“ThunderCats” on Cartoon Network
Of all the nostalgic ’80s properties, “ThunderCats” has had one of the longest life spans. You can thank all the hipster nerds gobbling up logo-stamped T-shirts at Hot Topic for keeping the show’s image alive. No surprise, therefore, that—hot on the heels of its revival of fellow ’80s icon “Voltron: Defender of the Universe”—Cartoon Network has decided to reboot the hell out of “ThunderCats” for a new/old generation.
The show is a ground-up rebuild of the old series, which will certainly inspire debate between those who genuinely remember the series and those who were only wearing the T-shirts for ironic reasons. Expectedly, the series has taken on a much more anime look to it (courtesy of Studio 4°C, contributors to The Animatrix). The original borrowed a lot of style hints from the Japanese, though, so the look isn’t totally out of place. Sadly, there’s no way to reproduce the incredible watercolor palette of the original Rankin/Bass series. The new animation looks dynamic, but it lacks the distinctive, painterly qualities of the old animation.
The story, on the other hand, is an unqualified upgrade. We start with our catlike heroes (Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, WilyKat, WilyKit and Snarf), all of whom barely cross paths with one another by the end of the show’s hour-long pilot. Cheetara exposes a lot more skin (fur?) in this go-around, Snarf is left mercifully mute and nearly all of the juvenile humor has vanished—but other than that, our main characters are much as they were back in 1985. In the original, these characters were thrown together after their spaceship crash-landed on the unexplored world known as Third Earth. Here, they’re citizens of a feudal kingdom at war with various other mutated animal races. The series now blends science fiction and fantasy in even heavier doses, resulting in a distinct “Heavy Metal magazine gone PG-13” vibe. Subplots about racism, slavery and a medieval caste system give the show a much darker, more serious bent. Believe it or not, there are several times in the first hour alone when jaw-dropping moments of action and drama explode off the screen. Nostalgia will only get you so far—but actual, palpable excitement will keep fans old and new coming back week after week.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of nods to the original series. Larry Kenney, the original voice of Lion-O, returns as Lion-O’s father. Über-villain Mumm-Ra shows up, of course, as the show’s Big Bad. And the continuing storyline leaves loads of room to introduce characters, objects and locations from the ’85-’90 run. As far as reboots go, “ThunderCats” is the model to emulate: grown-up, reverential, well thought-out and packed with excitement. This one is king of the ’Cats.
“ThunderCats” premieres Friday, July 29, at 9 p.m. on Cartoon Network.