I had a chance to chat with Mike Jelenic, the producer behind the popular new reboot of Thundercats. He has worked on such series as Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Wonder Woman and Justice Society.
Dr. Toon: Warner has many old properties in its library that could have been suited for a possible reboot. Why Thundercats?
I think the time was just right to bring Thundercats back. It never really went away. It was such a huge hit in the 80's, a real testament to the strength of the brand. It never left pop culture. You can see kids and adults wearing Thundercats T-shirts and symbols, and Warner Bros realized that there was still a lot of love out there for the Thundercats, and its mythology is so rich that it was easy to take that property and reinvent it for a new generation.
Dr. T: Why is a show that hasn't had a new episode made in 25 years so popular, anyway?
I think the show tapped into something that wasn't reflected in some of the other properties of the 80s'. First of all, it was an unusual mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and you don't see too many fantasy cartoons aimed at children nowadays. Even back then, the sort of action shows you got were superheroes, men-in-tights shows, but the fantasy genre was unrepresented. Mix fantasy with sci-fi and you get something that's really unique. I think that is part of the reason Thundercats still remains popular.
But then, there's just some sort of "heart" to that original show. Larry Kenney, who did the original voice (of Lion-O) always heard about the "Code of Thundera" from the fans, so that was obviously something that resonated with that generation.
Dr. T: How did you become attached to the Thundercats project?
I'd been working with [exec producer] Sam [Register] on Batman: The Brave and the Bold at the time. He asked me to help out on the development. It wasn't something I was even going to be working on full-time, but the more I worked on it, the more I fell in love with the characters and the property. I wanted to be a part of it moving forward, and that's how it happened. The show was in development for over a year before we got the greenlight, so a lot of creative energy has gone into this. Working with the other producer, Ethan Spaulding, and Dan Norton, we've all tried to bring our A-game out for this, so this is a really special show for us.
Dr. T: What were the challenges of maintaining continuity between this show and the 80s' version?
It's always tough to reinterpret such a beloved franchise. I worked on two different Batman series and we had that same challenge with Batman, who's been around for seventy years and has been interpreted in so many different numbers of ways. You had a little bit of leeway with characters on the first series, which was a more traditional take on the character. On Batman: The Brave and the Bold, we went Silver Age campy, but using Batman allows that. For Thundercats, we asked, "What is the most iconic part of that brand?" None of us was 100% positive, because there's only been one version, so we were a little unsure where the fans would let us take the property, because when you redo a show you want to bring your own creative stamp to it.
At the same time, you want to be respectful to the things that people loved. A lot of the development was figuring out how far to take it and "how far was too far", and that was on the writing side and the art. We went through so many incarnations of what this new version of Thundercats would look like, what kind of stories we felt would be appropriate. It was definitely a challenge, and when the first show premiered, I was overwhelmed by how positive old fans were to this new take. We changed some significant things but tried to keep the core the same. I was happy to see that most people were pleased with the direction we took.
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.
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?
The one thing I've learned over the yearswhen 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.
Dr: T.: I recall that the original show liked to present moral lessons along with the stories. I see that you've kept that aspect in the reboot, especially in that episode "Song of the Pedlars".
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.
Dr. T: Yeah, I noticed that little riff between Cheetara and Lion-O – she keeps following him around and looking at him – then that disappeared for a few episodes.
MJ: That little character beat of Cheetara's, following him around, we don't give a definitive answer to that until, I think, Episode 14. If you invest in the show, with each episode you'll get more out of it.
Dr. T: I understand that Snarf was nearly left out of the reboot.
He came very close several times to getting the ax. He was a character that everybody loves to hate. Now, I had fond memories of Snarf from the original series, but I understand that a lot of people did not want him in this version. Before Ethan Spaulding, we had another producer on the show, and the only way he was going to have Snarf on the show was if he was a serious, deadly pet, like a guard dog. I didn't mind that take – it was sort of an interesting thing to flip what people's perception of Snarf was, but his role on the old show was comic relief, so I felt more comfortable being able to go in that direction. When Ethan came on, he had a great take on Snarf, that new look – which I think is adorable – and in the way Snarf would contribute to the show, which was comic relief, but not as annoying. That was our compromise: Snarf would stay in the show but he won't talk.
