Analyzing and Improving Thundercats 2011
The original Thundercats was notable for being a franchise built from the ground up. It took place in another universe, the entire cast was inhuman, and equal parts fantasy and science fiction meshed to nearly create a new genre. Although being fairly low budget and silly by today's standards, it garnered a cult following that carried through into later generations who appreciated the uniqueness of the property or enjoyed the nostalgia.
Now Thundercats 2011 has begun and Cartoon Network is trying to resurrect the characters and story with a new take on the events and indeed the entire world of Lion-O and his fellow feline warriors in arms.
Does it succeed (perhaps even exceed) its progenitor, or fall victim to the same issues so rife in the remake-mad entertainment industry?
The truth, as it so often does, falls somewhere in between
1: The change of setting is a terrific idea. The original Thundercats despite having swords and magic was specifically science fiction based beginning with a starship and having the Thundercats ride around in vehicles. In a stroke of brilliance the new show pushes back the clock and makes the Thundercat society entirely medieval, a subplot circulating about mythical 'technology', which goes some ways to explain the presence of futuristic machines later on but also the absence of them in Thundara. A fantasy show with swords and sandals has been sadly lacking on TV, and its great to see a cartoon unafraid to feature characters essentially dressed and armed in a martial style without modern embellishment, making their actions feel more like they require skill and cunning then dependence upon special devices. These choices also set the new show apart from the old and provide for it a unique identity. Someone actually put some thought into making the world different but keeping it interesting and also remaining faithful to many of the ideas the original show had in terms of having warriors, kings, a sword, and magic but leaving the door open for robots, laser guns, and perhaps space craft as the series continues.
2: There is much more development for the characters. Lion-O in the original series, although introduced as a cub in the first episode, was rarely able to show true personality or conflict in his nature because of the limitations of classic cartoons. In the new series he harbors jealousy for his brother, a desire to prove himself a king, vengeful feelings against Mum-Ra, and an invested interest as well as mistrust of technology after its used against his people. The mutants in the original series have been changed to lizard people which keeps consistent with the theme of animal-human creatures, and unlike their forebears they are provided with real reasons they want to attack the Thundercats, specifically generations of degradation and starvation. Tygra is given a back-story as well as WilyKat and WilyKit and these not only remain accurate to the cast as they have been established but also afford true motivation and depth of characterization. It's really welcome to see the new writers going beyond simply exhibiting the archetypes and truly investigating the drives and beliefs, vices and virtues behind the heroes and villains.
3: There's a little more integrity and maturity to Thundercats 2011 then the original. Whereas in the original series Thundara exploded in the distance, the new show has the watcher present with its destruction stone by stone. In the original no one died on screen truly despite weapons being sharp or explosive, but Thundercats 2011 is unafraid to show armies hurled into the air by bombs and major characters die by daggers or laser blasts and are even held funerals for. Events, especially battle, seem to have consequences and as such the risk to the heroes is more real. Characters also have concerns about food, harsh climates, and money so again unlike the original show there's an indication that there are real issues being dealt with, not just a series of adventures in between which the characters are well tended to and have no cares for their lives. Darker themes like betrayal, prejudice, revenge and loss strike harder then the initial moral lessons that seemed tacked on at the end of the first show's episodes. Because of heightened sense of jeopardy and importance Thundercats 2011 feels much more like a story or a film then an episode-by-episode cartoon in many ways.
What Doesn't Work
1: Although the mechanics of Thundercats 2011 are more fully explained there are still a number of inconsistencies, especially where technology and magic are concerned. The excuse 'it's a kids show' just don't hold up given the other bold risks the show takes. Its own quality makes its lazier aspects loom and it deserves better for all it has improved on.
2: There is a bizarre and frankly annoying habit of the show to rely on clichés. There are far too many references to other things that are so integral to the episodes they're in that they distract and hurt the overall suspension of disbelief. Other times the dialogue is hack to the point of wincing which is again most disconcerting for a show which gets so much right otherwise.
