TV REVIEW: Thundercats ROAR (Cartoon Network, 2020)
My childhood would have been a very different thing if not for the Rankin-Bass formula for making superheroes. If you don’t know what I mean, they had 3 superhero shows in the 80’s where they combined an animal based in an environment and linked all the heroes around it like ThunderCats (sword & sorcery & science), SilverHawks (science fantasy), and TigerSharks (a science fantasy show that was part of the cartoon called The Comic Strip). I recently got to see the latest and most controversial version of the IP, called Thundercats ROAR, which premiered in February 2020 on Cartoon Network (CN) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The premise: Everybody knows the ThunderCats as a mainstay for 80’s cartoon nostalgia, so the people at Warner Bros. Animation decided to re-imagine the show back in 2011. It was met with positive reviews from fans of the original show, but it was marketed poorly and placed in a time slot on Cartoon Network’s programming that catered to a niche audience. Worse off, any toys made for the show came long after the show premiered due to a number of rules surrounding merchandising made from programming intended for children, making any sales revenues nonexistent. Instead of making more episodes to please that fanbase, WB decided to build a show with the same IP for the audience with the most viewing energy: actual children.
The new designs were softened, squished, and shaped to fit what any focus groups were watching while also feeding into ideas about how to represent the characters in a more socially-conscious and social-media saturated environment. Many of the show’s detractors, upon seeing previews of the show back in 2019, decried its used of “CalArts” style (referencing a supposed simplified animation style from the California Institute of the Arts) and bad animation. Spurred on by social media campaigns to force Disney to re-shoot the poorly received “STAR WARS: The Last Jedi”, those same detractors called for a boycott of the show or a re-design/re-write. Instead CN kept it the way it was and didn’t do a lot of promotion from that point. Then the pandemic happened and the show was released while everyone was stuck at home…because what else are you gonna watch?
The show: Not much has changed for the Thunderian refugees known as the ThunderCats: they still live on Third Earth and fight Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living and his mutant mercenaries, protecting the Berbils and other denizens of the green-blue marble they call home. The big difference is a loosening of shape and definition when it comes to the characters. Most characters bear only a passing resemblance to their earlier counterparts, if only through the use of the same color schemes inherited from the 1985 series. Much of the technology of the ThunderCats seems to borrow from cat emojis and stickers. An odd thing: Lion-O is so different from either of the earlier incarnations, that he seems to be the result of the comic relief character Snarf being stuck in Lion-O’s body. Snarf is in this version, but he does not talk — much like the 2011’s version of the same character.
The writing is goofy and slapstick, borrowing heavily from CN’s other revamped series Teen Titans GO! (2013) which followed the same path from its predecessor, Teen Titans (2003). The voice acting leaves a LOT to be desired, with the exception of the mutants — full stop. The saving grace of the show is the music, using the 1985 soundtrack from Bernard Hoffer with some small additions. It really helped me to stay interested as I watched the show push its ideas of an entertaining ThunderCats yarn.
The verdict: It would be easy to say the show is bad or unacceptable or a betrayal of the legacy, so I will say this instead: I LOL’d. Much like Teen Titans GO!, I watch the show for an entertaining time and not its artistic merits. So much of it addressed questions and comments I had about the original show in a comical way OR amplified my opinions about the original show, like why is Jaga so useless (I love the old man, but…c’mon), and why is Lion-O the leader when there are other ThunderCats on the team far more mature and capable of doing the job better (royalty doesn’t mean crap when you’re marooned on an alien planet).
The artistic decision to turn the ThunderCats into jelly-bean people was not a wise one, as it sacrificed quality for quantity — you can turnaround a lot of episodes quickly if there’s little to no detail in the art. Playing on fan nostalgia for free advertising (THINK ABOUT IT) was a mark of genius. Hopefully, this show will gather greater acceptance over the season(s), and CN will actually put out merch for those who want it — unlike the other times they failed to do so.