Thundercats Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Thundercats are on the move! Thundercats are loose!

    Feel the magic! Hear the roar! Thundercats are loose!

    Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thundercats!

    Although made in 1983, Thundercats didn't surface on TV until 1985. Now, I'd been a fan of He-Man, my affection dropping off only as I reached the age when girls became something more than just targets for stone-throwing. And, if I remember correctly, Thundercats only clawed its way onto UK television after He-Man had been on for a couple of years and I had seriously moved onto other stuff by then, leaving such kiddie-cartoon fare way behind. I remember the action figures and the theme-tune but, beyond that, I couldn't have told you a thing about the show. But, having reviewed the recent He-Man box-set, and thoroughly enjoyed it too, it was a welcome surprise to receive this first batch of 33 episodes from Thundercats Season 1. And, to be honest, I expected little more than a He-Man retread ... and probably nowhere near as good. Well, how wrong I was. Thundercats, whilst still composed of the same basic moralistic, life-lesson-inspiring fantasy/sci-fi schtick provides much better animation and characters, far more tension and excitement and considerably more variety in plotting. Coming over like the stage-show Cats on super-steroids, the team-up here had a more convincing relationship with one another, a proper agenda in their fight for survival and they were just so ... well, cool.

    When their planet, Thundera, becomes unstable, the last surviving members of a noble race of cat people - Thundercats - escape and plot a course for a similar type of world upon which to start a new life. But, on route, their spacecraft has a few technical hitches that render their navigational systems useless. So, ushering the others into cryogenic chambers for the long voyage, their leader, Jaga, takes the controls to guide to the ship manually to safety. However, he does not survive the journey across the cosmos, switching to auto-pilot only with his final gasp and hoping that the last of his clan will make it to the new world in one piece. And if all this exciting drama is not enough for just the first episode, then how about their enemies, a bunch of nefarious mutants, that have pursued them? Soon to become the regular villains of the piece, these guys are actually far more entertaining than the colourful bunch of miscreants that harangued He-Man on a daily basis. Sadly, they are just as bumbling in their tactics, despite being much more fully-rounded, better-scripted characters. Crashing on the same planet, they eventually hook up with the evil Mumm-ra, a hideous demon, thousands of years old, who thinks that he rules the place from his spooky old pyramid, and he becomes their leader. Appearing in a cloak, his face split with jagged fangs and his eyes a glowing demonic red, Mumm-ra is a frightening enough nemesis for any band of rippling-physique superheroes. But when he throws off the cloak and reveals his own monstrously muscle-bound body, wrapped in the shreds of his mummy-bandages, and delivers that roar of pure rage, he conjures up a truly terrifying vision, indeed. Even when he sits an episode out, you can still catch this awesome transformation during the opening titles.

    The Thundercats, themselves, are comprised of Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, Lion-O and the inquisitive thunder-kittens, Wily-Kit and Wily-Kat. The ghostly vestiges of the self-sacrificial Jaga often reappear to lend advice and wisdom along the way, Ben Kenobi-style, and the inevitable cute, comedy sidekick comes in the form of Snarf - a rainbow-coloured clown-cat, who acts as a less-then-super-powered nursemaid for Lion-O, who was only a child when his kin fled Thundera. When they awaken from their crashed cryogenic capsules on what will come to be called Third Earth, some ageing has taken place and Lion-O, destined for great things, has grown physically into an adult, although he still retains the recklessness and naivete of his younger self. So, much as in the same way that Orco hung around with He-Man, Snarf still finds that his services are required to keep the impetuous Lord Lion-O in order. Despite some klutzy comedy interludes, Snarf is actually not that bad and the slapstick is far better integrated into the show than the likes of Orco's in He-Man, which often seemed badly tacked-on. His little signature tune isn't anywhere near as annoying as Orco's, either.

    “Sword of Omens ... give me sight beyond sight!”

    Lion-O, Lord of the Thundercats, is obviously the main hero of the pride. With flame-red hair - which must have been a plus for young, ginger-nutted fans - he holds aloft the mystical Sword Of Omens and utters the above quotation, turning what is, in reality, just a dagger into a fully-fledged broadsword and the resplendent jewel embedded within its ornate hilt into the all-seeing Eye Of Thundera - apparently the seed of his peoples' power. It is certainly derived from the whole Power of Greyskull shebang, but it takes the process a little further with Lion-O able to look into the eye and see threats coming a mile off, or the whereabouts of his fellow Cats when in jeopardy. And whereas the handy gimmick of such a magical get-out-of-jail-free card actually became a little tedious and routine in He-Man, it never seems to lose its exciting edge in Thundercats. Moreover, it is used more as a device to bring the team together in times of crisis, enabling the core-ethics of the group dynamic to come to the fore.

