The New "ThunderCats" Has a Hairball or Two
There’s a fine line between archetype and cliché. Both hinge on the feeling that you’ve seen something before, but an archetype derives power from that familiarity while a cliché is weakened by it. My biggest problem with the rebooted ThunderCats is that it runs exactly along the line that separates the two for its duration. Occasionally it falls on one side of the line or the other, but far too often it tumbles onto the wrong one. The end result is a show that feels like it should be huge and tremendous and awe-inspiring, but only ends up being decent and solid. It would be a great start for a series normally, but it’s clear that the crew of the show was aiming higher and I’m afraid they missed.
The plot has been summarized already in all our previous reviews (by Todd DuBois, Neema Parvini, and Jamie Tadlock). The most frustrating thing about the ThunderCats premiere is the number of elements that it does exceptionally well. I watched the original show intermittently when it was originally broadcast, but never made it to season 2 and never had much affection for it outside the title sequence (and, if I must be honest, probably Cheetara too). I can definitely say that the new series improves on the original in every way, from the beautiful animation from Studio 4ºC to the creative character and architectural design work. This new Lion-O is a believably confused young adult with a lot of responsibility riding on his shoulders that he’s not quite ready to bear. Making Tygra his adopted brother gives him a much more clearly defined role in the show, with the pair’s clear mix of rivalry and affection providing a solid basis for sharp dialogue and lots of potential for great story elements. Cheetara has now become a member of the Clerics, a semi-mystical order of warrior-priests led by the wise elder Jaga, which is a supremely cool addition that also explains her super-speed powers. The best change is in the kid-friendly comic-relief elements from the original show, which have been toned down and improved tremendously. Snarf has become merely a pet and while he’s still played for broad comic relief, he does not overstay his welcome. Even better, Wily Kit and Wily Kat are given a roguish, scene-stealing charm that promises to make them the breakout characters of this new series. Finally, while the original show never seemed to be much more than a “monster of the day” kind of tale, this one is clearly intended to tell a large-scale, season-long story, and the sizable initial order has led the staff to take a bit more time to develop its plot.
However, it seems that much of the show’s epic scope is undermined by a predictable, pedestrian execution. It’s clear that its characters are being set up for grand-scale story arcs, and perhaps that’s the problem. We can see the strings of the puppet masters in play a bit too much, which flattens these interesting characters into stock cardboard cutouts moving around their world like they’re on rails. They want to be more interesting than the plot mechanics will allow them to be. A true archetype pings that mythical tuning fork in our collective unconscious, and that resonance in our subconscious mind makes us unaware or causes us to forget that we’re seeing an old story. ThunderCats just doesn’t make it all the way there. It’s too easy to see the checkpoints being set up for Lion-O’s Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey, making it all feel rather forced (especially one moment that will surely give the old-school fans a thrill but just feels a little bit silly). While Tygra’s role is immensely improved from the original show, his part feels overly familiar as well; he succeeds largely due to Matthew Mercer’s vocal performances and the animated body language. Even the scorn for “technology” that dominates Thundera feels overly familiar from any number of anime series, in addition to making little sense in a city that seems like it couldn’t have been built without extremely advanced science and engineering. I don’t think it’s an accident that Cheetara comes off the best in this trio, and I think that’s because she isn’t following any recognizable pattern. Lion-O and Tygra end up being pre-determined answers, while Cheetara is an interesting question.
Even more surprising to me is the way the writing relies so heavily on the clichéd and the obvious. It’s possible that King Claudus’ slightly overheated dialogue is intended as a tribute to the cheesy 80’s kid cartoon lines that voice actor Larry Kenney spouted back when he was the original Lion-O. Kenney makes it work, but it’s in spite of the dialogue, not because of it. The show also has a nasty habit of using artificially mirrored or paralleled dialogue: “He’s lost all faith in me,” “What is important is that you do not lose faith in yourself.” “Technology was my dream…but now it’s my nightmare.” I felt like the show undermined itself every time it fell back on one of these clunkers because they feel like writer dialogue rather than something someone would actually say. I’ll also go further than my suggestion that some stock phrases should be flagged as spelling errors and suggest an enhancement to auto-correct functionality that detects those phrases and pops up a dialogue box to ask, “Can you try to come up with something better?” Ending an episode by saying, “This is only the beginning” can be added to the list, as can any usage of “No” with multiple “o”s and exclamation marks at the end of it. That last bit is also the capstone of the scene that falls on its face most egregiously. Without giving away the spoiler (which, to be fair, is one of the biggest and best surprises of the show), a moment that would have been far more effective as a sharp, rude shock is instead drawn out and played for artificial suspense. In extreme slow motion, no less (another cinematic feature that feels extremely overused, although that might just be Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies killing it the same way the post-Matrix movies killed “bullet time” camera shots). I couldn’t help but laugh at the scene when I was absolutely not supposed to, making it look extremely foolish rather than epic.
I really went into ThunderCats wanting to like it, considering how much I’ve liked shows and movies from the senior creative crew in the past. It’s possible that my disappointment comes mostly from overly heightened expectations. I will also be more than happy to eat my words if the show can capitalize on its strengths enough to outweigh the annoyances in its pilot. Just judging by the pilot, however, I feel as though I’ve seen too much of this before in too many other places. I just kind of like it when I feel like I ought to love it. However, relatively young viewers could do much worse if this their first time being exposed to this kind of stuff. The potential is there and the talent behind it has proven their worth in the past; I’m really hoping they can capitalize on it more effectively in the upcoming episodes.
Tomorrow: Maxie Zeus hasn’t really liked a Cartoon Network premiere since Justice League. Will our resident curmudgeon line up with the emerging consensus, or will he use the premiere as his litter box? Find out tomorrow.