Dr. T: Speaking of characters that people loved to hate, one feeling I got from old fans of the show was that Wilykat and Wilykit were not well liked. In fact, a read an interview with Peter Lawrence, who was a head writer on the 80s' show, and he said he hated those characters, never liked writing for them. But in the reboot, they seem to have so much more appeal. How did you develop them?
MJ: Oh, something interesting – Peter Lawrence will actually be writing an upcoming episode. A lot of old fans will appreciate seeing his name up there on the screen. You know, Kit and Kat were challenges in a different way than Snarf was, because I never thought they had a clearly defined role on the other series, they were just a pair of teenagers. Part of our problem, if we were going to have them in this series, was that Lion-O is a teenager in this show, and if Kit and Kat were teenagers too, everyone sort of gets lost by being the same. Because of that, it allowed us to take those two characters and make them younger than they were on the original series. By making them five years younger, we gave them so much more charm.
The other choice we made, and I think it was a wise one, was casting real children. By the fourth episode, they were my favorite characters because the show has a lot of dark, epic tones to it and every time Kit and Kat are on the screen they exude an upbeat joy, so you know if you see them you're going to be smiling, and I appreciate the dimension that these characters bring to the show.
Dr. T: There's a really moving scene in, I think, the second episode where we see Wilykat playing his "flupe" over the smoldering ruins of Thundera while the other characters mourn King Claudus. That was haunting, and very well done.
You're going to get some backstory about where that song came from. It's very effective when that theme is played, so it's something to look for in future episodes.
Dr. T: Besides Kit and Kat, I notice that you've changed the ages of some other members of the cast. Panthro seems older and more grizzled than he did in the original series. Was that intentional as well?
Yeah, again it's that sense of setting up different "silhouettes" that are identifiable. In his case, Cheetara, Lion-O, Tygra were all going to be in the 18-20 year old range, and it made sense to throw a veteran into the group, someone who has some experience. Emotionally, he works on a different level because he has maturity. That's the reason we went that way with Panthro. He's probably a lot of people's favorite character from the last series, just because he was so cool, and it's that much cooler if he's a veteran. He fights just as well as anybody half his age, but he's seen twice as much stuff.
Dr. T: Who is your favorite characters – or characters – to write for?
They all have their own challenges. Wilykit and Wilykat are usually my favorites. I always love writing comedy, I think of myself as a comedy guy, even though I've only worked on action-adventure shows. As far as Kit and Kat, they seem to sort of stand out from the plot, so when you see them it doesn't necessarily have to tie into the larger story. It's a moment to charm the audience and have fun. I think you'll see in some future episodes that we take their scenes pretty far.
Dr. T: The original series had a very large cast by the time it wrapped up. So, what heroes and villains might we see returning in the future?
We look at the message boards and we see whom the original fans want to see, so as much as we can – without throwing characters in for some random reason – we want to make sure we have at least a cameo or a one-off for each of these loved characters. You'll see Pumyra, with several episodes devoted to her, even if our take on her is not the same as in the original series. That's our attitude for all these characters. We're thinking, like, "How can we work Safari Joe into this episode?" That's one reason that in episode five, the Driller showed up, just because he was one of the more popular villains from the old series. It's a bit of a balancing act figuring out where and how we're going to use these characters.
Dr. T: If you could handle another reboot, what would your choice be?
I would love to tackle a Robotech reboot. I think that's such a great concept, and I remember it very fondly from my childhood. I think that's going to have to wait until there's a Robotech movie, but hopefully that will be around sooner than later.
Dr. T: Is there any truth to the rumor that Wilykat and Wilykit are the secret love children of Cheetara and Garfield?
Ah…no comment on that one!
Dr. Toon wishes to thank Mike Jelenic for his time and insights. Thanks also to Warner publicist Winson Seto for arranging this interview for AWN.