ThunderCats episode 1 review

The new ThunderCats arrives on British telly - and here's our review of the series opener...

This review contains spoilers.

1. The Omens

ThunderCats is a subject very close to my heart. It’s responsible for my enduring love of cartoons and animation, my love of fantasy and sci-fi, and was my first introduction into the wonderful world of guitar solos. When I was growing up, the Code of the ThunderCats – Justice, Truth, Honour, Loyalty – was one that always echoed in the back of my head (it’s now engraved on the back of my iPod). I’ve even contemplated getting a ThunderCats tattoo.

I re-watch the episodes from time to time (although that’s really unnecessary considering I can recall them easily by closing my eyes and thinking for a bit), and although my opinion is arguably tinted with rose-coloured nostalgia, I still maintain that they’re the pinnacle of 80s animated storytelling, and hold up very strongly even today.

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If you can, it’s worth tracking down a copy of Exodus, the very first feature length episode, but make sure you get the PAL version as the American edition has some appalling cuts. Note that’s not the one you can find on the recent DVD releases (which also have some significant sound problems). You’ll probably have to do some internet scouring since the episodes have recently been removed from YouTube.

I’ve always said that the best fantasies are the ones which would exist even when you’re not reading about them – like those of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings and Pratchett’s Discworld books. Similarly, ThunderCats was careful to establish its mythology – an age-old war between Mutants and Cats; a hereditary young Lord of a ruling dynasty tasked with responsibilities which far outstrip his age; a young man struggling to prove his worth in a new land.

The other ThunderCats were there as mentors and guides – parental figures to a kid who had lost his home and family, and yet was desperate to carve out his own identity.

Because it took itself so seriously, it became much easier to be absorbed by its stories and characters. Exodus, for me, is still one of the greatest animated features ever made. There’s a real sense of gravitas about their escape and a palpable threat that the last of their race might not make it. Panthro comments starkly that their alternative is “we last ThunderCats perish in space”. There aren’t many pilots which can stir tears in their opening 20 minutes.

This is in no small part thanks to the music. Each character has their own leitmotif which reflects their personalities and sets the tone perfectly (which is partially why the recent DVD releases, with their botched sound, were so crippled). It’s really difficult to overstate how important music is when setting mood.

Naturally, some episodes are poorer than others. It always irked me that it was very careful to establish that Third Earth was chosen as their refuge because they could breathe the air, only to have them walking around in space without helmets in later episodes. And, of course, it was party to some of the sermonising ‘lesson of the week’ style endings common to GI Joe (although more natural and never crammed in as an afterthought). But for sheer imagination, thought and spirit, ThunderCats is top of the 80s cartoon heap.

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It’s safe to say then that this new series of ThunderCats caused me to cock rather a large eyebrow. Was this going to be another desecration of an important childhood memory? Thankfully, the result, while not having quite charm or the emotional heft of the 1985 original, shows a lot of promise, and is far removed enough from its predecessor to avoid besmirching a beloved classic.

The action starts off on Third Earth. It’s no longer the last refuge of a race fleeing genocidal apocalypse at the hand of the Mutants, but the ThunderCats’ home world. The war with the Lizardfolk still rages, and it’s one that the imperialistic Cats seem to be winning. Lizard stragglers are captured and placed in stocks in the market square: they’re both feared and distrusted.

But while the Cats are the undisputed masters of their kingdom, their lands haven’t been completely explored. The Book Of Omens speaks of mysterious undiscovered ‘technology’ but no one but the young lord Lion-O believes it to be anything but a fairytale.

Lion-O himself has been recast as a somewhat of a teen outcast, a prince who wanders the streets and bazaars in disguise, accompanied by his faithful companion Snarf, who in this incarnation can’t speak and resembles a feline Pikachu. He’s the Abu to Lion-O’s Aladdin.  He’s something of a disappointment to his father Claudus (voiced by Larry Kenney – an inspired casting choice as he was the voice of the original Lion-O), who is grooming him to one day inherit the crown.

Lion-O lives in the shadow of his older adopted brother Tygra, who many believe to be a better fit for future Lord of the ThunderCats. In the original series, Tygra was the architect, the inventor, the intellectual of the group and the voice of reason. Here, he’s an adolescent pest, a swaggering arrogant chump who puts Lion-O down at every turn.

This could become an interesting dynamic ripe for exploration in later episodes but for now Tygra is all too easy to dislike.

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In fact, the change in ThunderCats isn’t so much in the redefinition of its characters; it’s in its tone. 1985’s ThunderCats was about a team, essentially a family, struggling to survive on an unknown planet.  Consequently, camaraderie was the order of the day. Everyone was friends. Their enemies were hostile outsiders.

2011’s ThunderCats has a much darker and mature feel. It’s aimed squarely at a modern teen audience. Everyone is younger, feistier and has a neat line in cutting one-liners. So when Lion-O first meets Cheetara when she saves him in a tough fight, the first thing he does is utter that strangled ‘ulp’ of adolescent panic at her beauty, a sexualisation which 85’s ThunderCats would never even dream of touching upon. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, as a modern day version should address more complex issues – no doubt racism, treachery and teenage angst will crop up as themes in subsequent episodes.

Disappointingly, the musical cues are completely absent. While full of bombastic horns and strings which do an adequate job (and even excel when Lion-O is first presented with the Sword of Omens), there’s nothing that captures the imagination. And the iconic theme tune which practically sound-tracked a generation’s childhood has been replaced with an unmemorable refrain.

There’s still plenty more to unveil as the familiar team has yet to be formed, and no antagonists have yet been introduced. That’s another hurdle to get over, as 85’s Mumm-Ra is one of the most iconic cartoon villains ever created – that’s a lot to live up to. But a quick glance at the voice cast shows that Dee Bradley Baker is on vocal duties for Slithe – an indication that they’ve certainly got the right people on board.

If anything, this first episode is a tasty amuse bouche for what should hopefully be a satisfying main course, and ThunderCats has built a promising foundation on which to build future intrigue. Whether or not it keeps its promise remains to be seen.

Thundercats is screening on Cartoon Network.

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