On ThunderCats

Every morning, or at least most mornings, before heading off to the school, I would watch the ThunderCats. According to SquabbleBox‘s article, “TV GEMS: ThunderCats (1985-1989)“:

Thirty years ago, a new animated television series went into direct competition against some of the most iconic shows of the 1980s, the greatest era of children’s television. Within three years, it had fought off He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) and Transformers (1984) from the top spot and battered the likes of Bravestarr (1987) and M.A.S.K. (1985) into total submission. The new kid on the block was ThunderCats, a ramped up version of He-Man that took elements of Star Wars and added a Van Halen-esque rock star edge to get kids hooked.

ThunderCats followed the adventures of Thunderean leader Lion-O (voiced by Larry Kenney) and his band of humanoid felines that not only resemble big cats but possess their abilities, too. They are Tygra (Peter Newman), Panthro (Earle Hyman), Wilykat (Peter Newman), Wilykit (Newman again/Lynne Lipton), and my personal favorite, Cheetara (Jane Lypton). In the pilot episode, “Exodus,” we join the action on their home world Thundera which is on the brink of destruction in a scene similar to the opening of 1978’s Superman. The Thunderean people are fleeing the doomed planet aboard starships. However, the fleet is attacked and largely destroyed before reaching deep space by their arch enemies, the Mutants of Plunn-Dar led by Slithe (Bob McFadden), a grotesque toad-like humanoid who wants to capture the ThunderCat flagship which carries the Sword of Omens, and more importantly, the Eye of Thundera in the sworld’s hilt which holds incredible mystical powers.

The sword is being protected by an ageing Lord of the ThunderCats named Jaga (Earl Hammond), an Obi Wan Kenobi type who has assembled a crew of Thundera’s best minds who will later become the new ThunderCats, along with child protege and chosen one Lion-O, who is expected to one day take over from Jaga as the new Lord. After sustaining heavy damage to their vessel during the attack, Tygra and Panthro advise that the nearest life-sustaining planet, “Third Earth,” is too far to travel to in the ship’s current condition, and the decision is made to go into hypersleep pods that will slow the ageing process during the journey. Knowing that he will never live long enough to complete the trip, Jaga volunteers to pilot the ship whilst the others sleep.

Many years pass and the ship arrives at Third Earth. Jaga dies of extreme old age at the controls, just as the ship breaches the atmosphere and the ship crashlands. Lion-O awakes from the wreckage to find that he has grown into an adult man and is a child trapped in an adult’s body, missing out on the life experience that helps us mature. The ThunderCats use the wrecked starship to construct the Cat’s Lair home base and begin to explore their new world. Little do they know that Slithe, along with fellow mutants and accident-prone duo Monkian and Jackalman, have followed them to Third Earth. They take a wrong turn and travel into the realm of the planet’s resident, all-powerful villain Mumm-Ra! He’s an Emperor/Darth Vader mashup who appears as an ancient mummy before transforming into a terrifying musclebound flying nasty. He even lives in a scary pyramid surrounded by swamps and lightning storms. Mumm-Ra spares their lives in return for their services after learning of the Sword of Omens and demands it be captured for himself. The pilot setup the show perfectly for what was to come, with an entirely new world to explore and unknown perils, allies and foes each week, as Lion-O and the rest of the ThunderCats battle to protect the essence of their lost planet and keep the secret powers of Thundera from the evil clutches of Mumm Ra and his double-crossing mutant generals.

The above intro is still one of the most iconic in cartoon history with its Van Halen-style electric guitar riff. Also, some of the mood-setting pieces such as “Castle Plundar” and “Imminent Danger” are worth a listen on YouTube.

