Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Thundercats (2011) - season 1 part 1

I was actually very excited about the Thundercats revival, despite the He-Man reboot and the Michael Bay Transformers films being properties I’d really rather not talk about. Thundercats was a good candidate for an update, having iconic characters and a strong world but a lot of bad writing and cheesy acting. There had been rumours about feature films and live-action versions for as long as there was an internet fandom – indeed, rather longer than that.

And then suddenly it was happening. And it got better - just as the original was made by ex-Topcraft staff in Japan, the new version would be made by Studio 4°C, who were behind a favourite series of mine – Mahou Shoujotai Arusu – and had cut their teeth on animations for a Western audience with Transformers Animated. The first designs released showed a boldly different aesthetic that appealed to me, and when the first previews brought with them glimpses of my favourites Wilykit and Wilykat, looking younger than their original incarnations but so, so cute, I was sold.

Today I watched the first season’s finale, after just 13 episodes, and was left feeling what I had felt since the end of episode 3 – was that it?

Like many reviewers, I was impressed by the first double-episode and the promise that came with it. The Thundercats world had been completely reset (though some fans liked to speculate this was a far-future version of the original series, Mai-Otome style, but that neglected the events of the last season of the original series). In this version, the Thundercats rule over Third Earth largely by suppressing the other races. However, Grune teams up with the mutant Lizardmen to embrace technology and overthrow the Thundercats. Lion-O escapes with the Sword of Omens, but his only allies are his adoptive brother Tygra, with whom he has a rivalry that is not always friendly; the headstrong cleric Cheetara; General Panthro, once Grune’s close friend and presumed dead; the street urchins and thieves Wilykit and Wilykat, their tails marking either youth or low status – it’s not yet revealed; and Snarf, now a cute mascot rather than a whiny comic nursemaid. The gang set off to find the Book of Thundera, hoping to regain what they lost, but another force has been awakened, a dark wizard known as Mumm-ra.

It’s a good set-up, but what is frustrating is that it leads nowhere. The pacing of the series couldn’t be more wrong – after the first episode we should have had a few to firmly establish the lead characters and why we should like them, but we get their adventures meeting a series of one-off supporting characters, awkward character development that often internally contradicts itself – Tygra in particular has motives and loyalties that go all over the place, while Lion-O gets lessons about humility and lateral thinking that are almost immediately contradicted – and forgettable plots that lead nowhere, while major developments happen with nonsensical brevity. For example, the gang just stumble randomly across the Tower of Omens, which Panthro had been searching for over years without success. We never really get to know any of the main characters until the very final episodes, and even then it’s all too brief and sketchy. The quest is too loose and the antagonists never seem actually threatening or to have a true goal the heroes have to prevent them achieving.

And I had hoped a 2011 version from 4°C would look nicer. It has moments of great beauty and I like the character designs, but too much just seems lazy, especially contrasted with the fluidity of Arusu. There’s one SPARTAAA moment in the final episode that is truly one of the worst pieces of animation since the 80s, which just isn’t on. The inbetweening is lazy, the editing doesn’t seem right in pacing terms and the characters frequently go off-model.

It could all be forgiven with strong plotting. Indeed, I was desperate to love it, especially with the kittens (and young versions of the main characters) so very adorable. But this was a disappointment.

There had better be a season 2. And it had better be much, much better than this.

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