"ThunderCats": Old Cats, New Tricks
Fans always find it tricky to face nostalgia head on. Few things can be as disappointing as a TV show you loved as a kid, revisited and revealed to be nowhere near as great as you remember it, and few things can be as dispiriting as having the warm, fuzzy feelings you had about it destroyed forever.
Television producers face an even trickier task when they remake a show that people have warm and fuzzy feelings for—nothing quite inspires such knee jerk ire in people. ThunderCats is such a show, and, judging by the reactions I’ve seen to the trailer, knee jerk ire has not been in short supply. Mostly it seems confined to people who have not watched the original series since they were children (the ThunderCats community are broadly excited). But let’s get one thing straight here from the outset: the original series was far from perfect, and it certainly has no right to be treated as a sacred text. For every great episode there are at least two mediocre or downright awful ones; and the final thirty or so are among the worst written I’ve ever witnessed. If Batman and Superman can undergo countless reboots and reimaginings, I don’t think we can justify being too sniffy about Lion-O and Co. getting the same treatment.
From the start, it is obvious that the new show is going to be quite a different animal from the original Rankin Bass-produced ThunderCats. First, all the characters have new designs: a more streamlined, anime style, without being overly stylized. Secondly, although the advance copy I viewed did not feature opening credits, there seems to be no trace of the iconic theme music of old, not even the suggestion of synth or 80s electric guitar. Finally, the presentation in general seems to be darker, more serious, and geared towards a slightly older audience: 11-14 year olds as opposed to 6-10 year olds.
It is a pretty good revamp of a long dormant franchise, and key is that, aside from the names of the characters and locations and some of the mythos, it is a fundamentally different series. If you’re a big ThunderCats fan that’s all you really need to know, and I suggest you stop reading right now because the rest of this review will concern itself with exactly what those differences are and what I make of them. I don’t want to spoil any surprises.
*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
Fans of the original series may recall that the very first episode, “Exodus,” was about the destruction of the Thundercats’ home planet, Thundera, and their flight to the new planet of Third Earth. This new series starts with “The Sword of Omens”, in which we meet Lion-O, the son of the King of Thundera, shortly before their kingdom is attacked by an army of Lizardmen led by General Slythe, who may be assisted (or controlled) by Mumm-Ra. This serves as a nice general introduction to each of the major characters and to what I assume will be the main setting for the show.
Instead of giving a straight review of the show, though, I thought I’d analyse it for the benefit of other long-time ThunderCats fans. It differs significantly from the Rankin-Bass series in a number of significant respects; I have listed these below and then given a verdict on whether or not I think the change is a good decision.
Difference 1: Thundera is not a planet but a kingdom on what I assume is Third Earth. This means that the fundamental premise of the show has changed completely. In the Rankin-Bass series, the ThunderCats were a group of survivors from a planetary catastrophe who settle on a new planet and struggle to establish a base, forge alliances and eventually keep justice once they arrive. In the new series, it appears that there will be no exploding planets. This means that, crucially, the Thundercats will not be the sole survivors of their race. Even if the kingdom of Thundera is overthrown by the Lizardmen, there seems to me to be far too many inhabitants to have been wiped out by the battle we see in this episode.
Verdict: I think this has interesting possibilities. I applaud the decision to change the origin story almost wholesale, because it means we won’t be re-treading over old ground. The first five or so episodes of the old series written by Leonard Starr are among the very best, so by changing the premise completely here they have avoided direct comparisons. Thumbs up!
Difference 2: Tygra is Lion-O’s step-brother! That’s right, and he has a complete personality transplant too. So whereas the Tygra of old was simply the wise head architect, scientist and part-time illusionist of the group, now he is Lion-O’s cocky and arrogant older step-brother who claims to be better than him in every single way, apart from being blood heir to the throne. (The suggestion is that he is the king’s adopted son). This completely transforms the relationship between Lion-O and Tygra; they are now much more like Ryu and Ken of the Streetfighter games, with a spirit of friendly and not-so-friendly competition and the hint that although Lion-O is the heir apparent, Tygra (and seemingly everyone else) thinks it should be him.
