and he frequently loses the Sword of Omens. He ignores the advice of the irritatingly whiny Snarf and of his elders (especially Panthro, who is a bit like a weary but kindly uncle) and overestimates his mental and physical prowess. The structure of the first dozen or so episodes are identical: Lion-O does something he’s not supposed to, and eventually has to use the Sword of Owens to call his friends in to bail him out, blind his opponents, fly, or any one of about 300 other things. The Sword of Omens was at once the show’s Hitchcockian MacGuffin (which the villains relentlessly pursue) and Lion-O’s all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card. It is arguably the most over-powered sword in the history of mankind (catkind?)!
The problem was that, around episode twenty or so, the show’s producers apparently couldn’t decide if he had grown-up or not. Episodes in which he acts like an absolute dolt (“All That Glitters,” for example) began to alternate with stories in which he is the wise and nigh-on perfect hero (as in “Spitting Image”). This unevenness dogged the rest of the series.
Tygra, Panthro and Cheetara, meanwhile, were one-note characters. The better episodes tantalize with some sort of chemistry between Cheetara and Lion-O, or between Cheetara and Tygra, and hint (even more vaguely) at some macho rivalry between Lion-O and Tygra. Elsewhere their treatment is perfunctory. Tygra’s characterization is particularly shallow, to the extent that all you could really say about him is that he’s a good guy who knows a bit about science and can occasionally disappear. Then there’s Panthro who is, paradoxically, at once the calmest and most aggressive Thundercat. Again, in the better episodes, he becomes a bit of a grouchy uncle figure, admonishing Lion-O for playing with his beloved Thundertank whilst at the same time giving him a knowing but forgiving wink. Elsewhere, he just seems to want to kick butt, which seems to go against his natural caution.
The Mutants act as the show’s comic foils and are generally the most incompetent of the villains. But Slithe is charismatic, egotistical and slippery, and his mistrustful exchanges with Mumm-ra are amongst the show’s most consistently entertaining. He somehow knows he’s being used, but his extreme cowardice prevents him from properly standing up to Mumm-ra, so that he resorts to making snide comments instead. In fact, Slithe is probably one of the show’s better characters. But Monkian, Jackalman and the hilarious Vultureman offer him able support. As a rule of thumb, shows that feature the Mutants are better than shows that don’t.
The second series introduced a new set of villains, the Lunataks, who (like the New Thundercats that appeared around the same time) were seemingly conceived to justify a new line of action figures. They are, however, dull as dishwater. There was also Hammerhand, the pirate, who, in another of the show’s many plot holes, actually died, was later resurrected as a ghost by Mum-ra, and then returned in the direct-to-video movie Thundercats Ho! alive and completely unscathed without so much as a hint of explanation. His crew of Berserkers, meanwhile, had arguably the most annoying gimmick of all time, all time, ALL TIME, in that they had to repeat everything three times, three times, THREE TIMES! It was enough to make you want to throw bricks at your television set.
Mumm-ra was perhaps the show’s saving grace. He got most of the best lines (“As for your useless Sword of Omens, it makes a nice ornament for the wall!”) and had arguably the best pad (his pyramid). Occasionally, he could be genuinely terrifying, and his transformations into “The Ever Living” are amongst the show’s best animation sequences. Earl Hammond did a fine job with the voice acting too, and was easily the best of the cast. (His voices for Jaga and Vultureman were also excellent).
That was a notable mercy: the voice acting on the show was, on the whole, dire. Bizarrely, Rankin/Bass hired only one voice actress to handle all the female characters. It didn’t help that Lynne Lipton had a piercingly grating voice and a proclivity for stretching out every possible vowel (“Liiiiiiiaaaannnooooo”). Having her voice Cheetara was bad enough, but she burdened every female character with the same vocal qualities, without variation. Peter Newman (Tygra) wasn’t much better; worse, he liked to indulge in Shatner-like … vocal punctuation. As Lion-O, Larry Kenny was perfunctory. Aside from Hammond, only Earle Hyman (Panthro, The Ancient Spirits of Evil) rose above the general level of mediocrity.
I’ve already hinted at problems the show had with writing. The numberless plotholes (see here and here for examples) and uneven characterisation were probably the result of having far too many writers working on different episodes of the show. This, of course, is fairly common in animation shows; even Batman: The Animated Series, arguably one of the best animated series of all time, suffered when Paul Dini and Alan Burnett were not involved. Different writers can take the same material in widely different directions unless their talents are channeled by strict direction. Thundercats is testament to that principle: by far the best writer on the show was the highly experienced comic-book artist Leonard Starr, who, according to one source, “even drew a map to mark all the places datelined in the stories in order to help the other writers familiarize themselves with the world of the Thundercats”. It’s no surprise that he was responsible for the spine of terrific episodes that held the excellent first season together: Exodus; the awesome, D&D-flavoured “Tower of Traps”; the continuity-preserving “Spaceship Beneath the Sands”; the brilliant “Ghost Warrior”; and the three epic five-parters Lion-O’s Anointment (the trials against Tygra and Mumm-ra are amongst the best episodes in the series), Thundercats Ho! and Mumm-ra Lives! Peter Lawrence was a good workhorse too, and penned some decent episodes (for example, “Excalibur”), and Danny Peary’s sole contribution, “The Mountain”, is arguably the show’s best episode.
On the other hand, William Overgard was responsible for some truly woeful stories. From the outset he was erratic and showed scant respect for the show’s continuity with such bizarre episodes as “Mandora: Evil Chaser” and “Mandora and the Pirates” (which introduced a new comic-book style crime-busting superhero complete with her own rogues’ gallery). Random, poorly thought out writing like this would ultimately undermine the show’s second season, as Toon Zone’s Duke analysed to good effect back in 2006. There was a trajectory of decline that gained momentum with pitiful episodes like “Dr. Dometone” and “The Circus Train”, the latter, commonly regarded as the show’s nadir, in which Overgard wrote out the Mutants and the Lunataks with one fell swoop! It ultimately proved irreversible.
Like most American producers, Rankin/ Bass outsourced its animation to a Japanese studio. In this case it went to Topcraft, many of whose memership went on to form Studio Ghibli in 1985, which was later responsible for classic anime films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. They employed a few effects on Thundercats that later became standard in Japanese animation. For example, they’d frequently blur the background to focus on the foreground (or vice versa) and employ extreme close-ups on the character’s faces, which constantly shimmer or move (as in latter-day anime). They also used pan-sweeps of the terrain of Third Earth. You can see a little bit of its impact in newer shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, although Transformers had used similar techniques earlier. On the whole, when compared to some of the ghastly stuff Filmation was still churning out, Thundercats was well-drawn and -animated. In this regard, it has definitely aged better than some of its peers.
It’s easy to be harsh about the show, and if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that it was never without its fair share of shortcomings. But I still love it and, with some rose-tinted specs, one can forgive its failings because it is still exciting. But there is a lot to forgive. It is likely to remain of interest only to nostalgia freaks who grew up in the 80s (like me) or who saw its repeats in the 90s. I think it probably has too many fundamental problems to win over new fans—something that makes me a little sad because those people will forever miss out. But it also makes me feel a little bit special, because I still know what it is to hear those opening bars of crashing guitar and Lion-O “Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hoooo!” feel that warm, fuzzy excitement inside. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have my eternal thanks.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that the animation had been done by Studio Ghibli. It was done by Topcraft.