This past Sunday, WonderCon hosted the very first panel for the new Warner Bros. Animated produced ThunderCats series from the Cartoon Network. Based on the classic 1980s show, the reimagined ThunderCats has been ten years in the making. The panel featured producers Michael Jelenic and Ethan Spaulding, Art Director Dan Norton and the voice of Lion-O from the original series, who is playing Claudus this time around, actor Larry Kenney.The atmosphere was buzzing in the Esplanade Ballroom, the biggest hall at the convention center, as the audience was first treated to a never-before-seen trailer for the new series. All the old fan-favorites were featured; Lion-O, Cheetarah, Panthro, Tygra, Mumm-ra and Wily Kit and Kat.
Voice actor Kenney kicked off the panel leading the crowd the classic, “Thunder, thunder, thunder, ThunderCats, Ho!” and would not fail to please the crowd with his one-liners throughout the hour.
So, why this show and why now? “ThunderCats obviously is like just this huge part of our childhoods. I think most people in this room just grew up on it, they love it and we hadn’t seen...you know, everything else has been rebooted, Transformers, G.I. Joe so there’s this huge desire to see this property come back again and the time is now,” said Jelenic.
Kenney chimed in with, “And they were afraid I was going to die.”
“I think I was in the right place at the right time,” said Norton. “I was a fan of the original show growing up like everyone was and the offer came up and I couldn’t refuse.”
Jelenic had several stills set up to give the crowd a better idea of the character, vehicle and set designs for ThunderCats, while Norton described part of their approach to the new look. “Thundera is now more of a kingdom on Third Earth,” said Norton, “we really tried to pay homage to the old show. We’re trying to make this as large as possible.”“You guys are gonna love this show, I’m tellin’ ya,” said Kenney, “of course I’ve seen the scripts, the scripts are great, the animation is fantastic, the actors are incredible. I’m sure there’s some of you, like those of us who are involved, when we heard this series was going to be made, your first thought was, ‘Great!’ then your second thought is, ‘They better not screw it up.’”
In that line of thought, how did the creators go about balancing keeping the old fans happy while trying to figure out how to bring new, younger, viewers in? “I think we approached it with a huge respect for the original but yet we were free to take those characters in different directions and keep the spirit of the original intact,” said Spaulding. “We changed a lot but I think fans will appreciate the things that they hold dear about ThunderCats are in this new incarnation.”
Snarf’s appearance on the big screen had an immediate, positive impact on the crowd. Jelenic mentioned they’re having the character voiced in Japan. “We’re going with a cuter Snarf,” he said. “We’re treating him more like a Chewbacca or an R2-D2 where he’ll have animal sounds, cat, alien-like sounds that Lion-O will understand what he’s saying. But he will say, ‘snarf’ also.”
Norton said the original series was their template for working on the new show. It was then a slide featuring Panthro next to the Thunder tank was revealed. “We sweated a lot over one of the most iconic vehicles of all time. How do you improve on something so classic? Everyone loves the Thunder tank, it’s so easily recognizable, so our approach is, how do we give it new functionality? We give it new ways to move and parts that come off and missiles to fire,” he said. “This one has GPS a DVD player. This one also beeps when it backs up.” added Kenney.Norton continued, “More or less, turning up the heat wherever we can.” Kenney interjected, “Yeah, I noticed that with the Cheetara picture. Did you see that? You know, she is the original ThunderCats ho.” After the audience erupted in laughter Kenney added, “This won’t be recorded, will it?”
No one had any idea what to say after that and the panel was opened up to fan questions. “The mythology definitely takes into account the stuff that happened in the original show but one of the big changes that we did do is that Thundera is part of Third Earth but we’re staying true to the original concept where Thundera will be destroyed, the cats will be sort of pushed out of that world into the larger world of Third Earth,” said Jelenic when asked about the different planets incorporated into the show.
One of the other noticeable changes to the new ThunderCats is the apparent age of Lion-O. A fan was curious to know why he appears as a post-adolescence in this series. “He’s a lot younger,” said Spaulding, “And that’s in keeping with the original where he was the ten-year-old trapped in the mans body. And later on we are going to age him up.”
“I still have the original leotard,” said Kenney, “I was going to wear it but that’s not something you want to see.”
“We really wanted to start at a point where Lion-O, you know, you get to grow with him and if he’s a 42-year-old man you’re going to be like, “Eh, not so much.’” Kenney said he thinks people forget that in the original series, Lion-O did start out young and remembers having to voice the character as a ten-year-old.Another fan said Kenney was one of his childhood heroes and thanked him for his work. “It’s been my honor to be the voice of Lion-O and to be able to meet people or hear from people like you who email me and tell me what the show meant to them. That means a lot to me,” he said, also adding if the series wasn’t quality he would have found some way to screw it up so it didn’t go to air.
One audience member wanted to know if any characters from the series SilverHawks would make an appearance on ThunderCats. “Interesting you should say that. You should just keep your eye out because you never know what you’re going to see,” said Spaulding.
Besides Lion-O’s starting age and a scar for Panthro, a fan was curious to find out what other changes were made to the core characters. “Well Cheetara’s boob job obviously,” said Kenney, riffing on the character again. “You asked.”
“Part of our approach was to exaggerate the caricatures of the characters themselves,” said Norton, “The idea was to just play into what their strengths are. You know, Cheetara is a cheetah, cheetahs are lean and fast and we wanted to make her lean and fast looking. We tried to separate their builds a little bit just so they’re visually identifiable right away.”
“We didn’t want to make a superhero show. This is about a collection of individuals who come together in very dire circumstances that have to work together and become a family,” continued Norton. We used the template of their characters as a diagram and we made a lot of decisions to add shin guards, or, you know, not have the belly patch. But when you look at Lion-O, you’ll see that the lion is there, it’s just that he’s wearing a full shirt and not a diaper.”
Although the visuals of the new ThunderCats series were on everyone’s minds, the show wouldn’t be complete without a voice cast. Will Friedle as Lion-O, Kevin Michael Richardson as Panthro, Emmanuelle Chiriqui as Cheetara and Matthew Mercer as Tygra had already been announced but the creators took a fan question about the rest of the characters to officially announce the two latest actors to join the crew. Clancy Brown (Superman: The Animated Series, Lost) will be playing Grune the Destroyer in ThunderCats while Robin Atkin Downes (All-Star Superman, Uncharted) will take on the infamous Mumm-ra.
“We’ve got Charlie Sheen as Snarf,” joked Kenney.
ThunderCats premieres in July on the Cartoon Network