    “Imagine that, Lion-O, a planet full of Snurfs!”

    Next in line comes Panthro, who is the Mr. T of this particular team. A mighty muscled brawler with enough incredible engineering skills to ensure that the many sci-fi vehicles and machinery they use are kept in optimum condition. Distinctly lacking in the Wolverine-ish big hair of the others (in keeping with his sleek-headed namesake), he sports massive, pointy ears, a bluish tinge and the most awkward and uncomfortable body armour you can imagine - huge spikes on his leather cross-straps that would make it impossible to sit back in a seat (as he does so often at the wheel of the versatile ThunderTank) or engage in a platonic group hug (as he does only once in a while - presumably because of the possible injuries inflicted upon his friends). But the thing that I really want to talk about is his unique choice of weapon, which is a pair of nunchuckas! Now, someone please tell me, when this show was aired on UK TV back in the 80's, did you see him using these? The point is that this was the era in which these specific martial arts weapons were considered so completely dangerous that even their image was removed from the poster for Bruce Lee's seminal Enter The Dragon, let alone any scene that saw them being wielded. So, I'm having a lot of difficulty working out how the same authorities could have allowed them to appear so gratuitously in a kid's cartoon show - even if they were being used to fight evil. Help me out, folks ... were they in, or out?

    “The Eye of Thundera is no match for the Rat's Eye!”

    Then we get Tygra who I thought, at first, would become my favourite. Like the animal he is named after, he has black stripes running through his wacky coiffure and muscle-suit, making him the most striking of the feral mob. The oldest, now that Jaga has gone, he is also the wisest and he certainly possesses a knack for getting Lion-O out of a tight spot. The intellectual one, he is also a skilled architect and was the principal designer behind the formidable Cat's Lair, the fortress-like home of the Thundercats. He carries a pretty impressive bolo that comes with some mystical tricks, like rendering him invisible, which he uses with agility, power and wisdom. Sadly, after a promising start, I found him less appealing as the show went on. A good and reliable member of the team he, nevertheless, seemed the least adventurous of the crew, more inclined to offer technical advice and emphasise the gravity of a particular crisis than leap into action. But there's little to complain about when we get to the babe of the bunch in the fleet-footed Cheetara, a highly athletic uber-minx who doesn't shy away from the danger-zone. With a dappling of cheetah-spots splashed across her toned-hips and shoulders and a caramel colour-scheme making her that bit tastier, she's the one you'd really want coming to your rescue when the odds are against you. Besides, she'd be the quickest to get there, anyway. She fights with another martial arts weapon in a long staff. I have to say how much I admire the way the martial arts are portrayed in the show - never excessive and emphasising finesse over brutality. It's not the way Bruce would have done it. A clever aspect of her character, that makes a quite unique play on what could be interpreted as her maternal instincts, is her gift for psychic empathy with her surroundings and/or other characters. There is a side-effect to this sixth sense though, which is a savage draining of her strength that can effectively leave her out of action for awhile. But one really annoying thing about Cheetara is her painfully slow speech-pattern, which is a tad ironic considering her major ability is speed. Her voice crawls out of her mouth with the depth and soulless-ness of a droning school-mistress. What a let down ... she should be positively purring. Another occasional female character, a galactic cop called Mandora, features the same affliction but, if anything, is actually and deeper than Cheetara.

    “That policewoman's always in trouble.”

    “That's the business she's in.”

    The precocious and investigative Wily-Kit and Wily-Kat were a bit of a worry at first. Practically identical, the two air-surf their way around the colourful new environment with the typical knack that kittens have for getting into trouble. With the mutants on the prowl and many other dangers lurking about the place, these two could easily have ended up being the regular plot-starter, but again, I was pleasantly surprised at how un-stereotypical they were. Kit, the female of the two, is the more adventurous one, with her brother, Wily-Kat often dragged into situations that are plainly out of their depth. But the annoyance factor is given an obvious nudge into overdrive with the inclusion of some robot-teddies called Berbils, one of the first races that the Thundercats meet upon their arrival on Third Earth. Even if they help with the construction of Cat's Lair, they are a little too reminiscent of the dreaded Ewoks from that other well-known sci-fi/fantasy franchise. Thankfully, the show keeps their subsequent involvement to a minimum.

    “State of the Art Mutant Technology!”

    “Hmm ... a lot of good that's done us.”