Verdict: Well this is very interesting indeed, and a great twist. Truth be told, although everyone loved him, the old Tygra was really quite a boring character. But if developed correctly, this change in their relationship could really lead to dramatic tension and even open conflict down the line. The impact on Lion-O’s character is significant too, because there is the suggestion that he has some issues of self-esteem and self-belief: he has an inferiority complex to match Tygra’s superiority complex. Another thumbs up from me.
Difference 3: Lion-O did not know Cheetara before now. One of the very first scenes shows them meeting for the first time. We learn later that she’s part of some kickass troop of ninja monks who form part of the king’s special guard. There is also the suggestion of a bit of sexual tension/chemistry between them early on, as well as some chemistry between her and Tygra. Could we see a love triangle developing between Lion-O, Cheetara and Tygra? This is not only a probable inevitability, but also one of the many areas where the old show failed to develop the characters and their relationships at all. Also, Cheetara kicks all kinds of ass in this episode.
Verdict: It’s a nice twist for Cheetara to be a stranger, and the subtle, or not so subtle, hints about there being a romantic interest opens up great dramatic possibilities down the line. Three out of three thumbs up so far.
Difference 4: Snarf can no longer talk! The Snarf of old was the show’s obligatory annoying Bat-Mite/Scrappy Doo/Orko/Slimer comedic foil replete with annoying voice. He was Lion-O’s loving nanny and, after 130 episodes, I grew genuinely to despise him, and all his cousins, and his annoying relatives, especially Snarfer. In the new series, Snarf appears to be more like a pet who only makes cat noises. Only a couple of ‘comedy’ moments from him.
Verdict: Well thank God for that! My thumb can’t get any higher here.
Difference 5: No Panthro yet! Well, we do sort of see him, but as things stand he’s AWOL. He’s been rewritten as being a great general and veteran of many battles who is significantly older than the rest of the team.
Verdict: While it’s too early to say—I mean it’s not clear that he’s going to be a major member of the team yet—I like the idea in principle. Thumbs at least half-way up, five for five.
Difference 6: No Mutants apart from Slythe! The Lizardmen seem to be mortal enemies of the Thunderians, and Slythe is their leader. For fans of the old show, this appears to mean no Monkian, no Jackalman, and no Vultureman.
Verdict: If this is really the case, that’s a great shame. The Mutants were great characters so I really hope they’ll be introduced in later episodes. If it stays simply as Slythe and generic lizardmen vs. the Thundercats, however, thumbs way down.
Difference 7: Mumm-Ra’s voice. Earl Hammond did such a fantastic job with the original Mumm-Ra that in many, many episodes he was the only thing that kept it watchable, especially during the drudgery and awfulness of the final episodes. While it may be a little unfair (although perhaps inevitable) to compare Robin Atkin Downes’s voice work on the new Mumm-Ra to the old, first impressions are that it is simply not in the same league of awesome. It is perfectly passable as a generic, slightly hissy, evil villain voice, but Mumm-Ra surely deserves better.
Verdict: Thumbs down here, and I can’t see what Downes will or can do to improve on what he offers here. Earl Hammond is sadly no longer with us, but VAs excel at doing other people’s voices, and surely there’s someone out there who could have simply done Hammond as Mumm-Ra. I mean Greg Burson replaced Daws Butler as Yogi Bear by doing his best impression of Butler as Yogi, Jeff Bergman replaced Mel Blanc as Bugs Bunny doing Blanc as Bugs, and so on. It’s a long tradition in the VA world. Mumm-Ra without that trademark voice just seems wrong, and it is the only real major disappointment of this premiere. A weak Mumm-Ra has the potential to ruin this new series, just as an AWESOME Mumm-Ra was often enough to save the old one. I do hope he gets better, somehow.
Conclusion: Overall, I think it’s clear to see that I am broadly in favour of the changes this reboot has made to refresh this show and create something new and interesting, and from me, someone predisposed to hate remakes, that is something of a feat. If this series develops in the way I hope it will, it has the potential to be far greater than the old series ever was. Very promising.
ThunderCats premieres on Cartoon Network on Friday, July 29, at 8:00pm ET/PT
Tomorrow: Jamie Tadlock never watched the original series. On Wednesday, find out what he thinks of Cartoon Network’s new show.