Film Rants: Thundercats, Woah!
If you were a male child in the 1980s, you probably watched Thundercats. It was one of many merchandise-driven shows where the TV program existed only to sell toys (others of the era being He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Voltron, and GI Joe). And a few years ago, in hopes of cashing in on nostalgia, Cartoon Network re-aired Thundercats on their Toonami lineup. The result was painful.
Revisiting the show as a college student, I was reminded of how dumb I was as a child. To put it mildly, Thundercats aged badly. Very badly. The show which I remembered so fondly sucked hard enough that I have since avoided re-watching any TV programs based on nostalgia alone. Voltron likely sucked as well, but I’ll never know because I want to preserve my misguided childhood adoration for giant robot lions, so I never plan on watching that show again. Thundercats scarred me badly, reminding me that what I used to hail as genius was in fact cheap, badly animated, and formulaic to a fault. Taking off the nostalgia glasses and viewing the show on its own merits was agonizing.
A little while ago, Cartoon Network announced that it would be producing a brand new Thundercats show, complete with new voice actors, a new art style, and a different overarching plot. Despite my aversion to all things related to Third Earth, I found myself quietly following news of the new series. After all, Cartoon Network had previously turned the equally crappy Masters of the Universe franchise into something watchable; maybe they could repeat that magic with Lion-O and friends.
Well, the new show is on the air now, so I sat down with my wife and son to give it a chance as a family. And guess what? It is totally freakin’ awesome!
When Masters of the Universe was recreated, it was an impressive example of taking what had been a pretty lame kids’ show and turning it into something worth watching. Thundercats does one better by presenting a show that is not only markedly improved from the original, but which is absolutely awesome to behold. The once-episodic show with its moronic villains and ham-handed morals is now an epic tale with character development, menacing antagonists, and a terrific combination of good animation and better voice-acting.
How does the new Thundercats manage to not only appeal to nostalgia but also become a terrific show independent of said nostalgia? Let me count the ways.
Possibly the biggest problem with the old Thundercats show was Snarf. Even as a kid, that little bastard annoyed the Hell out of me. He existed for no purpose other than comic relief, and he just wasn’t funny. His speech patterns were obnoxious, with the constant refrain of “Snarf Snarf!” and he was so useless that they actually had to have episodes devoted to corner cases where he could save the day in order to justify his existence.
How did they fix Snarf? They pulled off one of the most brilliant moves ever: they don’t have him speak. In the new show, Snarf is a plucky pet who accompanies Lion-O but thankfully remains mute (except for cat-like meows). He still fills the comic relief slot, but his moments of comedy are usually slapstick and don’t take up more than 20-30 seconds of screen time – he’s good for a chuckle, then we move on with the plot. All in all, this new Snarf is very similar in behavior to Ryo-Ohki from Tenchi Muyo!, which means that the show has amped up its cuteness quotient in the same move that they toned down the annoyance of this supporting character.
2. Larry Kenney is still the man
I don’t know exactly what audience the show is shooting for, but I would guess that its target demographic is folks who grew up watching Thundercats. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s now, and many have kids of their own who they will likely watch the show with (and probably buy the toy tie-ins for as well). While the show admirably makes itself accessible to complete newcomers, it also has some very good nostalgic call-outs, highlighting the few really good points of the old show. Case in point: Larry Kenney, the original voice of Lion-O. Here he gets a role as Lion-O’s father Claudus and hits it out of the park. In the two-part opener, he even gives the classic, “Thundercats, ho!” shout before running into battle. His role is done very well and with respect, appealing to nostalgia and also providing a heartwarming moment where the torch (or rather, the Sword of Omens) gets passed from Claudus (the elder Lion-O) to his son (this series’ Lion-O).
Other moments of nostalgia are similarly well-used, providing an added bonus to those who remember the old series fondly for whatever reason. For example, Mumm-Ra gets what was previously his once-an-episode line of, “Ancient spirits of evil, transform this decayed form to Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living!” but with the twist that he’s cut off before he can finish the incantation. Old fans know what was about to happen, but haven’t seen the new interpretation of Mumm-Ra’s Ever-Living form. As such, they’re looking forward to the when he actually does transform and wondering if it will be similar to the old version or something new. New fans who don’t know what was about to happen still know that something big was about to go down, and thus have some mounting anticipation for the next appearance of Mumm-Ra. The show is using nostalgic callbacks as more than cheap cameos – it’s very carefully using them as storytelling techniques.