The animation from Japanese studio Pacific Animation Corperation was more dynamic and visually-kinetic than what was on offer elsewhere, and I believe this was a major factor in knocking Filmation’s He-Man off the top spot. Filmation used recurring stock footage and still images, just moving the mouths of characters. This may have led to the show’s demise in 1989 along with the disaster that was the Dolph Lundgren He-Man movie in 1987, and perhaps why the New Adventures of He-Man (1990) adopted a similar animation style to that of ThunderCats. Much like filmation’s He-Man that used Superman and Conan as a base,ThunderCats also used a popular film as a template, Star Wars, which is quite obvious at times with Lion-O having a similar story arc to Luke Skywalker. This is especially true with Lion-O often taking advice from the ghostly apparition of the long since dead Jaga. I am surprised that George Lucas didn’t try to sue over the similarities as he did with Ulysses 31 (1981), which lifted sound effects and used music cues from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The other comparison would be that of The A-Team (1982); the ThunderCatscharacters and storylines were often very similar and centered around a small community being bullied in some way before the team intervened to save the day. B.A. Baracus and Panthro are practically the same mechanic hardman character driving their van/Thundertank into battle.

Like all of the above mentioned films and television shows, ThunderCats also had a popular toy line. The writers would often be tasked with introducing new characters in order to sell the latest toy, leading to the additions of new recruits Pumyra, Lynxo and Bengali, along with new enemies like the cyborg Viking pirates the Berzerkers and the humorously-named Captain Cracker and Captain Shiner, among others. The toy line created by LJN was not to the same standard of many rivals. The figures were not a uniform size like Kenner’s Star Wars line or Mattel’s Masters of the Universe, and bore little resemblance to the characters. This meant that Lion-O looked more like Boy George and dwarfs his fellow ThunderCat figures. His limbs were made of solid heavy plastic whilst the torso and head where thin and lightweight, cracking like an egg if dropped a few times. The hollow shell was to accommodate the electronics which would illuminate the eyes with the use of a battery-operated keyring, which would have been a great feature if the batteries were available in the UK! Even the toy shops never sold them, so the first chance I had to see the eyes light up was in the early 90s, by which time the figure was just a smashed torso with some wires sticking out the neck. However, these figures are popular amongst retro toy collectors and one very rare figure, the Mad Bubbler, was sold for $25,000.

ThunderCats‘ popularity remains very strong after a surge in retro appeal for all things 80s. T-shirts bearing the famous logo can be seen worn by geeks and hipsters alike. and the theme music remains iconic. There has been talk of a new movie version since 2007 to be made by Warner Bros., but nothing has materialised. This is probably a good thing after seeing what happened to Transformers (2007) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014). There was a new cartoon, however, which ran for one series in 2011 and didn’t take off as expected. The new version had too many differences in backstory and character development, and due to its failure, any chance of a live action ThunderCats movie must now depend on the success of its main rival,He-Man. If the new Masters of the Universe movie is a success, expect ThunderCats to jump on that bandwagon much like it did in 1985.

Useless Trivia

  •  The first season was actually completed in 1983, but was not publicly shown until two years later.
  • Though Bernard Hoffer composed the incidental music for ThunderCats, James Lipton – better known as the presenter of Inside the Actor’s Studio – collaborated on the program’s theme music with Hoffer.
  • The TV feature Thundercats Ho the Movie! was planned as a big-screen film for cinemas, but when Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie had bombed, they got cold feet and released it as a TV special. It later got split up into five parts. The DVD release on the season sets is the cut up version. It has never been released uncut on DVD.

Additionally, according to the indiewire article, “Blu-Ray Review: “ThunderCats The Complete Series”“:

ThunderCats holds strong emotional ties with its fans, who either got into it during it’s ‘80s heyday or discovered it in reruns. It was part of the immense, 65-episode-a-season daytime animation book that began with He-Man and continued with Disney and Warner successes. It was great to see the Rankin/Bass name among the giants again, still the little David amidst the Goliaths. And its now just as great that the entire series is out on blu-ray.

Episode quantity can strongly affect a viewer’s attachment to a series and it’s characters; one spends a lot of time getting to know favorite “friends” every day and living through their adventures. What made this connection especially strong with ThunderCats was the epic nature of the show’s premise—a group of heroes struggling to build a new home and survive in a new land, challenged by adverse situations and fierce opposition. In other words, like school—or to adults, like the workplace.

The over arching message of ThunderCats was unity. A very strong and timely message indeed. Each of the team had talents and powers but, let’s face it, weren’t as strong as individuals. Sometimes they were foolish, even downright ninnies. But they had each other, as opposed to the villains, who would stab each other in the back given the chance.

The series also had one of TV animation’s best villains, Mumm-Ra (Fun fact: there used to be an antiperspirant called Mumm).


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