Written by Michael Jelenic & Todd Casey
N.B.: This review refers to the special 1-hour pilot version of this episode. Also, please note that all reviews contain SPOILERS
How do you reinvent a classic? It’s a question that has been on the minds of TV and movie executives since the dawn of the medium. With the evolution of audiences’ tastes, striking just the right balance between the essence of the source material and a fresh, new approach is no mean feat.
It was this task that fell to the creators of the new ThunderCats animated series when Warner Brothers announced that the iconic series would be revisited and relaunched for a whole new generation. Widely regarded by animation lovers as the cream of the 1980s crop of cartoons, ThunderCats was beloved for its mixture of pro-social values intermixed with out-and-out action, as well as its superb Japanese animation, and so it’s quite easy to believe that the crew would have approached the task of updating it with both caution and excitement.
That caution and excitement is apparent, capturing and developing all of the original’s key themes in a way that is both powerful and extremely effective. On the one hand, the new show appears to have made some quite radical changes from the original – the relationships between characters such as Lion-O, Tygra and Cheetara have all altered so that gone is the cosy familiarity enjoyed by the original’s cast of heroic characters, to be replaced by a group fueled by friction. Gone too is the series’ premise of the ThunderCats fleeing their dying home planet Thundera to settle on Third Earth, this new version instead scaling this down so that Thundera is a kingdom on Third Earth.
And yet, when you dig a little deeper, you can see that all the hallmarks of what made the original ThunderCats so groundbreaking is still right at the heart of this remake. Because despite the friction between the lead characters, there is also an evident, underlying bond – a bond between the brothers, Lion-O and Tygra, that transcends their sibling rivalry, and a bond too between Lion-O and his father Claudus that resounds when the elder ThunderCat lord is killed. And even though the geography of the series has been scaled down to one planet of many kingdoms, the ThunderCats’ struggle to fit into a world where they are outsiders has never been illustrated more poignantly.
There are other aspects where the new series perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the old, none of these more so than the series’ powerful and exciting action sequences, truly showcasing just how powerful the Thunderian race is capable of being in a no-holds-barred conflict. The series also fills the audience with a real sense of exploration and adventure, a sense that was present in the original but built on to magnificent effect in this retelling thanks to the expanding story arc promised over the course of the season, as the ThunderCats step forth into the splendor and terrors of their home world.
But perhaps the most faithful homage to the original is the evolution of Lion-O as a character. Whilst his evolution in this new show is different, it is no less effective. Here, Lion-O displays immaturity yes, but is also shown, quite clearly and deliberately, to display greater wisdom and a moral center than his ThunderCat elders, giving the emphasis to the term “Sight Beyond Sight”. Lion-O’s relationship with Jaga, who serves as a surrogate father to the young prince, is given a greater emotional weight.
Indeed, if there’s one overriding thing that stands out about the new show, it’s the intention of the writers to add emotional weight to everything that happens. This is apparent in so many aspects of the premiere episode – the introduction of Grune from the show’s outset, for example, is a masterstroke, aiding in the audience’s sense of betrayal when they discover his evil intentions. Another example of this is the aforementioned death of Claudus, leading to Lion-O’s reluctant ascension to the ThunderCat throne, adding an emotional weight to his being thrust, suddenly and unexpectedly, into this role. Yet another example is how it is Mumm-Ra who wields the blade that kills Lion-O’s father, adding a cruel ruthlessness to his demonic evil, and adding an emotional weight to the conflict between him and Lion-O.
However, perhaps the most powerful aspect of added emotional weight (and arguably one of the most successful deviations for the original series) is how the writers have blurred the edges between good and evil, adding valid motivations to the “evil” characters’ actions and making the ThunderCats appear less noble courtesy of their treatment of other races on Third Earth, a concept that is reinforced powerfully when Grune enters in an elaborate carriage pulled by Lizard slaves. With this, suddenly the series is injected with a newfound emotional realism that resonates powerfully.
That’s not to say that there aren’t negative aspects to the new ThunderCats series. The character of Mumm-Ra, such a powerful threat in the original (thanks in no small part to the genius voice acting of the great Earl Hammond) feels less of a threat in this retelling, and the hints that he may formerly have been a ThunderCat ring rather hollow. The relational changes between Thundera and Third Earth have probably affected Mumm-Ra more dramatically than any other character – making him an ancient threat from the ThunderCats’ distant past somehow feels a less natural plot line than the concept of the power-lusting ancient devil priest being awakened by the ThunderCats’ arrival on his planet.
It could also be argued that the characters of Wilykit and Wilykat have been made more grating thanks to the decision to make them younger and thus more immature. In the original series these two characters were pre-adolescents, whereas in this remake they are children through and through, and some of their scenes have the potential to weaken the overall tone of the show.
Nevertheless, these minor criticisms aside, the new ThunderCats series promises to present ThunderFans new and old with a mixture of powerful mythology, breathtaking action, engaging character development and a strong, emotional center anchoring the audience’s attention firmly to the characters.
Feel the magic, hear the roar – the ThunderCats are BACK!
Written by Chris (He-Fan)
|In the original ThunderCats animated series, the Lizards shown here were known as Reptillians.|
|Lion-O’s father Claudus is voiced by Larry Kenney, a veteran voiceover artist best known for his portrayal of Lion-O in the classic ThunderCats animated series!|