3. The Bad Guys are BAD
Perhaps one of the biggest changes between old and new is the move toward serialized storytelling. In the old series, everything had to be wrapped up and reverted to status quo in half an hour. That meant that whatever evil scheme Mumm-Ra came up with, he was guaranteed to be foiled at the episode’s climax. Moreover, since he was one of the major draws of the show, he had to be in just about every episode, meaning that after a season or two he had been dealt over a dozens defeats at the hands of the Thundercats. He suffered very quickly from villain decay, since no matter how evil people claimed he was he would always, always, always wind up being foiled in the end.
The new series takes a different style of storytelling. In the two-part opener, we get a picture of the idyllic kingdom of Thundera, then we watch it collapse at the hands of Mumm-Ra and his lizardfolk minions. This sets the odds against the main characters and gives them a goal: they need to overthrow Mumm-Ra’s new brutal regime. Most importantly, this makes Mumm-Ra into an actual effective villain.
(Warning: spoilers for the opener follow.)
In his first appearance, Mumm-Ra accomplishes more than he was ever allowed to in the previous series. He overthrows the entire kingdom of Thundera, convinces one of Claudus’ most trusted friends to betray him, kills Claudus, and tortures Jaga nearly to death. Even when Lion-O blasts Mumm-Ra with the Sword of Omens, it’s not much of a bother to him. Odds are good that he would have gone on to stomp Lion-O and his friends in the ensuing fight had the rising sun not slowed him down (direct sunlight being Mumm-Ra’s new weakness, replacing his reflection from the prior series). Even then, it takes Jaga sacrificing himself Gandalf-style to save the group from oblivion right off. Now Mumm-Ra is the big bad, and it will likely take a full season’s worth of episodes to get a win against him.
I’m not one to advocate a completely bleak series where the villains win completely, but to be taken seriously they have to win at least some of their battles. Otherwise, they’re reduced to bumbling oafs very quickly. Since the new series is serial instead of episodic, long-term plots can be developed. Mumm-Ra can get this early win but still lose in the long run. However, even if he does lose, some of what he has done cannot be undone. This Mumm-Ra is frighteningly effective, which is a welcome change from his older bumbling self.
4. Quality Control
One major advantage for the new series is that animation in general has gotten much better over the years. It’s still shafted compared to live action stuff (at least in the west), but it’s not as extremely shoe-string as it was in the 1980s. Thanks to new technologies and especially computer animation, the new show has a lot more that it can do in terms of presentation, from sleeker, more stylized character models to wider shots with lots of detail.
On the sound end, the score is absolutely terrific (although not as catchy as the old “Thundercats are on the move/Thundercats are loose” jingle). And there are some top-notch voice actors in the series, including Clancy Brown and Kevin Michael Richardson. The production values of this series weren’t possible for a kids’ animated show in the 1980s, so it’s pretty much an automatic win for the audience.
5. Name’s Panthro
Of all the characters in the original Thundercats show, only Panthro stands out as pretty awesome on his own. He served as a mentor to Lion-O, a badass warrior, and a dude so intelligent that he built a tank out of a bunch of scraps. How do you improve upon that for the new show? For starters, giving him the voice of Kevin Michael Richardson (aka Sarevok from Baldur’s Gate) helps. Other than that, it’s all about tone and buildup.
Panthro is another example where the show used nostalgia to its advantage. We all knew that he was out there, but the series kept teasing us. First we got word that he had died in battle. Then he appeared as a hostage to Mumm-Ra, only to be a disguise used by the villain. Then, four episodes in, we finally get the big guy’s appearance. With Lion-O and his companions about to get slaughtered by an army of lizards, we get this scene:
And…yeah. That scene pretty much seals it: this new Thundercats show has done the impossible, turning what was once an embarrassing bit of nostalgia for me into something that is truly badass.