Cartoon Network premieres a new, high-energy take on the hugely popular show ThunderCats, produced by Warner Bros. Animation and Studio 4°C.
Mention the names Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, WilyKat and Snarf to anyone who was watching kids’ TV during the ‘80s and chances are they’ll flash you a big smile. That’s because those who followed the animated series ThunderCats when it first aired, from 1985 to 1990, have a special fondness for the catlike humanoid aliens. Created by Ted Wolf and produced by Rankin/Bass, the series is getting a spiffy new reboot this summer, thanks to Warner Bros. Animation, Cartoon Network and Japan’s Studio 4°C.
The new reimagining of ThunderCats takes us back to the mythical kingdom of Thundera, which is being threatened by the schemes of nefarious sorcerer Mumm-Ra. Here we are re-united with Lion-O, the young heir to the throne, who embarks on a great quest to take his rightful place as king, accompanied by his friends Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, WilyKit, WilyKat, and his loyal pet, Snarf.
According to series producer Michael Jelenic (Wonder Woman, Batman: The Brave and the Bold), who is 34 years old, many people in his age range are aware of the ThunderCats phenomenon.
“It was definitely one of the shows I was watching in the ‘80s, and the fan response that we’ve been getting since we started is testament to the popularity of the cats.”
Jelenic, who has worked on other iconic characters in Warner Bros. toons such as Wonder Woman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold says the creative team knew that the new series was gong to be an epic retelling of the franchise.
“We tried to keep the original iconic ideas and themes and re-interpret them for an audience who is tuning in 25 years later.”
Just like the original show, there’s a continuing storyline arc that lasts throughout the 26 episodes of the first season. Yet, each episode also works as a stand-alone adventure. Jelenic also points out that the producers of the new series also wanted to stay true to the roots of the show, which was produced in Japan.
“We wanted to honor that legacy, so we were fortunate to have Studio 4°C (Animatrix, Batman: Gotham Knight) produce the animation for us,” he says. “They worked closely with art director and character designer Dan Norton and our supervising producer Ethan Spaulding (The Simpsons, Avatar: The Last Airbender) to deliver the special look of the show. Seriously, it looks like nothing else that’s on the air right now.”
A small crew of about six works on the design and writing of the show at the Warner Bros. Animation facilities in Burbank and the rest of the production work is done in Japan.
“Instead of storyboards, we create the screens on image boards,” says Jelenic. “We provide the initial inspiration for the designs, and then the bulk of the work is finished at the studio in Japan. There’s a lot of productive back and forth between our staff here and the animators in Japan. It’s simply remarkable to see how dedicated they are, because even after they had the awful earthquake and tsunami in Japan, they were back at work the next day, despite the rolling blackouts and all the hardships.”
When asked to compare his new job with his previous gigs on the Warner Bros. superhero toons, Jelenic admits that working with the space cats is a trickier proposition.
“I have worked in the DC sandbox, but in those shows the world and the powers of the characters have all been figured out and documented for over 70 years,” says the talented producer. “DC Comics supervises what we can and can’t do. The world of the ThunderCats has only had one major interpretation, so we are able to expand the mythology and bring something that’s a little bit different, so there is a lot of material to figure out.”
After working with these beloved characters for over two year, Jelenic says he still can’t pinpoint exactly why fans can’t get enough of the intergalactic felines.
“The show has so many different elements—the characters are all quite intriguing—Mumm-Ra was one of the few really scary villains in the TV animation landscape back then. The opening theme music was really memorable. One major quality of the show that stands out is the fact that it mixed the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy in an interesting way. Back then, action cartoons were either about fighting soldiers or superheroes saving the world—this is very different from all of those others.”
ThunderCats premieres on Cartoon Network on July 29 at 8 p.m. as an hour-long special. The show is exec produced by Sam Register and features the voices of Will Friedle (Lion-O), Matthew Mercer (Tygra), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Cheetara), Kevin Michael Richardson (Panthro), Larry Kenney (Claudius) and Clancy Brown (Grune).
“The world of the ThunderCats has only had one major interpretation, so we are now able to expand the mythology and bring out something that’s a little bit different, so there is a lot of material to figure out.” –ThunderCats producer Michael Jelenic