Thundercats Ho! An Interview with Mike Jelenic
Dr. T: One sense I got from the first episode was that of epic splendor – sort of like having Lion-O and Tygra playing the roles of Moses and Ramses in The Ten Commandments, with King Claudus as Pharaoh. I felt this even more keenly when Lion-O tried to defend the lizard prisoners.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. We wanted this take to be very epic, so we referenced a lot of myths, whether they be Biblical or from science-fiction movies. We wanted to portray a classic "Hero's Journey," and you can see some of that influence in the first pilot. It's difficult to tell an epic tale in television animation. First, there's the budget, which is not quite the same as you would get for a feature. Then there's the space: you have only 22 minutes to tell an epic story. But somehow, especially on the art side, with Ethan Spaulding and Dan Norton and our partners in Japan, Studio 4ºC, they've managed to make this one of the best-looking shows I've ever seen as far as television animation goes.
Dr. T.: You've been involved with many animated projects developed out of the DC comics line. How did working with major comic book characters influence your work on Thundercats?
MJ: The one thing I've learned over the years when working with the DC line is the pitfalls of reinterpreting classic characters, where you could go right or wrong, because I came to the DC characters not really knowing too much about them outside of Batman. I've since become an expert on all things DC. Through each reinterpretation, whether it was Wonder Woman or Batman or Superman – I even worked on Legion of Superheroes – seeing of how fans reacted to little tweaks I made here or there gave me a better understanding of what parts of certain characters they would let me change – or not change. So that helped me immensely in reinterpreting the Thundercats.
That said, we had a lot more freedom to reinterpret the Thundercats than I ever had with the DC characters. DC has a specific take on all their characters. Getting to play with the Thundercats a little more, to take them "out of the sandbox" and see what we came up with was liberating. Of course, it gives us the chance to make bigger mistakes and take the characters off in completely the wrong direction, but I don't think we did that.
MJ: That was actually one of Sam Register's notes early on: that we retain that from the original series because was such a big part of it. They had a staff psychologist that helped dictate what these lessons were, and that might be one reason why Thundercats resonated so much with that generation. They look at these Thundercats almost like they're teachers. For a modern audience, we wanted to make sure that that Lion-O was learning a character lesson that helped his hero journey from prince to king. Half of the episodes – maybe more –focus on a lesson very easily identified by our age 6-11 audience that would be the payoff for the episode in terms of what Lion-O learned.
Dr. T: One thing I've enjoyed, in the episodes aired to date, is the fact that it's taken five episodes for all the other characters to finally accept Lion-O as king. I like the way that took time to develop, especially given only 22 minutes to tell a story. You really took your time with that part of the journey.
MJ: If it was up to us, we would have taken even a little more time, but we didn't want to drag things out for the sake of dragging them out. At the same time, we wanted to give each moment it's proper due as part of building that sense of epic. Some people may have had a lot of questions at the end of the pilot, and we were conscious of doing that. This is a series that viewers are going to have to "earn". They'll need to tune in every week whether it's to learn part of the backstory from the characters or to see them accomplish something we set up five episodes earlier.
It's a challenge mapping all of that out, making sure how it plays and setting the pacing, but it's one of the more interesting aspects of this series as compared to some of the other action-adventure series that are on right now. It makes Thundercats more rewarding to watch.