Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Some Words with a Mummy

All right.


To recap: I wasn’t a fan of the original ThunderCats anymore, but the remake series showed promise. It suggested it would radically rewrite the premise and tone, in order to produce a work of some quality, with world-building and shades of grey and all that good stuff.

The truth is, not so much.

I saw the most recent episode “Journey to the Tower of Omens” and decided to give up. All the interesting plot points from the pilot have been discarded, and the story is proceeding with some very ill-advised pacing and replacement plot points.

Some might say these dropped threads are excused by the entire game change--the city was destroyed, the heroes are now fugitives, etc. But you know, why introduce plot points at all, if they must disappear so soon? The plot points should certainly have changed, based on the new circumstances, but not disappeared entirely.

It’s all running like a well-oiled machine, and that’s the problem. Things happen for the characters when they want them to, and interpersonal conflict or moral ambiguity is nowhere to be found unless one starts looking at obviously unintended subtext.

Look at the latest episode: they find the legendary long-lost ancient temple of unknown location only a handful of episodes after they set out to, and it happens when Snarf accidentally starts a fruit avalanche. So much for making characters struggle for what they want.

Furthermore, we are asked to accept via flashback that it was perfectly okay for the cat race to hide the information about the past and future from the other animal races, depicted as rapacious, red-eyed shadows. There is no sense that this is meant to be ironic, or retain that darker side of the cat empire through Cheetara’s blind loyalty…it’s straight-up fantasy racism, and it’s kind of creepy.

While I’m not a kooky furry otherkin about it, I do like just about anything reptilian, and I was happy at the idea that the lizard race now had legitimate grievances against the cat race, a slight step up from the usual treatment of “ugly” animals as unambiguous villains. And as someone who likes to see intelligent antagonists, I was anticipating the enemy animal races to be smart by ordinary standards, not only in comparison to the stupidity of the original mutants.

However, for several episodes, we’ve only seen lizards as generic soldiers, and the final straw came in depicting General Slithe as the typical Dumbass Minion. He trusts the captive hero when he tells him he doesn’t know where the MacGuffin is, and tries to smash an important artifact out of simple frustration. Mumm-Ra then berates him for his troops’ apparent incompetence, but does nothing about it, doing his own threat level no favours. It’s pure antiquated cheese, just with better voice-acting--almost exactly what Megatron kept doing in the original Transformers TV show.

Basically, I say, with tongue slightly in cheek, I wanted Slithe to be Londo Mollari: a patriot who made a deal with the devil to lift up his people. But there are worse things to want, aren’t there?

This kind of thing isn’t hard to do. Even with better motivations and better brains the lizards would still be enemies, and even hailing from an imperialistic regime, the cats would still be the heroes--kids would still get it, because cats would be the viewpoint characters. And yet, some depth would increase suspense, keep the audience guessing, and lead to a more intense conflict. There was no reason to ignore the things that lead to this war breaking out. Even with a city burned, characters would still remember.

In a world like this, is there even any room or need for other enemy animal races? What could races of jackal/monkey/rat/vulture-people bring to the world that the lizards already haven’t? I don’t care if the writers plan to give the former mutants names and working brains--what matters even more is if they have a reason to be there, one besides existing in the eighties cartoon. Will they?

Grune, the villainous ThunderCat, is another failure. He is motivated only by simple lust for power, in a way that doesn’t feel unique to his character, but just as an evocation of that lazy kind of children’s cartoon villain. He had no deeper reasons for betraying the kingdom, nothing intrinsic to his personality. By all appearances, he had a great life, and what the heck does he actually get from Mumm-Ra, besides more ill-defined “power” than he could get as a celebrated general of an empire?

There was no sense Mumm-Ra would be a deeper character, so I was prepared to consider him the devil the lizards made their deal with. However, the series still manages to muck things up. There’s the aforementioned lack of action if his servants are indeed incompetent, and that he himself is hastily jumping into combat. Mumm-Ra feels like he should be that kind of villain who only makes an appearance when things are about to get dire, and who otherwise remains hidden in the shadows, building up his aura of mystery and fear.

Furthermore, now Mumm-Ra is furnished with his own car, a giant pharaonic face on treads that looks pretty silly. He also adopts his super-powered form, and as others have pointed out, while he was strong enough to take out several clerics in his mummy form, in his super form he is beaten by the five heroes instead. I don’t have too big of a problem with that particular storytelling convention; everything else I mentioned is worse.

Mumm-Ra is also just plain cooler in his mummy form. There it’s just slightly more of a surprise that he is capable of fighting, and there’s an eeriness to him that’s one of the more effective things about this show. That, and his powered form looks kind of dorky, with a mish-mash of armour and a loincloth made of carpet samples, wings looking cool but making his design even more cluttered. I also prefer his whispery voice to the original cartoon’s gravelly bombast. Of course, when he’s riding around in a giant metal face, these things tend to get lost somewhere.

“Journey to the Tower of Omens” tosses in a flashback of Mumm-Ra leading the cat people when they were a technologically-advanced race. It throws images at viewers without any time to digest them, leaving the audience confused rather than wanting more. Depicting super-Mumm-Ra standing at the bridge of a spaceship is also too jarring a contrast. I’m all for genre-bending, but this is just doing what the older series did: throwing together blatant science fiction and fantasy elements without any structure or logic to them. Mumm-Ra was an alien warlord, yet covers himself in bandages and calls on evil spirits?

All this, and I haven’t even discussed the heroes yet. There’s just too much cohesion going on here.  Sure, it would seem petty for Lion-O and Tygra to retain the same rivalry after their people were just exterminated, but their relationship should have transformed into something were conflict still remained. All Tygra does now is quip occasionally, while accepting Lion-O as the head. Are they going to be fighting over Cheetara? I’d hope they could come up with something better.

What happened to pointing out that the cat race ran on imperialism and Lion-O could be a more peaceful king than before? Now he’s just doing generic hero stuff without any individual personality, and we are obviously expected to feel sadness over the fall of the old king, despite his conquering ways.

Cheetara…Cheetara. She’s loyal to the king, and that might be enough of a motivation, but she doesn’t feel that defined as a character. The adult males are all connected somehow, leaving Cheetara feeling like the odd one out. Panthro is pretty cool, but he grows to defer to Lion-O far too easily; by the end of his first appearance, Panthro is ready to worship the neophyte king he was snapping at before. Furthermore, Panthro’s past with Grune is brushed over far too fast, leading to a greater lack of satisfaction for not explaining the characters’ motivations better.

The kids and the pet are pretty much just the kids and the pet. I expect Wilykit and Wilykat’s treasure quest to make a return, but right now they’re not doing anything interesting. Snaf is still cute as a button, but his cartoony antics are a little grating.

Overall, ThunderCats has answered with a resounding “No.” to the question of “Should we care about these people?” I’m just not interested in any story this series has to tell. If the material in between was at all exciting, I would be willing to have faith and wait until the earlier plot points were resolved, but it’s not. In the same way, sometimes I can sit through bad stories if I care enough about something or some character, but here I just can’t get emotionally invested in anything. I automatically default to believing the worst about this show.

(I did enjoy episode four, though).

The production values are top-notch, but the stories are so bland and full of wasted potential. It’s saddening, because I really was looking forward to this series. I didn’t expect anything perfect, but something close to the of the better action series of the last two decades. This show has the look, but not the moves.

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