Thundercats is a cheerful mishmash of adventure, science fiction and fantasy tropes with a big dose of 1980s cheese. This series was all too happy to throw in, well, just about anything, from a mummified sorcerer who lives in a pyramid, a group of mutant animals from another planet, and oh yes, alien humanoid cats whose leader wields a sword that flashes a cat symbol in the sky much like the Bat-signal. And you got to love that battle cry, “Thunder…Thunder…Thunder…Thundercats…HOOOO!” Say, did I mention this show also has robot bears?
The backstory of Thundercats: a small group of survivors flee their disintegrating world Thundera and crash on a planet called Third Earth, where subsequent episodes take up their adventures trying to adapt to their new home while fighting baddies. Our main cast includes Lion-O, the main hero and wielder of the magical Sword of Omens, his Obi-Wan-like mentor Jaga who dies en route to Third Earth but appears in a ghostly form, Lion-O’s mentors and friends Tygra, Cheetara and Panthro, Lion-O’s old nursemaid Snarf, and the mischievous thunderkittens Wilykit and Wilykat. But the Thundarians have been pursued to Third Earth by the evil mutants of Plun-darr, led by the lizard S-s-slithe. To top it off, a mummified sorcerer named Mumm-Ra covets the Sword of Omens and frequently attacks the Thundercats to get the magical item, although after a while he’s pretty much obsessed with destroying the cats altogether.
With 130 episodes brought to us by Rankin-Bass (yep, the same folks that gave us Rudolph and all those stop-motion Christmas specials), Thundercats had to have something going for it to last so long. To start with, the artwork and designs of everything from the characters to the landscapes to the backgrounds is great, weaving together a universe that is part fantasy, part sci-fi. The character design, primarily for the cats, and the backgrounds also has an anime resemblance, helped by the fact that it was animated in Japan. The writers also developed a mythology that made the Tcats universe deeper and more fun to explore, likely helped that Thundercats featured writers with backgrounds in comic books or comic strips, not just writers who worked solely in animation. For example, one of the writers, Bob Haney, actually co-created the Teen Titans for DC. The Thundercats themselves are like a band of superheroes, with each possessing a weapon (like Cheetara’s staff, Panthro’s nunchucks, or Tygra’s bolo whip) or a special power, like Cheetara’s super speed.
The stories of Thundercats were straightforward good versus evil plots, and if the episodes had morals or messages, they were portrayed more subtly than other shows of the time (No Filmation “morals” here!). The series also provides great masculine role models. Panthro is a great mechanic and fighter, with Earle Hyman giving him as much of a “man’s man” voice as you’ll ever hear. Similarly, Lion-O is dedicated to doing good; he just has to overcome some immaturity and in the process he becomes a good leader. Lynx-O, a blind elder Thundercat, serves as an old warhorse, but not so old that he can’t get into the action, and he manages to stay useful in spite of his handicap. The Thundercats’ overall dedication to working together and high ideals contrasts to Mumm-Ra, the mutants, and the Lunatacs, who would all backstab each other if they got the chance. In fact, three episodes in the first season deal with a single mutant trying to seize power by himself.
The voice acting also highlights a main characteristic of this show, namely that it’s not very subtle. Not that action cartoons in the 80s were subtle, but Tcats had a flavor all its own. Most of the music cues are fast-moving, bombastic, with rock guitars, synthesizers, or rapid drum beats, matching the high energy of the episodes. Also, I had previously mentioned the show loves to throw in just about anything it wants into the mix. While other shows like He-Man or Avatar tried to make their fantasy universes cohesive, Tcats had a more hodgepodge feeling. We’ve got robot bears (the Berbils), a samurai named Hatchiman, an episode where Mumm-Ra disguises himself as King Arthur to get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, a space policewoman named Mandora, an intergalactic big game hunter named Safari Joe, Amazon-like women named the Warrior Maidens, cyborg pirates called the Berserkers, a robot pirate called Captain Cracker (with a robot parrot), and other evil rogues, dangerous lands, monsters, and intergalactic threats. However, sometimes the series got a little too strange. In some episodes, the cats venture out into the vacuum of space, without protection or oxygen, and are perfectly fine! Also, in the second season the writers give Mumm-Ra an undead bulldog named Ma-Mutt. So in-between scheming to rub out the Thundercats, Mumm-Ra dotes on his beloved pet. Hey, I guess even evil undead mummies have their soft side.
As far as the worst, few episodes strike me as memorably bad. Probably my least favorite episode is “The Circus Train.” This episode writes out the mutants and the Lunatacs…by having the Thundercats vanquish them in an epic battle? Nope. Instead, an intergalactic circus headed by a Captain Bragg captures them with the help of Wilykat. Not a great way to write out most of the show’s villains. The show’s overall quality was clearly declining by this point. With as big a run as Thundercats got, some fatigue sat in, exacerbated in part by the show’s writers also tacking a new series called Silverhawks. It seemed after a while the writers didn’t know what to do with some of the heroes; over time Tygra and Pumyra eventually stopped showing up altogether. Sometimes the show took weirder than usual turns, like when Snarf’s squeaky-voiced nephew Snarfer went to pick up Mexican food from a Berbil’s taco stand when there had been no reference to any regular Earth country or culture before (I’ve heard Third Earth is supposed to be our earth after an apocalyptic disaster, but it’s never established). The Sword of Omens also gets ridiculously powerful in the series’ later half; it seems it can do anything or get the Thundercats out of any jam, like carrying passengers by the hilt through the sky, or even recreate destroyed machinery out of thin air. And finally, I should address the bane of many viewers: Snarf. He’s the resident worrywart, coupled with a scratchy, whiny high-pitched voice. He seems to be part of that class of cartoon characters (Scrappy Doo, for example) that gets on people’s nerves. All I can say is, he didn’t bother me. Now Snarfer, on the other hand…
P.S. There was a new Thundercats cartoon made for Cartoon Network in 2011. I haven’t seen enough of it to form a complete opinion, but based on the few episodes I watched, I liked what I saw but it is definitely darker and more complex than the 80s Tcats. I may have more to say on that show later.