ThunderCats, Woah!

The news of a new, silly-looking ThunderCats reboot has many fans of the 1980s franchise gnashing their teeth in anger. Personally, I don’t care about it, as ThunderCats was always sillier than fans like to remember. However, it does make me fondly remember that brief time in 2011 when ThunderCats was awesome.

ThunderCats Roar isn’t the first time Cartoon Network has tried to resurrect the franchise. It got a different kind of reboot in 2011, with an epic storyline, excellent quality art, top-notch voice actors, and some truly terrific storytelling. Sadly, all of that awesome got countered by poor marketing and Cartoon Network’s tendency to sabotage shows that don’t sell new toys. Thus, the show was canceled after only one season.

But what a season it was. There’s a lot to love about the 2011 ThunderCats series, but here are the elements that got me hooked after just a few episodes.

Fixing Snarf

A lot of fans of the original ThunderCats don’t want to admit it, but the show wasn’t all that good. Sure, those who grew up in the 1980s have great memories of it, but it doesn’t hold up well. Perhaps the poster child for this lack of quality is Snarf. He existed mainly as comic relief, and he just wasn’t funny. His speech patterns were obnoxious 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.

2011 Snarf
Much better.

The 2011 show fixed Snarf in one of the most elegantly simple ways possible: it turned him into a non-speaking character. Snarf went from annoying sidekick to cute pet in the vein of Ryo-Ohki from the Tenchu Muyo! series (although Snarf never turned into a spaceship). He still filled the comic relief role, but the jokes only took up a few seconds of screen time rather than serving as unwanted filler that dragged out an already painfully formulaic episode.

The new Snarf provided more laughs in less time than the old one ever did. Moreover, he was cute and helpful on the journey, making him immediately more interesting and sympathetic than the original.

Bringing Back Larry Kenney 

The original ThunderCats did have a few bright spots, including some of the voice acting. Of those classic voice actors, Larry Kenney, the voice of the original Lion-O, made a return in 2011. He played Claudus, Lion-O’s father, and delivered a sense of majesty while also literally passing the sword to a new generation in the show.

2011 Claudus

In the two-part opener, Kenney’s Claudus even gave the classic, “Thundercats, ho!” shout before running into battle. His role was done very well and with respect, giving older fans a shout out while not slowing down the narrative on unnecessary nostalgia.

Other callbacks to the original show were similarly well-used, either giving fans something to smile about or actively using the older franchise to build suspense. For example, the opening story had Mumm-Ra begin to deliver his classic line of, “Ancient spirits of evil, transform this decayed form to Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living!” only to get cut off before he could finish. Older fans knew something big was about to happen and that the heroes caught a break, while newer fans got a hint that Mumm-Ra was even more powerful than he seemed. Later, when Mumm-Ra finished his incantation, the reveal of his more powerful form had a greater impact for everybody.

Dangerous Villains 

The episodic nature of the original ThunderCats held it back a lot. Because everything had to snap back to the status quo within half an hour, the villains could never achieve any meaningful victory. Thus, Mumm-Ra quickly became a toothless, incompetent bad guy.

2011 Mumm-Ra

The 2011 series turned toward a more serial style of storytelling. While it had one-shot episodes, most of the show dealt with Lion-O leading a small band of ThunderCats against the armies of Mumm-Ra. And to accomplish that, the villain had to show early on how dangerous he really was.

In his first appearance, Mumm-Ra accomplished more than he was ever allowed to in the previous series. He overthrew the entire kingdom of Thundera, convinced one of Claudus’ most trusted friends to betray him, killed Claudus, and tortured Jaga nearly to death. Defeating Mumm-Ra became the goal of the season.

I don’t advocate a completely bleak series where the villains always win, but they need to score some victories to make a series feel like it has stakes. A villain who gets defeated every episode becomes a bumbling oaf very quickly. This also makes the world feel more real – even as Lion-O came closer to his ultimate goal, he couldn’t undo the damage Mumm-Ra had done. The 2011 version of Mumm-Ra was frighteningly effective and a welcome change from his older self.

Quality Control

Sometimes, money and time can make a huge difference. More than 25 years of improvements in animation and a better budget left the 2011 show looking absolutely gorgeous. Thanks to new technologies and especially computer animation, the 2011 show had a lot more that it can do in terms of presentation, from sleeker, more stylized character models to wider shots with lots of detail.

2011 Thundera

On the sound end, the score was absolutely terrific (although the theme song was admittedly not as catchy as the old “Thundercats are on the move/Thundercats are loose” jingle). The 2011 series also brought in some of the best voice actors in the business, including Clancy Brown and Kevin Michael Richardson. The production values of the reboot weren’t possible for a kids’ animated show in the 1980s, so the simple march of time created a win for the audience.

Storytelling with Stakes 

Unlike the original, the 2011 ThunderCats cartoon had stakes. This was not just reflected in the fact that the villains had success early on, but in the way that the heroes scored their victories. The episode “Journey to the Tower of Omens” finally had Mumm-Ra’s transformation, and he proceeded to dominate the ThunderCats in battle.

Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living

The heroes only managed to stop Mumm-Ra temporarily, and even then only through the sacrifice of their friend and mentor Jaga, who sacrificed his life to create a blinding flash of light that exposed Mumm-Ra’s weakness.

While that didn’t remove Jaga from the show (because ghosts are a thing in this universe), the price of victory left the ThunderCats weaker than before. This was not only solid storytelling, but it helped thwart the problem that many shows with a recurring villain have: once the bad guy loses enough times, he becomes a joke instead of a threat.

In this case, the ThunderCats could defeat Mumm-Ra, but only at a personal cost. That allowed him to remain as a threat in the future, because he could not be defeated in the same way a second time.

Awesome, Awesome Panthro

The entirety of the 2011 ThunderCats reboot is of very high quality, but sometimes you need just one really cool scene to sell a show. The early episode “Song of the Petalars” basically earned my undying loyalty to the show. For 95% of the episode, it was a heart-wrenching discussion of time and sacrifice, as the ThunderCats ran across a race of plant people who grow from childhood to old age in a mere 24 hours. Then, after bringing the audience through an emotional wringer, the episode ended on this piece of awesomeness:

And…yeah. That scene pretty much sealed it. The 2011 ThunderCats was a show for the ages, taking a franchise that had existed as a poorly-executed vehicle for toy sales and turning it into something amazing and epic. If you’re bummed about ThunderCats Roar not being for you, check out the 2011 reboot for something that might be more your speed.

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