ThunderCats are on the move again — this time, as ThunderCats Roar, a traditionally animated series on Cartoon Network that hits this month. This marks the third version of the franchise to hit television screens, almost ten years after a 26-episode reboot of the series in 2011. The original ThunderCats series aired in the '80s, introducing viewers the world over to the eponymous ThunderCats, the anthropomorphic feline heroes who battled various animalistic villains on the planet of Third Earth, later hinted to be a future version of our own Earth. The main character is Lion-O (who, as his name suggests, is a humanoid lion), who wields the powerful Sword of Omens and leads the other ThunderCats in battle against the undead sorcerer, Mumm-Ra, and his group of evil Mutants.
But for the producers, Victor Courtright and Marly Halpern-Graser, it was more than just a reboot of a beloved show — it was something that shaped their lives.
"I had a very personal relationship with the show," said Courtright, who grew up watching the '80s version of ThunderCats. So he relished the opportunity to revisit the series in his college years when he studied animation. "I looked at a lot of the designs and absorbing it and making it part of the visual library in my head," said the producer. "I then took it into my career in animation, and developed my own sensibilities, with all this at the back of my head."
Besides Western animation, such as Disney movies like Bambi, Courtright also appreciated Japanese anime like Cowboy Bebop, Crayon Shin-chan, and the works of Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli fame). Due to the fewer number of drawings per second for anime (as Japanese anime usually works with lower budgets than Western animation), the focus in Japanese anime is more on layout, with a strong sense of motion. "So this led me to what my current style preferences are," said Courtright.
But when the opening titles of ThunderCats Roar were first revealed in May 2018, not all fans were pleased — partly because of the cartoonish, super deformed character designs, and the apparent slapstick tone of the series, which was geared towards younger viewers. This was in stark contrast to the 2011 reboot, which took a more mature, darker, and cinematic approach to the series.
"I was a little surprised that for so many people, this might not be their cup of tea," said Courtright. "But I hope that when they start watching the show, they will see what we've done with the characters they loved from the original show, and are reminded of the nostalgia that we're bringing to the table."
It's not a straight up carbon copy of the'80s show though — the individual ThunderCats have more clearly defined personality traits, which comes out in their dialogue and interactions.
"The ThunderCats in the original 80's show, they were purely heroic, cookie-cutter characters. But this is a comedy show, and we wanted to find a unique twist to the characters," said Courtright. "So Tygra, for example, we made him a more responsible, dad-like figure to the others (Tygra was presented more as the second-in-command of the ThunderCats in the original series)."
It's not just the protagonists who were reimagined, Courtright shared. "We found something likeable with even some of the most loath-able villains from the original show, like Slithe and Mumm-Ra, they have become such likeable bad guys at this point."
Other changes include the opening theme, which doesn't make use of the original ThunderCats score. But fans of the original will definitely recognise the original ThunderCats theme during the show — like during the fight music and in the closing credits. This labour of love to the original features everything a ThunderCats fan could hope to see in a reboot, the Cat's Lair (their base), the ThunderTank (their main mode of transportation), Lion-O's Claw Shield, and even the special powers of the Sword of Omens (like Sight Beyond Sight).
"I wanted to focus more on the original lore of the '80s series," said Courtright, "so elements of the 2011 one doesn't really come into play. But probably two thirds of our episodes are pulled from elements of the'80s show. So we're referencing that quite a bit."
Halpern-Graser took the example of '80s episode, Mandora — The Evil Chaser, an episode where the ThunderCats have to help an outer space police officer catch criminals, and how it was translated into Thundercats Roar. "We keep the plot pretty much the same, we just try to find the comedic element that was already there in the original. But we take the story that they did in 22 minutes, and we do it in 11. And speeding it up basically turns that same story into the tone of our show."
ThunderCats Roar follows the short form, 10-12 minute format of recent animated series, like Justice League Action and DC Super Hero Girls. "But this isn't something new to American comedy animation", explained Halpern-Graser. "This short form has been a pretty consistent format for some time, just that they'd split a 22 minute show into two 11 minute segments." He cited the examples of Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, as well as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies on Adult Swim, which have been using the 11-minute format for some time.
"But what I really love about 11 minutes, is that if you do 22 minutes, you'll need an A and B story, but with 11 minutes you can hit the ground running and focus entirely on one A story and just hit that as hard and fast as you can. And I really love the pace that it forces you to adopt, which lends itself to a zany sort of comedy, which is sort of what we're doing," said Halpern-Graser
So what's in store for the future of ThunderCats Roar? Will we see the Lunataks (the extremely powerful villains who appeared in later seasons of the original series), and the three other ThunderCats (Pumyra, Bengali, and Lynx-O)?
"Maaaaaaybeeeeeeee," teased Courtright.
"I would say some of those characters will be in Season 1, and everyone in the show eventually if we get to make it long enough," laughed Halpern-Graser.
ThunderCats Roar debuts 23 May and airs on Saturdays and Sundays, at 1pm on Cartoon Network (Starhub TV Ch 316, Singtel TV Ch 226).
Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.
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