Friday, October 14, 2011

"Thundercats" Ho!

Now this is how you do a reboot. You take a much-beloved, nostalgic property with a lot of room for improvement, keep the things that people love, toss the things that didn't work, put in the money to give the production values a big upgrade, and have creators at the helm who love and understand he original, but who also have the know-how to put together something modern viewers will enjoy. All the boxes have been ticked for the new Cartoon Network version of "Thundercats," which brings back Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, and all your other favorites back in new anime incarnations.

Before you recoil at the thought of moe and mecha invading the "Thundercats" universe, let me set the scene. The new "Thundercats" places young Lion-O (Will Freidle) as prince and heir to the throne of the quasi-feudal kingdom of Thundera, home of the Thundercats. Instead of being a child in an adult body, he's a typical adolescent, distracted by tales of mythological technology and occasionally going out in disguise and getting into fights with ruffians. His adopted older brother Tygra (Matthew Mercer) is more level-headed and more capable, but a bit of a jerk to his younger brother.

However, there's not much time to squabble because the kingdom is soon under attack by the forces of the evil Mumm-Ra (Robin Atkin Downes) and his army of lizards. King Claudus (Lenny Kenney, the original Lion-O) puts up a good fight, but in the end Thundera is lost. And so, Lion-O is left to take up the Sword of Omens and lead a scrappy band of the remaining Thundercats on a long journey to regain his kingdom. Other regulars include the sleekly sexy Cheetara (Emmanuelle Chriqui), mischeivous street kids WilyKat (Eamon Pirruccello) and WilyKit (Madeleine Hall), avuncular Panthro (Kevin Michael Richardson), wizardly Jaga (Corey Burton), and Snarf (Satomi Kohrogi), a tubby sidekick/pet who doesn't speak in this version. Mumm-Ra's recurring underlings include the turncoat Grune (Clancy Brown) and a lizard heavy named Slithe (Dee Bradley Baker).

Visually, the new series looks like a mid-90s epic fantasy anime, and specifically Shoji Kowamori's "Vision of Escaflowne," with its lush environments, mix of low and high technology, and anthropomorphized cat characters. The designs feature interesting details, the animation is fluid, and the direction is top notch. I don't think it compares to the higher-end productions that have come out of Japan in recent years, but it's still a considerable leap in quality from the 80s version. Moreover, "Thundercats" follows the pattern of a typical anime action series, with an ongoing narrative that switches between plot-heavy and self contained episodes. And to my surprise, there actually turns out to be quite a bit of plot - much of it drawn directly from the older series. However the treatment of the material has been a bit more serious and a bit more in depth, though plenty of humor and cheesy moments keep things light. It wouldn't be "Thundercats" without the cheesiness after all.

The reaction to the show has been almost uniformly positive, and especially among the older fans who grew up with the original "Thundercats." My own memories are pretty hazy, but the show's creators have definitely been using the established "Thundercats" mythology to give the new series more texture and history. It has its own attitude and its own ideas, but there's also a comforting sense that the people in charge love and cherish the source materal. New viewers don't need to know anything about the older incarnation to enjoy it, but those who are familiar with the original show will find cameos of minor characters and other references in abundance. Online discussions of the current episodes frequently bring up old enemies or storylines that fans would like to see return in the new series. That's a vote of confidence if I ever saw one.

At the same time the creators have been doing a fantastic job with original characters. The stand-alone episodes have been my favorites so far, with Lion-O encountering a colony of plant people and getting himself caught up in an extended "Usagi Yojimbo" homage. The new "Thundercats" isn't just updating Third Earth and Thundera, but expanding them. There are intriguing new layers, like the suggestion that the dominance of the Thundercats over the other anthropomorphic animal races may have been the result of past injustices. Nothing too dark or weighty, but it's opening more terrain for the 'Cats to explore.

I like the show's ambition and the approach it's taken so far, so I'm rooting for its success. I'd be much happier with the recent surge in reboots if more of them were like this.

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