Easter, time of the Reborn King of the Thundercats | Review of series with focus on Episodes 15-16

Lion-O meets the spirit of Jaga in the Astral Plane

That’s right. It’s Holy Week, that time when Lion-O sacrifices his immortal soul so that Thundercats may be saved. You thought Cartoon Network production hiatuses were nothing but annoying, and yet here they bring us the right episode at the right time to make maximum humor of coincidences between our calendar and TV show airing schedules, with the second, concluding part of The Trials of Lion-O showing the Saturday before Easter. Next episode Cheetara will probably inform us that according to Thunderian lore the world will come to an end in three seasons’ time. FURTHER SPOILERS TOTALLY FOLLOW.

I’ve been following the rebooted Thundercats series since it debuted in the U.S. summer of 2011. I’m not going to draw comparisons, at length, to the original 1980’s series (the responsible reviewers did that last year), but I will say I watched that one, too. Back in the day, I watched the ‘girl’ adventure cartoons, like She-Ra and Jem & the Holograms, but I watched more ‘boy’ cartoons. Largely this was because more ‘boy’ shows existed in this frequently toy-selling category and girls were likely assumed to buy dolls like Barbie, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite without such long-running series of 30-minute commercial blocks. That said, I still have five of the Hasbro Misfit Dolls and only recently had to get rid of a few of Rainbow’s friends due to unfortunate damage sustained in storage.

But, I also still have some number of G1 Transformers toys.

I own no Thundercats toys, even though the current Bandai ones are quite show accurate and highly articulated. (What? Totally not a hint I’d like some!)

I guess the point of this digression is that I never really cared whether shows were aimed at selling toys, so long as the shows themselves had well developed characters and interesting plots. And, I don’t mind the ‘lessons’ supposedly imbedded in each episode.

Thundercats (2011) has both well-developed characters and interesting plots, plus traditional yet anime-like animation, and a movie-quality score. I mean, if you’re watching it on today’s widescreen devices in high definition with home theater speakers it withstands scrutiny. It’s a thoroughly modern addition to the franchise. The action scenes give you plausibly cat-like leaps and acrobatics, and plenty of gun and sword play. And the feral growls and hisses from the Cats and Lizards lend a kind of gritty realness. Insert your complaints about furries here, but Thundercats is more than fetish fuel for Tumblr fan art. Here’s where I get back to the point about character development.

Like the OS, Thundercats (2011) employs a variation of the five-person team, with the fifth position taken by a pair of twins, making it a six-person team without the odd sixth ranger type of character. It’s a formula that works: The leader, the snarky second, the wise chick, the muscle, and comic relief. But, the Cats are more than their archetypes. Lion-O, though reluctant hero, brat prince, and arrogant young king with a secret sensitive side full of self-doubt (all that’s pretty par for the course and rather Rodimus Prime), is also a social revolutionary who believes in peace between the warring species, goes slumming, loves tinkering with lost technology, and will sacrifice anything for his people. (He’s also really, really good at back-flips.)

Within the group, Cheetara and Tygra join Lion-O in what I call the Trio. You’ve seen this before with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, or Luke, Leia, and Han. (Weirdly, Tygra is like another Harrison Ford character, with his gun and whip.) They’re Lion-O’s best mates, the ones that spring to his defense, and also the ones close enough to question his decisions. Cheetara’s flirty and knowledgeable about lore, and Tygra’s snarky and paid attention in strategy lessons. When they manage to trust each other and work together, they are amazing. And when they don’t all agree, they usually get a smackdown by Mumm-Ra’s minions to teach them a lesson.

They were also a love triangle through most of the first 13 episodes, though not as annoying as Bella with her sparkly vampire and puppy-love-sick wolf, or Katniss and her on and off screen beaus. Lion-O read Cheetara’s actions as confidant and advisor assigned by Jaga as something a lot more personal, and Tygra, who’d secretly been pining for Cheetara since they were cubs, mistook the same signs as evidence that Cheetara really did prefer Lion-O, and took his frustrations out on Lion-O, his adopted brother. Largely what this did was make the ‘boy’ show suddenly much more accessible to fangirls. I’m as guilty as the rest of watching the show with rabid attention waiting to see who Cheetara chose. And in the last episode before the hiatus, we learned she’d always wanted to be with Tygra, because of his kindness, and had been waiting for him to speak his feelings aloud.

That’s right, the snarky second-in-command has a shy side and doubts his abilities as measured against Lion-O as much as Lion-O doubt’s his abilities against Tygra’s.

