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"ThunderCats" Gets Off To An Inspired Start

by on July 25, 2011

Get excited, folks.

Cartoon Network’s new ThunderCats series sets an admirably high standard by which past, present and future revivals ought to be judged. Much more than a modern update of old ideas, this project is an ambitious reimagining that stands to the original 1980s show as Justice League did to Superfriends. For young viewers, old school fans, anime fans and all adults young at heart, this program looks to be essential viewing that dearly deserves to be a smash crossover hit. With Young Justice and now ThunderCats, Cartoon Network now has the two best new action cartoons on television.

From the very first minute, ThunderCats concentrates on the characters fans know and love, but it puts a fresh twist on their place in the world. Originally, our anthropomorphic cat heroes were strangers in an even stranger land, having fled to the mythical Third Earth from their dying planet of Thundera. This time around, the Thundera our protagonists inhabit is a thriving kingdom, a self-described empire above all others that has presided over a long era of peace since its founders defeated the nefarious demon-sorcerer Mumm-Ra and “…brought law and order to a world of warring animals.” The nexus of this kingdom is an immense and beautiful city, protected by its mighty walls. But for Lion-O, the heir to Thundera’s throne, this is an insular and introverted world. Most Thunderans are perfectly content with their lot within the city walls, but he fantasizes about the wider world outside. The history written in the legendary Book of Omens is regarded by most as the stuff of legends and fairy tales, but Lion-O believes all of it. He secretly collects scraps, hoping to study “technology,” something that his peers don’t even believe in. And whereas most cats seem to feel only animosity for their long-time foes, the lizard men, Lion-O is willing to stick up for even one of them simply because it’s the just thing to do.

Unfortunately, his unorthodox traits cause others to see Lion-O as thoroughly unserious and unprepared to lead, and he is a disappointment to his father, King Claudus, despite his good intentions. To make matters worse, he’s stuck playing second fiddle to his adopted brother, Tygra, a rationalist who spends much of his time lecturing Lion-O about his behavior when he’s not smugly competing with him. The two bright spots in Lion-O’s life are the lovely Cheetara, a staff-wielding speedster with an interesting tendency to help him out of trouble at just the right moment, and the elder sorcerer Jaga, the king’s right hand and a sage counselor who encourages Lion-O and takes his passions seriously. But fate conspires to test Lion-O’s worthiness to become Lord of the Thundercats sooner than anyone anticipated. When an expedition led by generals Grune and Panthro finally returns home, it is an event that ultimately proves to be a harbinger of doom. Ready or not, Lion-O, Tygra and Cheetara will have to face the wider world our hero once only dreamed of. Their quest: to discover the secrets contained within the lost Book of Omens while keeping the almighty Sword of Omens and its Eye of Thundera from the malicious forces that would seize their power.

Just as the original ThunderCats was a co-production between Rankin/Bass and the Japanese studio Topcraft in the 1980s, this time around the series is a collaborative effort between Warner Bros. Animation and the adroit Studio 4°C. The latter has produced striking work in a variety of titles, ranging from Transforms Animated to shorts for Halo Legends and Batman: Gotham Knight, to niche but impressive films such as Memories and Mind Game. The present work is poised to be its crowning achievement to date for an animated TV series. The stellar design work by WBA and art director Dan Norton is vividly brought to life with bold colors and fine detail, and on many occasions it’s easy to forget that this is a television production rather than a movie. So far the action is not cutting edge, but it’s well-staged and dynamic and it’s great fun when sorcery and superhuman (supercat?) abilities get involved. But what does the most to leave a grandiose first impression is the sheer scale of imagination that was applied to creating this new Third Earth. Character designs are interesting and diverse, and in contrast to the original show members of any race are all unique and distinguishable from one another. The landscapes are vast and gorgeous, indicative of a fantastical and grand setting that, like our protagonist, we have only barely gotten to know. Thundera itself truly comes off as a bustling metropolis, full of active citizens and possessing its share of back alleys and slums along with its majestic locales.

Long-time fans can be assured that besides our trio of Lion-O, Tygra and Cheetara, other old favorites are not forgotten. Panthro is barely seen in this premiere, but he is not at all irrelevant. Wily Kit and Wily Kat start out in a secondary role, but the narrative clearly has plans for them, and they are wonderfully engaging. These siblings have only each other to rely on but display childlike enthusiasm and behavior even so, sincerely believing that better days are ahead. Their delightful appeal is one of the show’s greatest surprises. In another, extremely welcome change, Lion-O’s faithful companion Snarf has become an unspeaking pet and a source of occasional comic relief who doesn’t overstay his welcome, rather than the nagging caretaker and commentator that he used to be. As for villains, the sinister Slithe makes an impressive appearance, and yes: Mumm-Ra is a force to be reckoned with and as nefarious as ever, if not more so. Overall the voice acting and casting is a distinct and appealing interpretation that further establishes the unique identity of this revival, although Larry Kenney (the original Lion-O) is on hand as King Claudus, delivering the fanservice while still retaining a leonine dignity.

The most exciting thing about ThunderCats is that, for all its virtues, it is a series that has appears to have only scratched the surface of its potential. Producers Michael Jelenic, Ethan Spaulding, and their writing staff have delivered credible and interesting characters that are just barely starting to develop and mesh together as a team; competent and genuinely threatening villains; an enticing and mysterious mythology waiting to be discovered; and a storyline already occupied by many plot points, unanswered questions and themes that handily surpass the ambitions of the first cartoon. The worst and best thing I can say about ThunderCats is that there will be an imminent, agonizing weekly wait to find out where it all leads.

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

Tomorrow: JerryvonKramer doted on the original ThunderCats … until he watched it again and discovered that it wasn’t nearly as good as he remembered it. Find out tomorrow what he thinks of the new series.

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