When the classic 1980s ThunderCats cartoon was first reported to be receiving a reboot series, many animation fans were excited. A new ThunderCats series meant a new opportunity to pass down a beloved franchise to a younger generation of fans.
Sure, the 2011 series was good, but that was nearly a decade ago and it felt right to return to the series with a fresh coat of paint.
But for some fans, the 2020 interpretation isn’t fresh at all. In fact, according to some, the new ThunderCats Roar series is nearly indistinguishable from other modern cartoony fare. Several fans have complained that the reboot’s art style is soulless and a mere copy/paste of an art style that’s become all too familiar in today’s lineup of American animation.
And to be fair, it’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Even the biggest animation aficionado could be forgiven for confusing a brief clip of Thundercats Roar for any number of other modern Western cartoons like Steven Universe, High Guardian Spice, or maybe even We Bare Bears.
It’s a kind of hipster art style that seems to have been perfected in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series and has since taken on a life of its own.
Now none of this is a knock on any of these comics and cartoons. Many of them have proven themselves worthy of praise with deep characters and rich storylines that have garnered devoted fanbases for good reason.
But is it fair to point out the similarities in art design? And if so, is that a reasonable thing to complain about? After all, if you look back at the original ThunderCats cartoon from the 80s, it could have easily been mistaken for the He-Man: Masters of the Universe or She-Ra: Princess of Power cartoons back then.
In fact, there is historical precedent for different eras of animation having different styles that define the time period they were made in. In the 1940s and 50s, most commercial animation in the US featured the loose, elastic aesthetic pioneered by animators Tex Avery and Chuck Jones.
Later on in the 60s and 70s, that fluid style of animation began to fade away as cartoons like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle ushered in an era of UPA-style limited animation that would go on to pave the way for Hanna-Barbera’s domination with stylistically similar shows such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, and Scooby Doo.
That style wouldn’t really change much until the 80s, which brought its own previously mentioned style to the table.
But the 90s were different. The 90s introduced an age of experimentation in mainstream animation that allowed for many shows to have a distinct style. Matt Groening’s The Simpsons looked totally different from Ren & Stimpy, which in turn looked totally different than Rugrats, and so on.
Sure, there was some design overlap with creators like Craig McCracken of Powerpuff Girls fame and Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory (who ironically were both inspired by and worked for Hanna-Barbera), but overall most American cartoons of that era strived to carve out their own individual artistic identity and style. There was no central one-size-fits-all formula.
TV animation in the 90s and early 2000s not only allowed animators to broaden their imagination with a variety of different styles, it downright encouraged it. Even when watching the same channel like Fox, there was a distinct artistic difference between animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill.
But here we are in 2020 and admittedly ThunderCats Roar does not look as distinct design-wise from its peers in the cartoon media landscape. If anything, it seems to be a return to the safer, less experimental days before the 90s.
Is that a bad thing though? Some have argued that Japanese anime all looks the same but that doesn’t seem to have had a negative impact on creativity. Although, to be fair most people can tell the difference between Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z and Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha. Even anime shows, despite how similar some of them may look, are often more distinct than a lot of animation coming out of the US today.
Still, to be even more fair, ThunderCats Roar looks like it’s mostly being marketed to a Teen Titans Go! demographic. That’s not to say that shows meant for younger kids shouldn’t have distinct art styles, but if the complaint is mainly being driven by a feeling that the new show has lost its rough edges, well, that’s kind of the point.
This is a softer version of the show you grew up with. And if I’m being honest on a personal level, there is something charming about seeing these characters from the 80s being reimagined in this more cartoony style.
Truth be told, if the writing is any good this new style could be a great vehicle to introduce the ThunderCats lore to a broader audience. After that, maybe we can get a grittier version, perhaps even on the big screen – but that’s a topic for another day. (Remember, people also complained when Nintendo went for a more cartoony style with The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, but in the end there was enough room for a chibi Link and a more realistic-looking Link in the hearts of fans.)
In the meantime, a part of me does understand where the detractors are coming from. While I personally like the art style utilized in the show, it does signal the return of an older, more uniform approach to TV animation that many people hoped we had gotten past.
But maybe that constant need for innovation isn’t always necessary. Maybe sometimes consumers and creators alike need to take a breather and return to the safety and familiarity of a consistent art style across several different shows.
And maybe, for now, that’s okay.