Judge Erich Asperschlager has sight beyond sight, but only because his glasses are so thick.
Our reviews of ThunderCats (1985) Season One, Volume Two (published February 14th, 2006), ThunderCats (1987) Season Two, Volume One (published May 24th, 2006), ThunderCats (1987) Season Two, Volume Two (published January 17th, 2007), Thundercats (2011) Season One, Book 2 (published July 21st, 2012), and Thundercats (1985) Season One, Part One (published July 12th, 2011) are also available.
Those of us who grew up in the '80s remember how great cartoons used to be. Ah, the ignorance of youth. The truth is, those "classic" shows weren't all that great. Don't believe me? Try rewatching G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe with adult eyes and you'll see just how rushed, cheap, and ridiculous they are. Most were just toy commercials disguised as entertainment, made to sell molded plastic robots, soldiers, warriors—and human-cat hybrids. The original ThunderCats first aired in 1985, smack dab in the middle of my formative years. I still have fond, if hazy, memories of the show, which remain intact because I never made the mistake of watching it again.
In 2010, Warner Bros. Animation announced they were rebooting ThunderCats, with a new series on Cartoon Network. The anime-inspired concept art excited some fans and worried others. I took one look and wrote it off as another shameless nostalgia cash-in—a cynical retread of an idea that was silly in the '80s and sounded even sillier today. I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Despite some lingering silliness, ThunderCats is a substantial bit of fantasy aimed at an older audience. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to high-five my inner child.
Facts of the Case
ThunderCats: Season One, Book One collects the series' first 8 episodes:
• "Omens Part One"
ThunderCats builds on the barebones mythology and characters from the original series. Instead of starting off with the main characters all together on a spaceship, the new series begins on Third Earth. Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Snarf, and friends form a loose band of survivors, adrift after the destruction of Thundera at the hands of the villainous Mumm-Ra. If you watched the '80s show, that last sentence made sense. If not, don't worry about the names and places, or the fact that this show is about alien cat-people. There's still plenty to enjoy.
Fantasy fans will find familiar themes and tropes, from the hot-headed protagonist to the chesty female warrior. Lion-O's journey to find the mythical Book of Omens borrows as much from Joseph Campbell and George Lucas as The Lion King (yes, I see the irony). ThunderCats rises above the cliches, though, thanks to imaginative set-pieces and storytelling. The main quest arc of these early episodes is good treasure hunting fun, with stops every few episodes for mini-adventures that work well both as part of the larger story and as standalone tales. The action-packed "Ramlak Rising" tests Lion-O's resolve to win at any cost, when our heroes are captured by an Ahab-esque fish captain who sails a sea of sand on a lightning-spewing hover boat that's just as cool as it sounds. "Song of the Petalars" is about quiet courage, introducing a diminutive civilization of plant people—refugees in search of a way home whose lives last only one day. All of the episodes here are part of the Book of Omens arc except for one: "The Duelist and the Drifter," a strong standalone about Lion-O's encounter with a stranger who wants his sword, and a floating rabbit-man with a mysterious past.
Instead of the disposable storylines that plague '80s cartoons, ThunderCats deals with weighty themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, betrayal, and the blurred line between technology and magic. It uses flashbacks to flesh out character relationships and the sociopolitical history of Third Earth. While it's not exactly Tolkien, ThunderCats has a far richer mythology than its original incarnation.
To go with the more serious storytelling, ThunderCats has a new, anime-inspired look, courtesy of Japanese house Studio 4°C. The visuals don't break new ground, but the style allows for some impressive effects that shine on DVD. Color, black levels, and detail are all reasonably strong. So is the 2.0 Stereo soundtrack, serving up the dialogue, effects, and Kevin Kliesch's boisterous score in a well-balanced and effective way.
As is usually the case with these incremental TV-on-DVD releases, there are no bonus features.
I don't want to oversell ThunderCats. As much as I loved the original series as a kid, the basic idea of human-animal hybrids at war with a cosmic mummy is kind of dumb. Still, it's way better than it has any right to be, with character-focused storytelling, thrilling action, and ideas that go beyond your average kids show. Plus, most of the male characters sound like movie trailer narrators. How cool is that?
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