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The New Thundercats and the Retro Revival

Today’s unexpected news about the development of Warner Bros’ new ThunderCats cartoon for a 2011 premiere is welcome and interesting for a few reasons worth noting. First of all, I think it’s fair to say that assorted animation news in the past nine months has introduced a fad of retro revival. What young adults grew up with in the 1980s are being reintroduced to a new generation by multiple networks to a degree that, I think, we haven’t seen before. Sure, in the preceding 00s decade, we did have our throwbacks to 80s cartoons. There was 2002’s update of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe that sadly met a premature end, and of course there was the 2003 series for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 4Kids and Mirage Studios that only recently ended. G.I. Joe made a mild comeback with G.I. Joe: Sigma Six and the much better received G.I. Joe: Resolute miniseries. The Transformers franchise has pretty much persisted with little rest since Beast Wars came along in the mid-1990s.

However, the examples from the prior decade are dwarfed by the developments that we are now seeing. As we learned late last year, after a short break the TMNT will be back in 2012 for their third animated series courtesy of Nickelodeon.
In the short term, a brand new Voltron cartoon will be premiering on Nicktoons this fall. Meanwhile, the imminent arrival of The Hub cable network will deliver a block of old school Hasbro cartoons and a fresh lineup spearheaded by original series for Transformers (Transformers Prime) and a “year one” reboot for G.I. Joe (G.I. Joe: Renegades) along with a return to Pound Puppies, My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake. And now we have ThunderCats, which is arguably the most welcome revival yet as a fantasy action series that, unlike the TMNT or the Transformers or G.I. Joe, has gotten no animated love at all since the original series ended more than twenty years ago.

In sum, in the next two years we will have more renewed properties from the 1980s than what we had throughout the entire 00s decade. The 80s are back again–again. This time the revival is bigger; time will tell if it will be better.

The skeptic in me does wonder whether this trend is ideal when, in theory, the resources and creative talent going toward these reboots would be devoted toward something fresh otherwise. Also, while I’m happy to witness this in general, I grew up on most of these properties in the 80s and so I do have the benefit of nostalgia. Those issues notwithstanding though, ultimately I do honestly view all this as positive. Just for starters, history clearly demonstrates that returning to the past doesn’t preclude innovation at all. Ask any Transformers fan and you’ll probably be told that 2007’s Transformers Animated was not a “normal” Transformers series, whatever that fan happens to think of it. Likewise, I doubt many fans of the TMNT are complaining about the differences between the 2003 series and the original 80s series today. Japan’s Mobile Suit Gundam franchise has a robust history of over thirty years that is now as much occupied by original, standalone innovations as it is by the original story that it had to tell. One could easily go on, especially if we examine the issue beyond animation. It’s very possible to do significantly different–even radically different–things with similar basic concepts or iconic characters.

More to the point, perhaps, it isn’t as if we are exactly lacking in fresh new ideas amidst these developments. For Cartoon Network, ThunderCats will eventually be airing along with plenty of original programming. Ben 10, Generator Rex, Chowder, Sym-Bionic Titan, Young Justice, Metajets, and on and on. Nick has its own Nicktoons, of course, and a fresh Avatar-related project that its many fans breathlessly await. For all of its embracing of nostalgia, among other things The Hub has Cosmic Quantum Ray, Deltora Quest, and The 99, the latter of which I’m especially anticipating.

Besides, as far as I’m concerned ThunderCats offers something that’s far too rare today–a simple, straightforward fantasy action adventure. Sure, there’s technology there too, but fundamentally it’s got catlike heroes fighting evil in an exotic setting where magic is a force to be reckoned with. Superheroics, comedy, science fiction, straightforward action: animation has plenty to offer for those who want any of these things, but for the fantasy fan it seems to me that one’s options are depressingly few in comparison. Between the return of the Thundercats and the coming of Deltora Quest to The Hub, however, some welcome diversity will be added to animation programming on television for awhile. Bring it on.

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