The ThunderCats.
Image: Cartoon Network

Cartoon Network’s ThunderCats Roar is real good, but actually real good. If you’re a person of taste, you read that hearing the original ThunderCats theme song playing in your mind because, silly as it was, the tune was an absolute banger. Though ThunderCats Roar’s journey to the small screen was fraught, what Cartoon Network ultimately served up is one of the most brilliant reimaginings of a storied franchise in recent memory.

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Much as diehard ThunderCats purists would hate to admit it, ThunderCats Roar reads familiar to anyone who ever watched the original series. After the planet Thundera is destroyed, Lion-O and his fellow feline refugees set up shop on Third Earth where they’re able to thrive. They also must fight to survive as Mum-Ra and his goons insist on trying to take over the planet as part of their larger plan to take over the galaxy.

ThunderCats Roar is notably distinct from the source material that made its existence possible simply by the fact that the show’s overall tone is far more lighthearted and silly. The ThunderCats themselves are all the same in the sense that they’re anthropomorphic feline people who want to protect the planet from those who want to see it conquered, but Roar’s take on the mythology is a novel one specifically because it understands how ridiculous the source material was.

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Unlike the original Lion-O who was an uncomfortably handsome person who read as basically human, Roar’s Lion-O is a full dork. He leads his fellow ThunderCats purely because he wields the Sword of Omens, one of the most powerful tools at the Cats’ disposal within their Panther-shaped base. Each episode reveals just a little bit about the larger world in a way that makes the show feel like a more fleshed-out take on an existing property compared to series like Teen Titans Go! or Total Drama Island. But at the same time, Roar understands the importance of staying within its own lane, and by doing so, it gives itself the opportunity to give the characters a newfound level of depth that the original series never could have afforded its heroes.

In this telling, Panthro is an overqualified nerd who handles all of the ThunderCats’ technologically focused issues because he’s good at it and the rest are lovable morons who could never dream of doing it for themselves. Rather than just making Cheetara out to be a sex object, Roar instead makes her the team’s speedster whose impulses don’t actually lead her to being imperiled as much as they end up putting the entire world in danger. Tygra is muscular, but he’s a wimp who’s consistently outdone by the ThunderKitten twins WilyKit and WilyKat—who both crave to be brought into the larger ThunderCat action they know their elders are fighting to keep them away from.

Strangely enough, ThunderCats Roar’s robotic reimagining of Snarf—originally some sort of cat gremlin with a too-human face—is one of the strongest elements of the new series. That’s mostly because of the way the series highlights his weirdness while also making it clear (and undeniable) that he’s the objectively most adorable and helpful member of the team.

Though ThunderCats Roar is drastically different than the series it’s based on in the visual sense, it consistently pays homage to the source material in ways both big and small. Each episode centers around the team doing some sort of battle with Mum-Ra, but beyond that, important emotional beats are highlighted by riffs on the original music that all fit perfectly into the show. The music becomes that much more fantastic over the course of the season because its repetition over the course of the series is a joke about the original ThunderCats all on its own.

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When people got their first look at ThunderCats Roar, there were many who violently reacted to the ways in which the new series just existed in a different visual space than its predecessors. When you actually sit down to watch Roar, there’s no denying that it’s gone out of its way to be something wholly different, but that’s anything but a reason to critique the show. There’s a dynamism woven into essentially every action sequence that speaks to the original, makes you appreciate what it is about ThunderCats that people loved before, and what makes the characters the kind of people that new viewers could easily latch onto.

Roar is ridiculous, yes, but ridiculous in a way that says “Hey, remember this wild cat cartoon?” that will hit you right in the nostalgic nodules—but only if you’re open to feeling that way, which is something the creative team clearly intended on being the case. The show was made to be poked fun at, but from a loving perspective, and while it’s easy as hell to critique it for nor being that show, it’s even easier to understand it as being part of a larger brand that’s truly just trying to make you smile because you remember a time when all it took to make you happy was seeing a cat mess around with a ball of string.

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New episodes of ThunderCats Roar air Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m. on Cartoon Network. Have you checked it out yet?

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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