Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Toon-arama: Thundercats (1985-1989)

by Jason
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.
The first few episodes have the Thundercats establishing themselves on Third Earth. From there, the bulk of the first season usually featured stand-alone episodes in which Mumm-Ra and/or the mutants hatch a new plan to get rid of the cats, or the Thundercats will run into some new problem or meet a new ally. The second season debuted with a five-parter in which three new Thundercats, Lynx-O, Bengali, and Pumyra, are discovered hiding on Third Earth. In the subsequent five-parter “Mumm-Ra Lives!” an ailing Mumm-Ra assembles a new group of villains called the Lunatacs to take on the Thundercats. The third season was mostly a chase between Mumm-Ra and the Thundercats to reclaim pieces of the Treasure of Thundera. Finally, the last season saw the cats moving to a reformed version of Thundera, but Mumm-Ra follows to once again cause trouble.

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.
Also, the Thundercats are enjoyable characters. They all have a commitment to noble ideals (embodied by the Code of Thundera) without being insufferable or pretentious. The fact that they are a handful of survivors, cut off from other known Thunderians, also added pathos to their situation. The three adults, Tygra, Cheetara, and Panthro, are all Thunderian nobles who have to shepherd Lion-O into his role as the Lord of the Thundercats. Lion-O’s journey gets sped up in a big way because on the way to Third Earth, the capsule holding him in suspended animation malfunctions and he ages to adulthood by the time the Thundercats crash on the planet. That thrusts him into adult responsibilities pretty quickly, but Lion-O is eager to take up the task. On occasion, Jaga appears to give Lion-O guidance. As for Wilykit and Wilykat, they seem to be there to be the “kids” to balance out the adults, but as much as I ranted about kid characters in my Real Ghostbusters review, I think these two turn out okay. For one thing, they’re part of the initial main cast and aren’t tacked on to be “junior” versions of the main heroes. Also, they have their own tricks up their sleeves and are actually capable of handling themselves. In all, I think the cast gave kids a lot to relate to.

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.
Another standout of the show is Earl Hammond’s voicework as the evil Mumm-Ra. The undead sorcerer lives in a gloomy looking pyramid. The pyramid contains four tall animal statues that house the Ancient Spirits of Evil, a bubbling cauldron, and a sarcophagus housed inside a stone serpent’s head. To fight the Thundercats, Mumm-Ra chants an invocation to the Ancient Spirits of Evil to transform him from a frail mummy into a super-muscled version of himself with a helmet and a cape, called “Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.” While cartoon villains aren’t known for their subtlety, Hammond’s performance negates the term altogether. Mumm-Ra has a guttural, growling tone when quiet, but most of the time the evil mummy erupts into loud cackles and booms. He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he gorges on it.

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.
So what’s the best Thundercats has to offer? The pilot “Exodus” shows the cats leaving their crumbling planet, fighting off the mutants, and crashing on Third Earth. The space battle is very animesque, and even kills off many Thunderians as the mutants destroy their ships! There’s also the five-parter “Lion-O’s Anointment” where Lion-O has to defeat all the Thundercats in various contests and then Mumm-Ra without using the Sword of Omens to formally claim the title of Lord of the Thundercats. “Excalibur” features both the Sword of Omens and Excalibur actually flying out of their wielders’ hands and clashing by themselves in the air. And for one of the very best, you can’t go wrong with “The Last Day.” After the mutants and the Lunatacs are exiled, the Ancient Spirits of Evil put Mumm-Ra on notice: you got one day to destroy the Thundercats for good or we’ll banish you to a dimensional limbo. So Mumm-Ra bulks up to full power, turns into a giant, destroys one of the Thundercats’ bases, banishes most of the cats to another dimension, and nearly beats Lion-O, but in the end he loses and the spirits exile him (he comes back for the last season, though). If this was the series finale, it’d have been great. Still, the actual finale, “Book of Omens,” isn’t too bad. It features a pretty cool armored warrior named Pyron who sadly isn’t on screen very long. Other gems include “Safari Joe,” “Return to Thundera,” “Ghost Warrior,” “The Astral Prison,” “The Thundercutter,” and the five-part “Thundercats Ho!”

