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"ThunderCats": The Cat’s Meow

by on July 29, 2011

Never judge a new series by its first episode, a certain television producer once cautioned me. Remember, the people making it are still feeling their way, trying to get the kinks worked out. It’s a newborn baby, and those things are always kind of ugly.

Malicious soul that I am, I’m tempted to scrupulously adhere to this producer’s advice, and withhold judgment on Cartoon Network’s new ThunderCats action show. But I’ll be nice. If its hour-long premiere is anything to go by, the network and its viewers can start setting off fireworks. This is the most sensational debut by an animated action show since … Well, since as long as I can remember.

It’s a remake, reboot, reimagining or just plain re-ignition of the classic late-80’s fantasy series, but it’s already much more than a stab at rejuvenating a moribund franchise. The producers seem to have spent the last decade watching, pondering, and taking lessons from Justice League, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and other series that have extended and complicated the action genre. And so ThunderCats bows with both power and assurance. It may stand on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that its premiere episode stands a full head taller than those of the earlier series.

The plot and characters will be familiar to fans of the original show: it’s about a race of cat-creatures living in a sword-and-sorcery world. Names, general features, and attributes are feline: the princely Lion-O; the quick-footed Cheetara; the powerful Tygra. Stories promise epic action and more than a little questing. The original series stood above its competitors with a better look and a richer mythos; the new series looks set to pull off the same trick vis-à-vis it contemporaries.

Its great virtues are those it shares with a lot of contemporary TV shows. The biggest development in recent years has been the willingness of networks and audiences to accept stories with greater scope, more intricate storylines, and deeper characterization. So maybe it’s spillover from live-action hits like Lost and Battlestar Galactica; or maybe it’s an influence from anime, where season-long plot arcs are quite common. But ThunderCats looks like it will follow in this new tradition, opening explosively as it does with a crisis that plainly presages a long and complicated story to come. The original series also opened with a world-shattering catastrophe, but it only had the effect of dropping a core group of characters into a new-to-them environment. The revamped series plays a nastier (and better) trick: Without delving into spoilers, suffice it to say that it doesn’t even finish setting up its chess pieces before it tips the playing board over and scatters everybody hither and yon. It also doesn’t look like the prelude to only a one-episode sequel, but the preface to a whole lot more. With no status quo to return to week after week, then, this looks like a series that is going to have fun wandering all over the place.

The characters’ sense of loss at the end also gives ThunderCats the feeling of playing out on a very big world. Some characters who are clearly fated to meet have not connected by the end of the premiere; some characters who must appear are still absent; and a handful of famous characters are not even alluded to. And so everyone seems to be moving in the dark, and nothing can feel quite as enormous—or ominous—as a dark room. The sense of scale is amplified by a rich variety of designs. The Thundercat metropolis of Thundera teems with cats of all kinds, and the buildings range in scale from magnificent palaces to dirty slums. We see nothing yet of the world outside Thundera’s verdant valley, but the care that has gone into delineating that very small location suggests it will likely prove to be something other than the “forest world” / “snow world” / “water world” / “desert world” set of tropes standard to the fantasy genre.

Character relationships are another place the series pulses with promise. The original Thundercats were a pretty bland bunch—Challenge of the SuperFurries, it sometimes seemed—but these cats have claws. Leading the bunch is Lion-O, whose virtues of idealism, ambition and curiosity often manifest themselves as the vices of impatience, hyper-competitiveness, and rashness; you wince even when he does the right thing, because it’s not clear he’s doing it for the right reasons. In the premiere he is well-matched with his father, King Claudus, whose own balance of virtues and vices suggests that the kitten Lion-O didn’t fall far out of the royal tree, and the two outrage each other as only two people who are closely related and deeply resemble each other can. Long-term, Lion-O is even better contrasted with Tygra, who is both smarter and more athletic than the prince; a bit of a cynic; and terribly, terribly pleased with himself. (His sense of smug superiority is all the more grating because—dammit—he really does possess the very feline qualities of charisma and effortless competence.) There is great suspense in their scenes together because there is both a sense of real affection and of real resentment between them, with sometimes one and sometimes the other winning out.

Cheetara is also on hand, though she is very much of a mystery, being introduced and developed as a monk-ninja of some kind, and there are hints that Lion-O and Tygra will wind up competing for her affections. Wiley-Kit and Wiley-Kat also make an extended and very promising debut as a pair of trickster street-urchins with a stronger sense of greed and a more developed set of survival skills than Lion-O and his upper-crust friends may feel comfortable with. Panthro gets only a minimal introduction here, and the fact that he is presumed dead by the other characters may make him the series’ hole card, the withheld element whose eventual appearance could delight the audience and astonish the other characters.

The series is so good with its heroes, in fact, that it’s a bit of a surprise to find that the villains are comparatively bland. The Thundercats exist in a state of perpetual cold-verging-on-hot war with a race of Lizardmen led by Slythe, who possesses a reptilian charm and a crocodilian cunning. There is some hint that he and the lizard people are not evil, actually, and may not even be any worse than the Thundercats themselves, but so far he and they only exist as antagonists. More disappointing is Mumm-ra, appearing with his classic form mostly unchanged. In the original series he was the big baddie, the cackling mastermind to be defeated week after week. He was fun, but his schtick was repetitive and uninspired. Having reinterpreted the Thundercats themselves so thoroughly, the series surprises by keeping Mumm-ra pretty much to type, at least in the premiere. There is no sense of complexity to his plans or of nuance to his character. He wants the Eye of Thundera, he wants it now, and that, it appears, is all there is to that.

The visuals by Studio 4°C are slick, imaginative, and entertaining, with explosions and fisticuffs that pack a real punch. The vocal cast is quite good, though Will Friedle is maybe a tad too Friedlian as Lion-O. (Or maybe he just sounds slightly fake because he has to compete with the original, Larry Kenney, here making a regal return as King Claudus.) The screener provided lacked both opening and closing titles, but the musical score, if it doesn’t make much of an impression, at least gets the job done.

It’s a rare leopard that can change its spots without losing its identity. Even if ThunderCats didn’t make such a magnificent first impression, it’s ability to morph into something so much better without losing its sense of self would be enough reason to catch it.

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

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