TV Review: THUNDERCATS (2011)

Warner Brothers have released a new series of the Thundercats. Is this a remake to bring old school fans to tears, or a reboot to give new life to an awesome franchise?

rating: 3

When I found out that I had the chance to review a remake of the classic 80's cartoon Thundercats I leapt at it. Excitement electrified my every nerve. Then, almost as quickly, I was overwhelmed by a dread fear; what if one more sacred creation is ruined by the attempt to modernize it? What if the Thundercats becomes another shriveled relic, used, abused and tossed aside in the name of making a quick buck? I am one of those sad sad fanatics who still thinks about and quotes from Thundercats most days of the week. I named our cat Lion-O, Lord of the Thundercats, and subsequently lost my next attempt to name our second cat Cheetara. Turns out that my wonderful wife is not the fan that I am. So here I sit, a man obsessed with an aging franchise, balanced on a knife-edge of possibility. With trembling fingers I press 'play'... A little backstory first. The Thundercats was one of a slew of cartoons released in the 1980's which revolved around good versus evil tales where all problems were eventually resolved through the lead characters' fists, and a side serving of morals; such as He-Man, Transformers, Silver Hawks and Voltron. Alongside these shows were the heavy marketing of franchise toys. Being a kid of the 80's I was completely sucked in by the advertising gambit and am still paying for it financially all of these years later. Yet what separated the Thundercats from the other cartoons of the era, from my perspective, was a focus on characters who make mistakes and develop from them. Lion-O, physically aged by accident but still with the mindset of a teenager, must learn to be the level-minded ruler of his people. Whilst other cartoons like He-Man were cool, they lacked any real change in the characters who were almost the same at the end of the series as they were when it started. Now, in 2011, Warner Bros have decided to reboot the Thundercats for a new generation. My review is based on the two-episode long opening chapter - "The Sword Of Omens" and "Ancient Spirits of Evil". My plan was to try to review this new series from two separate perspectives; as a show on its own, and then as a remake. But it is impossible to separate these. I would warrant that the show's creators are themselves fans of the 80's version. This new Thundercats is such an ode to the original that every creative choice they have made is tied into what came before. The most noticeable difference is the choice to re-envision the characters in the style of Japanese anime, which is of course the popular trend in all cartoons at the moment. The characters have kept some of their trademark elements such as facial markings and weapons, but now err on the elf-like appearance common to Japanese comic books. Being such a fan of the old versions, I am not sold on the new 'look'. Lion-O looks far more like a clown than a lion cub for my liking, and I fear that the drift toward the style has forsaken the important feline aspect. They are cats but this seems to be lost amongst the angular faces and over-sized eyes. Overall however the art is gorgeous with strong animation style and technique. The environment of Thundera is rich and has a beautiful painterly feel to it. No effort has been spared to depict in epic scale the world of Third Earth. Although it is unfair to contrast the two series due to the vast differences in animation technology (almost 30 years of development) it is impossible not to see the superiority of the new. Yet this contrast also helps to reinforce just how ahead-of-its-time the opening title sequence of the original was. An amazing and visually spectacular sequence that has no equal in what I have seen so far of its modern equivalent. If you watch closely you will actually see exact copies of the shots and movements recreated from the original, such as Lion-O using the 'sight beyond sight', when Tigra unleashes his whip or Cheetara first pulls out her bo-staff. This really is a reboot. All of your favourite characters are back again but this time the reinterpretations give them history and personality. Instead of the rather base presentation of the original, where all of the heroic cats are just good friends, the opening episodes of the new series spend a lot of time defining actual relationships between them all. Lion-O and Tigra are now brothers competing for the throne; Cheetara is a stranger who mysteriously keeps an eye on Lion-O; the Thunderkittens are hapless orphans fighting to survive. Even Lynx-O makes a cameo in the opening ep! This approach is going to help to keep the cartoon from being that of a one-dimensional world, like so many of the 80's shows, including many episodes from the classic series. However my one major gripe about character changes is how Snarf has been redefined. I always loved Snarf. He was the over-protective, often cowardly comedic sidekick to Lion-O. The wet-nurse. His whinging and complaining was a safe constant throughout the show, and he was in fact the 'everyman' character for kids to connect with. Now he is just a humorous lizard-cat that can't talk. Nothing more than a pet. Not impressed. The same bad guys are around €“ whispered tales of Mumm-Ra, Slithe and Grune. And I have a feeling that as the episodes move along we will find Jackalman, Monkian and Vultureman. The biggest shift away from the original is the setup of the Thundercat world. The cats live a Dungeons & Dragons style life with swords and sorcery, and a fear of the rumoured 'technology'. This is in complete contrast to the tech-based original where Panthro whips up a funky new invention that saves the cats each episode. Think the Thundertankor the kittens hover boards. It was the blending of magic and science fiction that made the Thundercats such a success, using it more effectively than even He-Man managed. The overall plot of the new Thundercats is much grander and political. Instead of being stranded on a new planet, the cats rule Third Earth, repressing the race of Lizard-Men. King Claudus wants his heir, Lion-O, to live up to his princely duties so that he can pass on the legendary Sword Of Omens. But Lion-O is interested in the mythical technology that supposedly exists beyond the walls of Thundera (no longer the whole planet, but the cats' city). Technology (ie. guns and missiles) is believed to be a fairy tale, along with the story of the evil Mumm-Ra that scares children to sleep. The first episode is a little wishy-washy as it tries to setup all of the various characters and the new scenario to their existence. The only really interesting element is the development of the theme of racism, the cats' view of the Lizard-Men as inferior beings, and how Lion-O attempts to change this. There is a very political vibe of the Thundercats as the dominating colonials and those subservient to them wanting to rise up in an animal version of the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately this seems to get thrown aside in the second episode in favour of the black & white view of good versus evil. Perhaps it will raise its head again in future eps. This new series of the Thundercats is epic, fast paced and seems as though it will be following the storyline of Lion-O's journey to find the Book Of Omens. Its characters are sure to undergo crisis and change, and if there isn't an awkward love triangle between Lion-O, Tigra and Cheetara then I will be surprised. All of the familiar elements have been rewoven into this and will allow old fans to spot all of the nods to the original cartoon. It feels like a reworking of Lord of the Rings, with Lion-O as Frodo, gathering his team around him as heads off on his mission to save Thundera. The best part of all is that this is not a remake. It really is a reboot. Which will hopefully allow me to keep the classic rendition of the Thundercats in my heart just as they are, and still enjoy the action-packed adventures of the modern retelling. I am looking forward to seeing more. Mind you... all of this came from a Thundercats fan and you need to be warned. We can be a strange lot:
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A director & cinematographer by trade, but a Geek by choice. David grew up on the beaches of Sydney, Australia where he spent most sunny days indoors organsing his ever-expanding comic collection. Snubbed by the world at large, he wrapped himself in the sweet, sweet tales of the Marvel Universe and only resurfaces for Cheezels.