But, I have to point out, that in all of this soap opera plot, the series never ceased being an action show. The Trio’s love triangle was always one of the ongoing subplots, against the backdrop of a quest to gain enough allies and sources of power to hope to overthrow the evil Mumm-Ra, who had in the past enslaved all the animal species.

Which leads me to another notable difference between this series and the 80’s Thundercats. There are shades-of-gray. About 7 episodes in, we learn that in the past, the Cats served Mumm-Ra as overseers above the other species. Although servants or minions of Mumm-Ra, the Cats of the past enjoyed free roam of the Black Pyramid, while Lizards, Dogs, Monkeys, etc. were collared and kept in cells until needed for battle. And though the Cats did participate in a rebellion against Mumm-Ra, in his absence, the Cats fell into a position alike to a higher caste, held the best lands and resources, and fought wars over land with other species, especially the Lizards. The Cats weren’t always the good guys!

Of course, Lion-O, the tech-loving dreamer, who snuck off to the slums as a prince, when he should have been at sword or strategy lessons – the star of our series – is open-minded enough to question whether the current ways are just. The very heir of the Kingdom of Thundera, and future Lord of the Thundercats is questioning the Cats’ right to rule over other species. And in many episodes, it’s Lion-O’s willingness to trust and aid other species that earns him allies and thus helps him along his quest. By episode 14, he’s outright offering defeated Lizard soldiers a chance to return to their families, and goes so far as to rescue recaptured AWOL Lizards from their own general. The Lizards aren’t always the bad guys!

War generals are an integral part of the world of the Thundercats. Thundera was known to have at least three: Lynx-O, Grune and Panthro. Lynx-O, we are led to believe, fell along with Thundera in the early episodes. Grune entered the series as a traitor, betraying his kingdom by posing as a returning hero with tribute, whilst actually setting up a trojan-horse-like plot, in which the Lizard Army was loosed into the walled city. Panthro shows up some episodes later in his Thundertank in a nearly literal Deus Ex Machina moment to save Lion-O’s crew from the Lizard Army.

Panthro plays the part of the muscle on the team, as well as old man, grouch, repairman, and loyal follower. His loyalty to Lion-O isn’t automatic, but once Lion-O proves his worth, Panthro willingly accepts Lion-O as his king. He’s tough, he fights with nunchucks, and he has a soft spot for overly-adorable things, like Berbils.

Mumm-Ra’s armies have another three generals, not including Grune, who was originally Thunderian. These are Slythe, Addicus, and Kaynar. General Slythe’s been with Mumm-Ra for some time, as head of the Lizard Army. But, after significant defeats at and following the battle in the Elephant Village, where Grune was lost to the Astral Plane, along with Panthro’s arms (He got better; the Berbil’s made him new, upgraded arms), Mumm-Ra recruited two known criminals to be his new generals. Addicus, the Monkey, and Kaynar, the jackal-like Dog are like the criminally insane of Third Earth; large, powerful, sadistic, and frequently commenting how they’d like to eat the kittens.

WilyKit and WilyKat, sometimes addressed simply as Kit and Kat, or collectively as kittens, are the last two members of Lion-O’s crew. They are even younger than the teen versions from the 80’s series, and originate from Thundera’s slums, rather than from its royal court. Their background makes them well suited to any thievish or roguish tasks for the party, such as picking pockets or locks. In addition, the pair are able subdue opponents, Kat using his flink to trip or trap, and Kit using her flute to lull them to sleep. But the kittens do have their individual traits. Kat stubbornly clings to his plans to leave the group to find the treasure city ElDara, while Kit is forming emotional bonds to the Cats and their allies, especially the Elephants. Kat has shown bravery and battle skill, taking up guns and vowing to stand his ground to the end, particularly in the pre-hiatus episode depicting the battles in the Elephant Village. Kit, on the other hand, took the Elephant’s spiritual teachings to heart and spent the early portions of the battle in meditation with the Elephants, until they determined that their pacifism was not worth allowing the massacre of their Thundercat friends at the hands of the Lizard Army, and rose up to give battle.

And when Lion-O dies, it is Wilykit who has faith he will return. Yeah, the main character dies; very Optimus Prime of him. Ambushed by Mumm-Ra’s trio of generals (and a few Lizard minions) Lion-O declares he’d rather die than surrender the Book of Omens. So, he is pushed of a cliff, into a river, and trapped by falling rocks.

