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"ThunderCats": These Cats Can Dance

I’d had no experience with the ThunderCats franchise prior to watching the premiere episode of this new show and scanning its Wikipedia entry, and yet I can’t say I didn’t go in without a bit of bias. I’m just generally cynical about remakes. Furthermore, I thought the trailer—which can be seen here—did not look promising at all. Several people professed to be impressed by it, and I suppose by modern American standards it seems fairly edgy, but all it boiled down to was generic-looking characters having generic-looking adventures in generic, anime-derivative ways. None of the character designs looked that impressive—Lion-O in particular looked as if he had been taken straight from DeviantART—and the scenes shown could have almost been ripped out of a encyclopedia of fantasy clichés.

The final product, I am happy to report, is a good deal better than I expected. There are a few kinks, but all in all this an intriguing show that gets a lot right.

To begin with, it’s not nearly as bland looking as I’d feared it would be. It turns out the animation for this show was done by Studio 4º C, who also did some segments for Batman: Gotham Knight and Halo Legends, and created the movies Tekkonkinkreet and Mind Games. Nothing in ThunderCats is quite as fluid or loose as anything in those films, but there’s definitely some positive influences. The fight scenes, viewed in full, are quite impressive, with a real feeling of weight to each blow and movement—all very graceful stuff. And the setting is magnificently laid out, alien and fascinating to look at—some scenes in the first few moments smack almost of Studio Ghibli. You’ve got a magnificent cat-themed palace, then you slowly pan down to the town below, ending up in squalor and decay, eventually winding up at a group of building pressed into cliff faces. Outside of the city everything looks basically flat and featureless for miles. The setting evokes a wonderful atmosphere.

As for the character designs, they’re not expressive in the least but they do look great in action scenes. And besides, the vaguely animalistic nature of the characters fits well with the setting and tone of the series—it all feels very inventive and alien, the qualities I look for most in a fantasy. We get scenes like two characters battling on top of a giant glowing tree and an army bursting out of a gigantic crystal, and you have to marvel at the concepts alone. I worry that it may be difficult to keep up this level of visual splendor throughout the series—it’s not unheard of for a show to have an aesthetically beautiful premiere episode and then cut corners for the rest of its run—but this first episode is largely delightful to look at.

Still, as it starts, everything seemed a bit familiar. You’ve got a spunky young prince curious about the outside world—that would be Lion-O. You have him constantly competing for his father’s approval against his more talented and obedient brother, Tygra. You’ve got the kingdom that is obviously not as firmly lodged on the side of good as advertised. Ho-hum. Who could possibly not guess, according to that description: that Lion-O is going to come out on top despite being generally regarded as a naïve day-dreamer; that Tygra is going to get shown up; that Lion-O is going to decide to go against his father’s wishes. The only factor that seems unpredictable at the start is the warrior-priestess Cheetara, and she was introduced in a way that made it clear even she was intended to be a known quality, at least to fans of the original series.

So I thought the plot was going to unfold in a fairly humdrum way. And then, during the second half of the episode, everything went nuts. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone planning to watch the show with virgin eyes, but to be blunt; they take the high road. Tygra is not just a proud show-off, and Lion-O is not just a brilliant misfit, and the plot itself takes a turn that leads to much higher stakes for the rest of the series. I am really impressed by the direction the show decided to go with by eschewing so many easier, safer options. It’s one heck of a way to start a series.

So we have great fight scenes, an evocative setting, and interesting characters—and this is only the first episode. While a lot of shows unfortunately peak here, this one leaves me with the feeling that ThunderCats is planning on only going higher. Be sure to catch this one.

ThunderCats premieres on Cartoon Network on Friday, July 29, at 8:00pm ET/PT

Tomorrow: Ed Liu has written about animated series that go for epic. He’ll have his thoughts about whether ThunderCats has what it takes to play in the biggest league of all.

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