When we learned that Cartoon Network wouldn’t be renewing the “ThunderCats” reboot for a second season, it came as a shock. The show, which was both highly-anticipated prior to launch and a success in its somewhat odd Friday night timeslot, nonetheless couldn’t move toys for parent company Bandai, leading ultimately to its cancellation.
This came as a disappointment to not only fans, but its creators, including Shannon Eric Denton who helped develop the series over a decade at Warner Brothers, and series Art Director Dan Norton. Both were on hand during this year’s Power-Con–joined by the original Lion-O himself, Larry Kenney–to talk about what they had planned for the second season of the series. Death, decapitation, mutation, the origins of the ThunderCats and the strange secret of Snarf are all revealed after the jump.
Kenney, who played Claudius in the reboot, says it’s a shame that the show is no longer in production, but it was purely a business decision on the part of Warner Brothers. The voice acting veteran says he loved the episodes of the original series where he’d have to portray young Lion-O and that playing the character in a lower register allowed more acting on his part. Pressed to choose a favorite episode, Kenney says he doesn’t think of the show that way, but he’s partial to the Christmas short from Studio 4C where Snarf was tasked with babysitting an infant Lion-O by Claudius. He was touched by the way viewers get to see Snarf becoming the leader of the ThunderCats’ protector.
It’s Snarf who was the subject of some of the most interesting discussion during the panel, with Dan Norton explaining that in the second season (and beyond), fans would have come to understand a strange secret about Lion-O’s one-time babysitter. Norton asked fans to recall all of the times Snarf has fallen, been electrocuted, or battered–seemingly without coming to any harm. We would have learned that Snarf was in fact impervious to damage, the result of ancient experimentation by Mumm-Ra to create a genetically-superior race. This tinkering would ultimately lead to the creation of the ThunderCats.
This speaks to some of the sweeping ambitions for the series, which would have spread out over a planned 65 episodes, according to Norton.
One of those concepts was the corruption and ultimate mutation of double agent ThunderCat Pumyra, who would assist her fellow ’Cats while secretly working alongside Mumm-Ra to destroy them. This take on the character would upend fan expectations given how noble and decent the original was. New Pumyra was motivated by her resentment at not being saved by Claudius as well as her own hunger for power.
“She sees the greatness in Lion-O,” Norton says, “and the way that he sees the greatness in her, she sees the greatness in him, possibly allowing him to save her from the bonds of Mumm-Ra.” Still, power beckons, and in a second season, she would have asked to capture the ThunderCats because she knows them–but she would demand more power from Mumm-Ra. He would grant it–at the price of her beauty, transforming her into an insectoid, wicked creature. In her final final encounter with the Cats, she’s prepared to deliver the coup de grace to Lion-O, with the ThunderCats leasder being unwilling to fight back, but Tigra takes the killing shot to save his brother’s life, ultimately creating more tension between the two characters.
Villain Slythe would also get some time in the spotlight–and a graceful exit from the series–once fans learned the very personal reason for his hatred of the ThunderCats. “What you know about Slythe,” Norton promised, “we were going to break your expectations.” Fans may remember that at the beginning of the series, we see the other races on the planet treated as second-class citizens, or worse. Ultimately, they rally to Mumm-Ra’s cause with the promise of the ability to rise and control their own destinies–but for Slythe, it was clear they were being manipulated.
In a solo episode for Slythe, we would learn that he holds a special grudge against soldier Lynx-o, one of Claudius’ generals responsible for expanding ThunderCat territory and pushing the lizardmen further back into the marshland. One of the lizardmen festivals would be based around the hatching of the next generation, with the males going off to hunt for food and the females tending to the eggs. However, to quickly clear out the marsh, Lynx-o burns a large swath of land, killing the hatchlings of Slythe’s tribe.
After he’s lost all of his friends, after he’s lost everything, he vows at his wife’s gravestone that he would give his soul to get revenge. Cue Mumm-Ra, who offers him just that exchange, putting Slythe on a collision course with Lynx-O, who he would decapitate, finally taking his revenge. But as the Lizard-men become enslaved to Mumm-ra, he sees that Lion-O’s quest for the Soul stone would unite the races. He would betray Mumm-Ra and give Lion-O the stone, leading the villain to kill him.
“Why the show didn’t continue, there were many layers,” Dan says. He no longer works at WB, but points to LEGO “Chima” as looking a lot like “ThunderCats” and that licensing is expensive. He suggests that it might have been cheaper to create their own thing. And it was on at half an hour at week at a weird time slot and kids wouldn’t buy toys for a show that they never saw (thanks to the 8:30 Friday time slot). “Critically, everyone was really happy with the show,” and they were number one in their time slot for the 18-34 slot, but like “Young Justice,” it didn’t move toys. Denton says that he’s worked on #1-rated shows that didn’t move toys and were subsequently cancelled. It happens a lot.
It was over the course of several years that WB had animators and designers developing the look of the new series with plans to bring the show back beginning sometime around 2000, and Shannon Eric Denton coming on board around 2004. Norton says he personally was comfortable going through the iterations of the characters, drawing from the “LOTR” Rankin-Bass inspiration because he’d “worshipped it for so long.” “Cartoons are like a bullet train,” he says–animators don’t have time to second guess concepts, with plenty of deadlines requiring that you’d have to get something down on the first pass. It took about five months to get down the look of the final cast (extended from an initial three months as the show sought animators).
This extended to the color palette (which relied on a lot of blue and orange), and silhouettes (which allowed them to distinguish the characters in a lineup), and costumes (so they’d be complimentary). The original series had a lot of silhouettes which were similar in height and shape (likely to match the toy line); but now, they wanted Panthro to be the tank of the series and Wily-kit and Wily-Kat and make them look distinctly like the children. This also spoke to the relationships between characters.
The reason the themes from the original series weren’t used was budgetary and licensing constraints–in large part, it was because the original SFXand soundtrack were mastered on the same track and it would be expensive (prohibitively so) to remaster those tracks. They were working with a skeleton crew and had to be agile, communicating with a team in Japan at Studio 4C.
Cartoon Network began releasing episodes of “ThunderCats” to DVD back in 2011–Namco Bandai released a tie-in game back in 2012 for the Nintendo DS.