3: The morality is confused. Questions about right and wrong are raised and then dropped. Characters who are supposed to be our protagonists act irrationally, meanly, wrongly but never see reprisal or learn the error of their ways. Likewise enemies are established as having justifications and little happens to make these justifications wrong, however they still sneer and are treated as villains without question by the show. Given how close Thundercats 2011 gets to real complex moral quandaries this is disappointing.
The Results of These Problems
1: The idea of mythical technology is an interesting one and likewise the revelation that technology is both a wonder and a horror of war was poignant and powerful. However the exact nature of it and magic is a confused issue that makes events confusing at times. The clerics of Thundara run at supernatural speeds. Is this a magical thing? Never explained. Jaga can hurl lightning. So magic is a real force? Where does it come from? If technology is considered mythical, why do the Thundercats later find a flying vehicle hovering over The Sea of Sand (a place they all seem to know) indicating anyone who traveled there would know about technology easily? Do the Thundercats ever leave their city? The lizards accuse them of hording food. Do they maintain it in the city or grow and cultivate it outside the walls? If so, where have the lizards been living? Why if the lizards have access to mech walkers and bombs do many of them still carry shields and crude swords and why have they been losing the war against the Thundercats? Is The Sword of Omens magical or technological? Why is the Book of Omens about technology when 'omens' would imply prophesy? Where did the Black Market dealer travel to get the bomb he gives to Lion-O if later on the Thundercats travel outside the city and find a desert and not much else? Where are there tons of lizards wandering around Thundara during its attack and they are later seen looting it, but in other scenes the Thundercats are able to hold a funeral and talk freely in the open without being attacked or seen?
Maybe these questions will be answered in later episodes, but for now since so much is explained the blatant negations of information are jarring. These problems unfortunately feel more like issues the writers felt there was no need to look into rather then cliffhangers for later developments.
2: Dialogue about 'Believing in yourself' that is never followed up on, the captain of an airship who quotes Captain Ahab word for word, Lion-O screaming 'no!' at the loss of his love ones, and generally a sense of derivative formula fantasy events cheapens what could have been a daring experiment in animation. The main issue is that the trappings of Thundercats 2011 is an epic clash of ideals and species, but when hoary old lines and ideas creep to the surface it comes across as laziness. You cannot for a moment take seriously a person who not only follows the story of Captain Ahab blow by blow but also quote him without a line out of place. It just feels like the writer either assumed the audience wouldn't know who Ahab was or wanted the reference so badly he decided to ignore story and continuity and crammed it in. Likewise tired concepts and catchphrases without any payoff seem like placeholders that were never removed in a first draft.
The exceptions to this are including things like the 'Thundercats
HO!' battle cry. This scene showed the proper way to introduce an old concept in a new way and stay true to the plot and events surrounding it.
The Ahab fish however represents the opposite: a lethargic, worn-out, and irritatingly off-putting allusion that almost destroyed all respect I had for the new series.
3: It seems like so many modern day tales the writers have no idea what to think of morality. In general they're against killing and war, yet they believe you should fight to preserve and defend what is good. The problem is without committing to either ideal the story ends up introducing our main character Lion-O by having him get into a street fight with a vendor whose only crime is roughing up a dog-person for coming near his wares. Later on the heroes participate in their first combined fight by heroically
beating up mostly unarmed civilians with their superior skill and weaponry. The implication is that racism is so wrong anyone who thinks about it deserves to be beaten, but other offenses like stealing are made by the main characters like WilyKat and WilyKit, and their crimes are never punished or brought up in a negative light. The beginning narration declares that Thundara and its king ruled in 'great wisdom and goodness' but the city is shown to be full of criminals, corrupt nobles, paranoid citizens and according to the lizard-people the cats have been oppressing them for years and leaving them to starve. Lion-O also is headstrong and borderline mean to others, treating the suggestions of his comrades with distain, refusing to help people in need if it will slow down his personal goals, harboring hateful jealousy of his brother, shirking his responsibilities, and lashing out in violence if anyone upsets him.
And yet endlessly every character says he's an even better king then his father!
Characters who are truly moral, like Jaga who is faithful and courageous, Snarf who is loyal and alert and Tygra who is responsible and level-headed, tend to be ignored by both the other heroes and the show itself, their actions in good will usually leading to little and not defending them from terrible events.