Of course, like Harry Potter, Lion-O wakes in an otherworldly place where his deceased mentor – Jaga in this case – suggests that a stone in his possession will allow him a second chance to live. Thus we have the Trials. In the OS, these were worldly trials designed to confirm Lion-O’s kingship, and in which his actual teammates competed against him. Here, Lion-O faces manifestations of his teammates in the Astral Plane (First the two kittens, then Cheetara, Panthro and finally Tygra). He bests the kittens in a contest of tracking and stealing by realizing there are other ways to ‘see’ than with his eyes, and uses his sense of smell to reach his goal, when presented with illusions. In the contest of speed with Cheetara, Lion-O is challenged to figure out that even when a goal is decided, the way he reaches the goal is up to him. (There’s also a bit here in which Cheetara’s statement about Lion-O literally failing to realize he’s running into a dead end, in the trial’s hedge-maze, carries the secondary meaning that he still hasn’t fully accepted she loves Tygra, and as if to emphasis the point, this manifestation of Cheetara kisses Lion-O on one cheek. Betrayed by a kiss in a garden?) He can’t run as fast as Cheetara, but he can use his ability to make friends to get a bird to carry him, bypassing the twists and tuns of the labyrinth beneath. In facing the manifestation of Panthro in a test of strength, Lion-O is challenged to realize his strength is in his leadership and his crew. He can simply command Panthro to leave the circle of the trial, and Panthro will loyally obey his king.

The fourth trial is against the manifestation of Tygra and seems to require Lion-O to control his own emotions and realize that he holds himself back more than Tygra ever has. Yet, Lion-O fails, still too caught up in his old rivalries with his brother and doubting whether he deserves to be king.

Meanwhile, the Cats, with Tygra as King and leader, are racing to recover the Sword of Omens from Mumm-Ra. As they move, Wilykit draws markings for Lion-O to follow, insisting that he will come after them. The other Cats react as if Kit’s faith is misplaced, telling her that Lion-O is gone. When they are captured by Mumm-Ra, Tygra realizes that even though he often disagreed with Lion-O’s plans, they usually worked out. His reign has already gotten them locked in a cell, while Mumm-Ra prepares to access the Eye of Thundera. Even now, Kit persists in her faith in Lion-O, saying that if they’d understood the teachings of the Elephants (dressed like monks of Eastern faiths in red and gold) they would understand that even if Lion-O’s body is gone, his soul still exists, and so long as Lion-O has a soul, he isn’t truly gone.

Having failed the fourth trial, Lion-O returns to Jaga and begs to be allowed to return to continue his mission and save his friends; he’ll give anything to help them. Jaga then reveals that Lion-O can offer his soul – his most precious possession – for a chance to return to the living until the next sunrise, but after that, his soul will depart to limbo. Lion-O agrees to the deal, understanding he has only as much as a day to save the Thundercats and will be gone afterward.

The resurrected Lion-O employs a bird to gain a lift, follows Kit’s markings to the Black Pyramid – running through forest and across a desert in an epic montage – and sneaks inside; easy since the Thundercats have taken out many of the guards. He cleverly tricks the three generals into a cell then rushes to free the other Cats. Kit knew he would come, but the others are surprised. Tygra, like Rodimus Prime foisting the Autobot Matrix of Leadership onto Zombie Optimus, is quick to address Lion-O as “Your Majesty”. Extra-confident Lion-O leads his crew to the command room where Mumm-Ra and Lizard acolytes are performing some dark rite on the Sword of Omens. Lion-O commands his general to take care of the doors. And Lion-O faces off against Mumm-Ra in his Ever-Living form, with only the gauntlet of Omens and Spirit Stone to defend him.

Lion-O is all “I am the King of the Thundercats!” He recovers the Sword of Omens and activates the eye of Thundera to blast Mumm-Ra. At Panthro’s suggestion, Lion-O wisely decides not to press their luck and departs the Pyramid with the other Cats.

But, it’s sunrise. Lion-O, who’s surrendered his soul, run across a desert, and defied the eerily pharaohnic Mumm-Ra for his people, seems at peace with the fact his time is up. He tells the Thundercats he has to leave. But, perhaps predictably, the show can’t really be without its hero, and the spirit of Jaga appears to reveal that the trials were designed to test not only Lion-O’s abilities, but his heart. By sacrificing his own soul to save the Thundercats, Lion-O heart has been deemed worthy and he will go on living as the Reborn King of the Thundercats!

Happy spring-time holidays of renewal!


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