    And what of the mutants, then? Led by the frog-faced amphibian-monstroid Slythe, we also have Jackalman, Vultureman (who joins them a little later on and becomes their scientist/inventor) and the intellectually-challenged thug, Monkian. Under the command of the fearsome Mumm-ra, who wants these pesky Thunder-trespassers off his world - though they often strike out on their own dumb ideas, as well - they plot tactic after tactic to ensnare, trap and kill (yes,kill!) their furry rivals. Aye, here's the rub. In Thundercats, the poisoned plans and dastardly designs go the extra mile in homicidal zeal. There's a great episode called Return Of The Driller featuring the most bizarre baddie - a quasi-robo-genie whose body below the waist is just a whirling drill bit - summoned by Mumm-ra to carve an underground channel and divert the contents of Acid Lake right into Cat's Lair and turn it, and our heroes, into soup. Or the one in which Cheetara develops a psychic connection with a crashing probe, and the mutants realise that they can harm her if they destroy it. Cue some remarkable animation of a stricken Cheetara writhing in agony on a bed (they must have had some fun drawing this - you'll see what I mean!) as the delinquent Monkian batters the downed spacecraft. Although the actual violence is still toned down - all those glorious martial arts weapons are used primarily to trip people up - there is a very agreeable edge to the stories that places the threat to the Thundercats, and the other races on Third Earth, very much to the fore. But it isn't just the mutants out to cause trouble. There's lots of fantastical creatures plaguing the Cats from interplanetary arrivals to barmy buccaneers, from escaped convicts to dimensionally-hijacked samurais and ninjas (and yeah, we even get to see them fight each other), from boulder-lobbing stone giants to aristocratic big game hunters. The show's quota of character and scenario creativity is literally bulging at the seams. Snarf's relatives even turn up in the two-part Feliner story - although there is far more jeopardy involved than the cute set-up would seem to hint at. The show often reminded me of the best episodes of Lost In Space, with its continual roster of new challenges and screwball visitors. And in a good way, I might add.

    “Safari Joe does it again!”

    The animation is a bit special, too. Taking a gorgeous dash of anime courtesy of the in-house Japanese artists and animators (the Amazon warrior women with their huge eyes and tiny mouths, for example) and jazzing it up with the gaudy colour scheme that prevailed throughout US cartoons of the 80's, Thundercats is a riot of fast action, swooping camera tricks, clever angles and hyper-reactive gliding zooms. Using some very cinematic and directorial pizzazz, such as blurring the fore or the background to create depth and to visually enhance the significance of certain elements, the show is never less than artistically arresting. The locations are vast and varied, the characters richly detailed and full of vitality and, apart from the Sword Of Omens routine, there is precious little repeated footage. It is clear that a lot of care and attention went into the production, far more than you would expect for something that could merely have been a hook upon which to hang a huge merchandising campaign. The writing is of a consistently high standard -witty, self-referential and intriguing - with good strong storylines that are both engrossing and original. In fact, this is the most surprising thing about Thundercats - its unending freshness. Given the format and the regular line-up of friends and foes, you would expect a large level of overlap and a continual stomping-over of familiar scenarios, and yet the writers manage to come up with wacky and wonderful treatments, time after time. Over-arcing storylines, such as Lion-O's spiritual growth and his subsequent rise to glory, are not forgotten, but the show is equally easy to just dip into at any point. And what about that theme-tune, eh? Classic, catchy and full of 80's soft-rock frizz. One of the reasons why the en masse nature of a boxset works so well - you just want more of that opening title sequence again.

    I'm hugely impressed with this show, folks, and Volume 2 is being ordered immediately. A rip-roaring super-blend of glorious fantasy and wacky sci-fi in that inimitable 80's style. Special mention must also go to the splendid holographic cover on the box which has lightning coursing up the blade of the Sword Of Omens. Top stuff! Thundercats Ho!

    Disc 1 contains Exodus, The Unholy Alliance, Berbils, The Slaves of Castle Plun-Darr, Pumm-Ra, The Terror of Hammerhand and the special featurette.

    Disc 2 contains Trouble With Time, The Tower Of Traps, The Garden Of Delights, Mandora the Evil Chaser, The Ghost Warrior and The Doomgaze.

    Disc 3 contains The Lord of the Snows, The Spaceship Beneath The Sands, The Time Capsule, The Fireballs of Plun-Darr, All That Glitters and Spitting Image.

    Disc 4 contains Mongor, Return To Thundera, Dr. Dometone, The Astral Prison and The Crystal Queen.

    Disc 5 contains Safari Joe, Snarf Takes Up The Challenge, Sixth Sense, The Thunder-Cutter, The Wolfrat - an excellent episode that sees the Thundercats miniaturised and battling a transforming robot wolf/rat hybrid.

    Disc 6 contains Feliner Part 1, Feliner Part 2, Mandora and the Pirates, Return Of The Driller and Dimension Doom.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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