A lot of problems in the show also seem to constantly have the solution of violence. If people are thinking the wrong way, beat them up and without any reprisal to you the situation will be dealt with. The strength of the causes and righteousness of the characters is more often then not determined by how powerful their weapons are.
Without any consistent morality all pretenses to rules of behavior fall flat and the lessons about appropriate behavior or ways of thinking seem just as pointless as the messages in the original series, except even those had consistency.
Fixing These Problems
1: There should be much more consideration put into the way things work and why in Thundara and the surrounding world of the show.
2: Instead of using tropes as a crutch, the ongoing story should present its own unique opportunities.
3: There should be either a true investigation of the shades of morality or a close adherence to one way of looking at good and evil if the subject is going to be so prominent in the show.
1: It's not difficult to actually compile behind the scenes consideration of the world of a story. Thudara shouldn't just be a ready-made cat kingdom; it should be an empire with its own traditions, history, and style. The statues should represent to the authors specific heroes and events from its past. The weapons and armor of the cats should be designed not at random but to fulfill specific functions. Every common question should have a ready answer that was considered from the beginning. Why can clerics run so fast? There should be an answer. Why is making The Sword of Omens small and sliding it into the claw gauntlet a useful thing? This should also have an answer someone mentions or we see in action if the question arises. There should be a true clear eye turned to the underlying reason behind the disappearance of technology, its descent into legend, the origins and ways of magic, and the war between cats and lizards. Any back-story, any explanation only helps the experience of an immersive story well told.
2: The flow of Thundercats 2011 shouldn't depend upon leeching off popular culture, popular literature or truisms from other productions. There should be a unique individuality to the show that leads into distinctive adventures and circumstances. The characters, villains and heroes, were given more attention in the recent show so individual stories about each should provide more then enough options for episode plots. What about an episode concerning Lion-O as a very young cub learning from his father? How about an episode that reveals the history of the lizard commander Slythe? Maybe an episode surrounding the adventures of WilyKat and Kit and their attempts to find the lost city of Eldara? If you establish innovative ideas then capitalize on them! Don't take the route of least resistance and present the same old things in the same old ways.
3: In conflict there is always at least two sides to the argument. Personally I subscribe to a system of objective good and evil actions, but even outside of that there should be a consistent form of what kind of moral law runs the Thundercats 2011 universe. If morals are ambiguous then this should stay true. But if moral laws are to be held to they should stay the same as well. Killing may be a wrong action. Then let it be so. This doesn't mean the heroes can't ever kill or that killing is never justified, but killing should never be treated as intrinsically heroic and good. Likewise with stealing, hurting people, or being unkind. If these things are wrong they should stay so no matter if its heroes or villains performing the actions. There doesn't need to be magical reprisal for wrong doing, but the fact that an action is wrong by itself should be stated in some way if that's the intention. If not you wind up with the lizards being evil because they make war and destroy things, but the Thundercats praised because they
make war and destroy things.
Life is about the choice of morality. Justification does not change based on your race or creed. It's your ACTIONS that determine your moral stance, and these can be the actions of hero and villain alike.
The watchwords for Thundercats 2011 should be consistency and depth, and unlike many recent shows they actually can be! The purpose statement of the designers for the show reboot was to make a program likened to a feature movie rather then an episodic cartoon. There have been definite strides towards this higher ideal, but in the second episode there's been a lot of steps backwards. The creators need to have faith in their property, to push beyond it being a commercial for a new line of toys and into a truly memorable and meaningful show to garner the same kind of cult status as the original in the future. Ideally.
If not it would be at least nice for the show to pick a tone and stick with it. If it's a young adults show, don't be afraid to investigate more mature themes and focus on character growth. If it a kids show, maybe have less graphic torture sequences?
The new Thundercats is still young and has shown great potential. I hope future episodes will pull it out from the shadow of the original, allow it to develop its own uniqueness, and capture a new audience for at least a few seasons of fantasy/action excitement at last resting fondly remembered and oft replayed by those who recall it as a fine part of their childhoods.