First Look: ThunderCats (2011)

I'm a ThunderCat, ho.Let me just start by saying that I almost never watched the original ThunderCats cartoon when it was on Toonami a decade ago. At the time, I was far too preoccupied with anime series like Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing to pay any mind to what seemed to me an inferior American cartoon. Still, I was aware of it and appreciative enough of its loyal and enthusiastic fanbase to respect its standing as an iconic piece of Americana and, as such, was just as skeptical as most when I heard earlier this year that it was getting a remake. These days, especially when it comes to great old American cartoons, “remake” has become a dirty word, since the oversaturation of cheaply-made, Flash-animated, cheesily-made crap has all but lost us our faith in Western Animation (after all, that new “Voltron” show is an outright abomination).

But my views shifted rather predictably when I saw the trailer that aired a few months ago, which showed a remarkably high animation quality and some really fluid action scenes (after all, these days, those are usually the first to go). And then, the rumors that Japanese Studio 4°C was involved, my interest turned to anticipation – an anticipation that was answered when the new ThunderCats premiered on Cartoon Network last weekend.

As expected, the animation does not disappoint; despite being animated in Japan, the heavy shading accented by gleaming highlights is reminiscent of classic American shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles and the character designs make the best of modernization and nostalgia by updating the character to make them more likable while maintaining their classic personas. The emphasis these days has shifted from all-capable, bemuscled He-Men to lithe youngsters at the start of a long path fraught with obstacles and the new, younger Lion-O reflects that without making him a cheesy, stereotypical teen (like I fear the 2012 TMNT will do to April O’Neil).

And, speaking of characters, the voice-acting is pretty great as well. I was pleased (but not surprised) to learn that the Casting and Voice Director is the brilliant Andrea Romano, who has been behind just about every great cartoon series of the past twenty years and, having immediately recognized Will Friedle as the voice of Lion-O, I have great faith (supported by his respectable track record of consistently good voice-over work) that the new series’ principal character has some real talent behind the role. (Also, I’m pretty sure everyone prefers the new, voiceless, Pikachu-esque Snarf.)

The old-world vibe we’re treated to in Thundera’s smoky back alleys and stone castle walls makes me think that Cartoon Network wants this series to be their Avatar: The Last Airbender (which, at the very least, should mean that they’ll put up a decent amount of funding for animation and give the writers a greater-than-average amount of free reign) and the mystical-looking special effects used to accentuate combat movements and special attacks lends further credence to this idea. The setting is compelling – hinting at a much larger and complex world than just the ThunderCats’ base surrounded by encroaching enemies – and combines with the non-standard action (non-standard for Western action cartoons, anyhow) to draw the audience’s attention effectively, but I personally think the two biggest factors that the series has going for it so far are the conflict/affinity between mysticism and technology as well as the fact that the writing is clear enough to get its point across while also taking for granted that the viewers are intelligent enough to read between the lines.

The concept of a protagonist belonging to an otherwise noble race whose only sin is being overzealous and oppressive in its defense of its citizens and interests isn’t at all new, but (at least Stateside) it’s perhaps rarer in  youth-oriented shows than it should be. It’s never too early to let kids reason for themselves and understand that conflicts between peoples have more causes than just an all-powerful antagonistic force or an evil group of bloodthirsty subversives and Lion-O’s assertion that the “evil” clan of Lizards only attack the Cat clan for the sake of their children’s future well-being is a good start that suggests ThunderCats won’t be as simplistic a show as most. Additionally, I like that Tygra’s status as adopted brother to Lion-O is made clear through simple context clues rather than a lengthy and unnecessary explanation. Nor is the position of cleric given any clumsy exposition; those who would be fans of this series already know the term and younger viewers – perhaps unfamiliar with the word – are shown, rather than told, its rough definition.

I’ve always been a big fan of stories that mix technology and magic, either splicing them together or switching their roles and ThunderCats does it admirably – relegating technological items to the status of ancient legends or fairy tales while magic concepts like the Eye of Thundera and the Sword of Omens stand as basic societal tenets. And when the two concepts finally and inevitably clash, I found it quite interesting to see magic on the side of good (in the form of Jaga’s corps of warrior=clerics) while the villains take control of technology (in the form of digital bombs, rockets and walking mechs) instead of the other way around. It seems clear that Lion-O, with his magical upbringing but affinity for the technology he’d heard of as a lad, will stress melding the two schools as the series goes on.

My only real complaint so far is that I think Mumm-Ra was brought out too early in the series (especially since the following episode makes it quite clear that hunting him down is not going to be the ThunderCats’ primary focus). I mean, I understand that he was always the main antagonist, but his arrival came without any foreshadowing and tried to give off a dramatic and disastrous air that fit the bill aesthetically but didn’t really have any legs. Was he working with the Lizards and Grune in a three-way partnership? Was he just using the Lizards in a plot to regain his former power or were they just using him as a trump card against Lion-O’s father Claudus? The false decoy idea was a clever one, but their invasion of Thundera was going pretty well even before Mumm-Ra reared his decrepit face and Mumm-Ra didn’t really end up doing more than shedding some light on the Sword of Omens’ origins before the sunlight forced his ultimate retreat. If it were up to me (yeah, I know that it’s not and never will be), I’d have introduced him a few episodes down the line after more people had gotten the chance to speak of his infamous legend – maybe at a point where Grune and the Lizards foolishly decide to summon him in order to bolster their own power (hey, some clichés get to be clichés because they work so well). Having him show up and hog the last third of the premiere just made the episode seem rushed. Still, the villain’s torture of cleric/counselor Jaga in episode three certainly caught my interest for its perceived brutality, but I think that maybe a more surreptitious introduction may have served both the premiere and aforementioned scene better.

All in all, Lion-O’s more likable as a Will Friedle-voiced youngster, Cheetara’s ditched the leotard for a spunkier midriff-revealing number and the absence of Panthro suggests that his true introduction will be an impressive one. I’m looking forward to being derided as a “ThunderCats Ho”. (or is that a joke for the litterbox?)

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