In recent weeks, Warner Bros. Animation learned the hard way that there’s no faster way to set a benign fandom alight with rage than to resurrect a dead TV property with a total makeover.
Set to premiere in 2019 on Cartoon Network, ThunderCats Roar takes place in a new continuity from the original 1985 series, and more importantly, takes a new stylistic direction. “I think the world they built lends itself really well to comedy because of how silly and crazy and outlandish those ideas are and some of those settings are,” producer Victor Courtright explained in a sneak peek video, and the official synopsis for the series promises the same, stating the show will “[stay] true to the premise of the original series,” detailing the same origin story and same “bizarre host of creatures and villains” like ThunderCats Big Bad, Mumm-Ra.
This focus on comedy and “silliness” is echoed in the show’s art style, which features bulging eyes, short, pudgy figures, rounded outlines and an almost hyperactive fluidity to the title sequence, reminiscent of another Cartoon Network staple, Adventure Time. This comparability between a retro classic and the current crop of future classics populating children’s TV is precisely what’s proving to be such a sore point for ThunderCats fans, or just those who aren’t a fan of the recent trend in kids animation for zany, noodle-limbed characters. A lot of Roar detractors have taken to Twitter to bemoan its brand of “cuteness,” holding the show — which, let’s not forget, isn’t even on the air yet — up along with other similarly-rendered revivals, like Rise of the Teenage the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teen Titans Go!, as symptoms of an industry-wide infection dubbed: “CalArts style.” As John Maher pointed out in his article for Polygon on the subject, the insinuation that everyone working in serialized animation comes from the California Institute of the Arts’ paddock is a historical one that periodically comes back into use whenever people want to complain about the industry being monopolized by one art style.
Cartoon veteran Rob Renzetti, whose credits include My Life As A Teenage Robot, Dexter’s Laboratory, Gravity Falls and the new DuckTales series, took to Twitter to explain how the blanket-use of the insult robs of it any real meaning. “‘CalArts style’ as a term of derision goes all the way back to the early ’90s and was levelled against many of the shows I was involved in. It has been used against so many shows with such a wide range of design that it really means nothing more than ‘I don’t like it.'”
Renzetti hits the nail on the head with that last part. It’s too easy to forget that something as commercialized as a kids cartoon is still an art form. Art is completely subjective. If you don’t like a piece of art, that’s fine! Art in every form also goes through trends and cycles. Not liking a particular style of animation is fine, but if you’re attributing that dislike to the sheer proliferation of a trend (which is the very definition of the word…) then you’ll have to extend that complaint back through every decade. ThunderCats, for instance, was part of a very clear trend from the ’80s into the early ’90s that favored fleshed-out, highly-detailed characters. From the late ’90s to today, the industry has generally slid towards the polar opposite. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a devolution though — it’s natural for artistic movements to act in a reactionary way to what came before, and is a sign of a medium’s vitality, not stagnation.
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