ThunderCats 2011: First Impressions

ThunderCats, ho!

Earlier this year I wrote with some curiosity, and definite apprehension, about the planned reimagining of classic 80s animated series ThunderCats. Well, having now watched the first 4 episodes of the new ThunderCats, Cartoon Network’s latest show – which started airing weekly from 29th July – I can happily comment “So far so good.”

Granted it normally takes about 5 episodes of any TV series for the show to get over its wobbly first steps and hit its stride, so perhaps I’m passing comment a bit prematurely. However, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve watched so far. The new ThunderCats isn’t AMAZING by any means – neither was the original if fans look back on it with honesty now – but it satisfies my wants in that most crucial of areas: it’s not insulting to now-adult viewers who enjoyed the 80s cartoon.

Whereas Hollywood is often happy to piss on the nostalgic memories of children of the 80s by doing things like transplanting the pastoral Smurfs to New York City for slapstick, wise-cracking shenanigans, here the source material is treated with respect, and some surprising intelligence.

You see, the new ThunderCats is actual more of a sequel than a reimagining. The series is set on Third Earth hundreds of years after the old Lion-O and co. crash landed on the planet following the destruction of their home world. In this time the feline humanoid Thunderians have become the most powerful and dominant species on Third Earth, ruling from their walled city, Thundera. However, over time the cats have become complacent and arrogant, and regressed into a militaristic medieval society where stories of space travel, and technology in general, are dismissed as myth.

Teenage heir to the throne, Lion-O yearns for knowledge of “ancient” technology and demonstrates a kind of liberal thinking that has turned him into a joke in the eyes of his people. Thunderians would prefer his adopted older brother, the fierce, charismatic – and frankly a bit of a douchebag – Tygra, to be the future king.

Naturally it turns out that Lion-O’s open minded attitude is right, but the proof is extreme - Thundera’s destruction and the exile of its people by the ThunderCats’ old rivals, the Lizards, and sorcerer Mumm-Ra.

For the record, if you’re wondering why ThunderCats 2011, as a sequel, features so many characters with names and looks from the original show, that is explained via throwaway references to the importance of reincarnation in the Thunderian belief system.

Unlike the original series, which had the characters defending and operating from their new base, ThunderCats 2011 takes a quest form similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender and Lord of the Rings. Sporting nifty new armour, Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, and (presumably soon) Panthro, roam around Third Earth, seeking the Book of Omens so that they can destroy Mumm-Ra once and for all.

They're joined by Snarf (reimagined as basically Lion-O's loyal, mute pet a'la Momo) and street urchin siblings WilyKit and WilyKat. The latter 2 provide most of the kid-orientated comic relief as Aladdin-esque orphans with massive appetites for treasure, adventure, and, of course, food. For the most part though, ThunderCats 2011 is dead serious, with characters navigating a harsh world - not dissimilar to the Dark Sun Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting - populated by beings as weird and wonderful as in the original series.

The biggest criticism that can be made about ThunderCats 2011, so far, is how shallow the series feels - emotionally and mentally. Again, the original was little different, but here when characters aren't doing illogical things like helping a tribe of tiny plant people when they're being pursued by the entire lizard army, they're painted with wide strokes. The new Lion-O may not have the mind of a child in an adult's body, but currently his 2 chief emotional settings are anger and emo.

Cheetara fares a bit better, emerging from the double-episode pilot as the most badass of the leads in combat - she, cleric Jaga and a squad of other unnamed characters in fact get the first truly thrilling moment of the new series. Cheetara 2011 has a much more interesting background than her 80s predecessor. It's a pity then that in the episodes since she's slipped into the largely silent, eye candy role. And I suspect she's soon to be replaced as a fan favourite by nunchucks-wielding, no-nonsense Panthro.

I'll certainly be sticking with ThunderCats 2011 through its first full story arc, or season - whichever comes first. The anime-influenced animation and character designs work surprisingly well (the Lizards are especially well done), and it looks like the show won't be short of action scenes that fill the viewer with glee.

Most importantly I must give credit to the new creative team for embracing the darkness and intensity that today's viewers expect of this genre, while retaining the spirit of the original... even in the cheesiest of areas. ThunderCats 2011 brings back the blatant moralising and life lesson discussion of its predecessor. In this cynical age, that's probably the biggest surprise of all about the new series.


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