In preparing for the rebirth of beloved ’80s animation property “ThunderCats” as a new Cartoon Network animated series this summer, the producers at Warner Bros. Animation set their sites on crafting a series that would be both familiar and new. CBR News spoke with series producer Ethan Spaulding, producer and writer Michael Jelenic, Art Director Dan Norton and voice actor Larry Kenney about the series at this year’s WonderCon in San Francisco, and the entire team behind the show stressed the need to adapt the classic cartoon in a way that lived up to the memories fans have of the original Rankin-Bass TV production with a new anime-inspired twist.
“Obviously, ‘ThunderCats’ is a pretty popular brand. I think for the past ten years, people have been trying to reinvent it,” Jelenic explained. “There’s been a lot of starts and stops. I don’t know if you remember the rock band version from a few years ago. But it sort of just clicked with this group and got passed all the other hurdles.”
“This skews slightly older — probably ten and up,” Norton added. “And we definitely had the ‘ThunderDads’ in mind. We’re ThunderDads ourselves, some of us. There’s definitely something in here where old school fans are going to notice things and get that familiarity, but at the same time it’s going to be new. We found a way to wipe the slate and pay homage to the original spirit of the show.”
The creators said that at the heart of their task was a challenge to simplify the mythology with deeper character arcs which uses the most recognizable elements of the original series. “We didn’t want to do exactly what the old show did. We looked at the themes and the intention and then went from there,” said Jelenic, he noted that the biggest change was that Thundera in this version is not its own planet but a kind of city-state on the planet of Third Earth. However, the series will follow the same general arc of Thundera being destroyed and the ‘Cats being pushed out into the bigger world.
“The series sort of starts in the middle of the story. We have a pretty vast mythology that we’re developing, and it’s a slow burn. You’re not going to find out the whole story in the first three episodes. You’re not going to find the whole story out in the first 26 episodes. But we have a story mapped out that if you’re patient, all your questions are going to be eventually answered.”
Series star Lion-O will also undergo some changes — for one, he won’t necessarily be aged in suspended animation as he was in the original pilot. Jelenic explained, “In the old show, he was a boy in a man’s body trying to become emotionally a man. In this version, he starts off as a young man put into the role of king before he’s ready. So it’s still the same theme, but he’s not going to age in the cryo-chamber the same way. That’s not to say he won’t get older.”
“It looks fantastic,” Kenney — the original voice of Lion-O and new voice of King Claudus — said of the way the producers updated his show visually. “It’s much more modern. I guess ‘edgier’ would be a way to describe it. As I’ve told fans of the original show who are concerned whether they’ll like it, I think you guys know that a lot of projects from the mid ’80s have been redone in various forms, and some of the fans of the original have not been terribly happy with some of them. It’s understandable when something from your childhood was a big part of it, and you hear that someone’s going to come along and remake it, it’s almost like your stuff they’re messing with…well, I can tell you that fans of the old show are going to love this.
“The animation is fantastic, and the most important thing is that they’re staying true to the heart of the show — the code of Thundera and what the show was all about: truth, justice and loyalty. So while the show looks a little different, you’re going to recognize the characters. When you see Panthro on screen, you’re going to know it’s Panthro. It’s not going to be like ‘Well, who’s that supposed to be?'”
The rest of the cast will get their background fleshed out as well with producers looking for ways to show Tigra as the team scientist or other previously implied character traits in a more direct way. Tigra is also Lion-O’s brother in this version — a plot point which will serve as a bit of a mystery plot through Season 1. “And I think we spent six months [designing] Tigra,” Norton said. “When we were looking at the original show, they all tended to be in the same pallet. They didn’t have a lot of color breaks and were all the same size. We pushed against that and exaggerated them so you’ll see that Panthro is larger than the other Cats because he’s much larger. You’ll see little bits of characters that keep them individuals…these are individuals pulled together in a unique circumstance that have to survive.”
“Some people didn’t even want to see Snarf on the show, and it’s like, ‘He has to be in there! He’s Snarf! He’s like the most memorable character of the show!” said Jelenic. “I don’t want him to sound like Lion-O’s grandmother, so the middle ground was to keep him quiet. When he finally does ‘speak’ it’ll feel like Snarf.” Norton added that they stripped out the naggy comedy of the character in order to make him more of an adorable, Charlie Chaplin-like figure in the show.
“From what the Warner Bros. people have told me, Snarf will be less annoying,” laughed Kenney. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
The villains of the classic show will also appear, although the mutant generals — Slyth, Vultureman and Monkian -will be spread out as they lead their own armies. “Anywhere we can, we’re bringing back those old characters,” said Spaulding as the producers noted villains like Driller and Grune will play a role in the show. An explanation for Mum-Ra and why he can only transform into his more powerful form part of the time is in the works.
Jelenic also said, “I tried to explain what a Samoflange is. So now you’ll finally get what a ‘blasted Samoflange’ is.”
“I think what’s different about this is that we’re approaching it like a film,” Spaulding said. “Even the soundtrack is being done as a movie score. I don’t know if that’s old-fashioned now, but it feels like a movie when you watch it. That’s what’s going to separate the show from other things on the air…Plus, we’re treating the characters more realistically. The situations they’re going to be seen in the show are more life and death. There is something at stake, and that adds a lot to the drama.”
“It’s got some dark themes,” said Jelenic. “You want a six-year-old to be able to watch it, but we also want something in there for the ThunderDads…it works for both audiences.”
One key element the producers knew fans would ask after would be the title sequence with its bombastic opening song. “I think it’s arguable that the opening of the old show was what it was known for. That was most memorable, and then the content was secondary. We want the content to be most memorable, and there’s limitations now to how opening sequences can be on television — time restrictions where you can’t do what the old show had,” Norton explained with Jelenic adding that they didn’t want to try and top the things the original show did so well, including the iconic opening number.
However, the music will take cues from the original soundtrack even though it’s a less rock-driven take on the melodies. “I think that music was absolutely on point for the time the show came out,” said Norton. “It really fit into that whole era, and I think when we’re looking at the show now, our approach is ‘Let’s make it timeless and universal.’ At any point when you load it into your DVD player, this music will play that will invoke the emotional spirit that compliments the animation.”
And of course, the last piece of recreating the original “ThunderCats” experience comes in the toy aisles of America as Bandai has signed on for a full line of action figures and other accessories tied to the new show. “We’re right now starting to see the final sculpts on the characters and the ThunderTank, and that’s the great thing about Bandai. I’ve worked on Batman shows previously where they’ll make one or two characters, but Bandai is making Wiley Kit and Kat and Snark — pretty much any character you like you’ll be able to get in toy form. And whenever you see the toy version of the show, it makes the show real in a way. It’s pretty exciting.”
“ThunderCats” is expected to debut on Cartoon Network this July. Stay tuned to CBR TV for more with the producers of the show in the weeks ahead.