Back in the ’80s, South African kids were hooked on ThunderCats, an epic American animated fantasy adventure series (which originally ran from 1985-1989, and was followed by a rebooted version in 2011) featuring a group of heroic, muscular cat-people in leotards who went on magical adventures and fought off twisted bad mutants led by Mumm-Ra, an undead, evil sorcerer.

Despite the somewhat kooky premise, the ThunderCats were serious-minded and every violent, sword-wielding, foe-thumping adventure came complete with a message about using your strength to defend the weak and powerless while bringing justice to the world.

What’s new, pussycat?

ThunderCats Roar (2020) is a whole ’nother animal. It keeps the characters – fearless leader Lion-O, swift Cheetara, educated and cultured Tygra, inventive and brilliant Panthro, double-trouble mischief makers WilyKit and WilyKat and their pet, Snarf (whatever Snarf is is up for debate). But ThunderCats Roar’s tone and storytelling has more in common with laidback series like Adventure Time and the anarchic Teen Titans Go!

ThunderCats as a series is now targeted at children aged between 6 and 12, and as a result the cartoon violence has turned playful and silly rather than heroic. Instead of being a morally upstanding leader for example, Lion-O is now a delightfully absurd and impulsive, sword-swishing idiot who sees dance parties as the solution to all of life’s problems that he can’t fix with his magical Sword Of Omens. Problems that can be fixed by using the Sword Of Omens include eating breakfast (using the point of the sword to pick up cereal pieces, obviously).

ThunderCats Roar is packed with fun little cartoony details like Tygra’s dainty blue-and-white china tea set, to Lion-O directly referring to his Sword Of Omens as his “blunt, plastic sword” and the fact that the supposedly fearsome and mighty Claw Gauntlet makes one of those tinny, electronic toy weapon sounds when Lion-O pushes a button on it. And the “noodly” animation style works to advantage when the ThunderCats must rescue some (notoriously hard to draw) unicorns who have a tendency to collapse in a moist, tearful heap when they are upset.

And the internet had issues

Certain vocal parts of the internet were, perhaps predictably, upset by the reworking of the ThunderCats series into something lighter, less macho, and more comedic. Series producers Victor Courtright (an animator on Yo Gabba Gabba!, as well as a writer and character designer on Pickle And Peanut) and Marly Halpern-Graser (executive producer and co-creator of Right Now Kapow) are shrugging it off.

“Well, I think there are probably a lot of people that it’s not really for, and that’s totally okay,” says Victor. “I hope that there’s a lot of original fans, like me, who’re excited about it. I think kids are really going to like it, and fans like me, who grew up watching it and were really huge fans of it, will come around and see what we are doing and that we care a lot about the source material. I hope we can get many people onboard. But if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.”

Animated short

We had about five minutes to ask the new heroes of Thundera some important questions…

What were your early thoughts that guided the development of the series?

Marly: All the early discussions were before my time because Victor did all the development before I came onboard!

Victor: The early discussions took place when I was talking to some people at Warner Brothers studio about possible properties that they were interested in reviving. I basically had one specific show in mind, and that was ThunderCats. I was so excited about the possibility of doing anything with that. So after talking to them about the possibility of that happening, I went home in a bubble and just started sketching the characters -- very close to what they are right now. A lot of the initial development is basically just this thing that had been lurking in the back of my head for a while. Sort of a natural creative experience, releasing this out of my head.

What were your thoughts on watching  or rewatching – the original ThunderCats as an adult?

Victor: I watched it as much as I could when I was a kid, but it was an episode here and episode there. I didn’t really get every single episode in order. Then in college I was going to school for animation and I found it again. I rewatched the whole thing and got really obsessed with it and the animation philosophy of it, the origin of it and its animation history. I’ve watched it multiple times since then. I love it.

Marly: I actually watched ThunderCats for the first time as an adult. I didn’t watch it as a kid, but I started working at Warner Brothers animation when they were making the 2011 version of ThunderCats and my co-workers were making that version and I grabbed DVDs of the ’80s version of ThunderCats from them and started getting into it. And a couple of years later, I got to meet Victor and got to work on this 2020 version, which has been really great.

What did you feel was essential to carry across from the original version, to your version?

Victor: The biggest thing that I fell in love with in the original show was the broad scope of it all, which spans from fantasy to sci-fi to… every possible toy in the (storytelling) toy box, they're playing with them. I wanted to capture that in our version and revisit the massive expanse of that universe. So a lot of our episodes are like, “Let’s go to this part of the world, let’s meet these characters over here!” We’re taking on that full scope.

What’s one of your favourite smaller details?

Victor: Music was one of the things that I was excited about. We were lucky enough to be able to use so many of the original tunes from the ’80s show, and we’re found really fun ways to incorporate them across the board. (This is often done to great comic effect, as the original music was on an epic scale – bombastic and portentous, while the new onscreen action undercuts or plays with that mood.)

Marly: The original Bernard Hoffer cues are just so gorgeous and so rich. So being able to use those along with the amazing new compositions our composer Matthew Janszen has created is just bringing that stuff from the ’80s back to life in a way that literally hasn’t happened since then.

Get a sneak peek at ThunderCats Roar on Saturday, 16 May on Cartoon Network (301) at 08:40 during the TeanTitans Roar crossover episode, which will be followed by episodes 3 & 4 of ThunderCats Roar. 

Watch ThunderCats Roar from Monday, 25 May on Cartoon Network (301) at 15:05 

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