Once upon a time, cartoons were silly. Consider the original Batman series of the 1960s, a show so jokey it had villains named both The Laugher and The Giggler and starred a not-exactly-ripped-but-still-wearing-spandex Adam West playing the world's most block-headed straight man -- even Tim Burton's late-'80s reboot of the franchise was aware enough of the original's goofy reputation to give it almost Vaudevillian overtones. But somewhere along there in the last ten year or so, it seems like comics have gotten really... you know, serious. Next up for the old straight-face treatment: ThunderCats.
Coming back for a moment to the Batman analogy, there is not a silly bone in Christian Bale's body. Not that there was anything wrong with it -- in fact, it was fantastic -- but compared to Adam West's interpretation, watching 2008's The Dark Knight was like watching a freight train driven by Neitzsche run over a wagon full of clowns -- that is to say, it was awesome.
And although the tonal difference between '60s Batman and Chris Nolan Batman is perhaps the most drastic in comic book history, it's illustrative of a larger trend. You can see it in James Bond, too: The mid-'90s recasting of Pierce Brosnan in the titular role was a U-turn away from the increasing silliness that overtook the Bond franchise under Roger Moore and then, under Timothy Dalton, just got sad -- but Bond had never really been played straight, either. Even in those first golden years of Sean Connery, there's an element of self-conscious camp to the proceedings the Connery plays with a knowing smirk and an occasional wink. Compare that to Daniel Craig's face of stone in 2006's Casino Royale -- also good -- and Connery looks positively jokey.
Admittedly, the original ThunderCats series was a little different from the original Bond or Batman; for one thing, it was a cartoon, and for another, ThunderCats was less self-aware -- too dumb to really know it was dumb, but still pretty cheerfully dumb (Snarf, anyone?). Featuring a largely incoherent plotline that drew as liberally from sci-fi (they came to "Third Earth" on a spaceship after their own planet, the awesomely named Thundera, died) as it did from period adventure (Mum-Raa is an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, for example), it was like a slightly more thoughtful version of the truly retarded He-Man, which was on around the same time.
It was also arguably one of the earliest examples of the influence of anime creeping into American cartoons -- unlike He-Man, which pretty much looked like a roided-up Hanna Barbera joint, ThunderCats had a more streamlined, detailed feel, its movements more lithe and versatile than the block style that had become an American hallmark.
And so it makes some sense that the remake of the series scheduled for later this year on Cartoon Network -- the first images of which were released yesterday -- would take a straight-up anime approach; aside from being sort of an homage to the series' origins, it's the style these days. Still, it just looks so... serious. And if the press release from Warner Bros. is any indication, it will be:
A sweeping tale combining swords and science and boasting ferocious battles with the highest of stakes, the grand origin story of Prince Lion-O's ascension to the throne -- and of those who would thwart his destiny at any cost -- takes on epic dimensions in this sharp new telling. As the forces of good and evil battle each other in the quest for the fabled Stones of Power, Lion-O and his champions learn valuable lessons of loyalty, honor and mortality in every episode.
Maybe it's the only reasonable way to remake ThunderCats: a series more or less in the spirit of the original, updated in visual style and honed to accommodate the increased intensity we now expect from comic book adventures. Still, the unintentional silliness of the original was part of what made it special, what gives it the aura of nostalgia and camp that makes it so dear to those of us who grew up with it today. It was a dumb cartoon -- that's why we like it.
As far as remakes go, it might be a perfectly sensible way to go about it, but in this case, maybe it would have been best to just leave well enough alone.
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