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…
Personally, I find Thundercats to be a lot of fun. It’s a great collection of sci-fi, fantasy, magic, superhero tropes, and even anime-ish adventure all melded into one package. Moreover, the series didn’t beat its viewers over the head with social messages or any annoying politically correct agendas. As far as after-school action cartoons went, this was one of the finest.

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.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the article Jason! I didn't follow this show religiously, but I did catch it from time to time at the time and I recall enjoying it a good deal when I did watch it. It felt like a lot at the time, which was a generally decent quality that aimed for good rather than great.

tryanmax said...

I don't know what happened, but I missed out on Thundercats entirely. As in, I never even heard the term at any time in the 1980s, despite being in the target demo. All I can say is that it was an epic failure of marketing, b/c the odds are that I would've been a rabid fan.

Silverhawks, however, I did see. And I take issue with anyone who declares the Hawks to be the Cats' redheaded step-sibling, because I can attest, they stood well on their own. I was pulled in without any prior knowledge of Thundercats. That said, I've always had a preference for sci-fi over fantasy.

Jason said...

Thanks, Andrew.

I actually never caught the show (except for the pilot as a kid) until Cartoon Network reran it in the early 2000s. I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Jason said...

Tryanmax, I think the 80s were so crowded with cartoons that even the popular ones could get missed, if only because there’s always another one to draw attention. Tcats was still competing with the He-Man franchise (She-Ra came out the same year Tcats did), Transformers, G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., the Rambo cartoon, etc. Plus the shows were spread out across multiple channels, so you’d have to flip around to find them. In my market, Thundercats was actually aired opposite Silverhawks on another channel!

Speaking of, I did watch Silverhawks and loved it. I even got a lot of the toys. I had no idea it was a spin-off of Thundercats until I watched Thundercats in college and noticed the two shows had the same voice cast and the same animated look. I also preferred sci-fi over fantasy, so Tcats didn’t appeal to me at first. I wince when Hawks gets put down. It had a lot of cool characters and I loved the respective lairs of both the mob and the Silverhawks.

Tennessee Jed said...

good job, Jason. After my time (for me or my kids.) Non-subtle works just fine for this kind of venture, I would guess.

Jason said...

Thanks. Yeah, I would agree. This kind of fantastic good vs evil adventure usually is okay if you camp it up, and as I said, Tcats had a unique flavor.

AndrewPrice said...

I don't actually know the Silverhawks, so I can't say much about that. I will say though that the 1980s were a good time for cartoons. There was so much available and it was all over the place - everything from this to He-Man to the Muppet Babies to the Smurfs. Anything you could want.

Anonymous said...

Jason,great review. I wondered when you guys would get around to this one. Thundercats is one of my favorite eighties memories. I'll always have a soft spot for it and it's nice to see it written up so well.

Jason said...

Thanks, GypsyTyger. I'd like to do some more series from that period. We'll see.

AndrewPrice said...

OT: There's a movie called "Big Ass Spider" on Sci-Fi tonight. It's actually pretty good if you're into that sort of thing.

Rustbelt said...

Jason, I remember Thundercats. However, I never really got into it beyond watching the show every now and then. (I was definitely a member of the He-man/Transformers crowd.) I did, however, have a friend who had several of the Thundercat toys. Man, those things were robust. Couldn't break 'em if you tried. (Unlike a few certain Autobots and Decepticons.) And, yes, I, too, remember Silverhawks.

Ah, the 80's. When action cartoons were action cartoons. Today's stuff stinks.

Kit said...


Great review!
I watched Thundercats a bit as a kid. I think I enjoyed it. Can't remember it that well.

Anonymous said...


This was also one of my favorite shows growing up. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged that well. I tried to watch a rerun several years ago, and the pacing was intolerably slow. (Still better than He-Man, though.) Aside from that, I agree with pretty much all of the other assessments mentioned so far. I liked Silverhawks, too.

And they both had pretty kickin' openings!

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