Sunday, February 02, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Thinkin' 'bout Thundarr

Lords of Light, have I have gotten a lot of requests for this one, and it's not hard to see why. Thundarr the Barbarian is one of the greatest adventures cartoons of all time. Period. Born in that magical nexus point in the early 1980s juuuuust after the time when animated adaptations of live action shows (like this one) had their run of kidvid, and juuuuust before licensed toy adaptations (like this one) took over, it fairly stands out in the annals of Saturday morning arcana by the simple virtue of being an entirely original series whose sole purpose was to get kids to tune in. I know, what a concept.

One of the earliest productions from '80s animation powerhouse Ruby-Spears, Thundarr was set two thousand years after a space-borne catastrophe has left the world in post-apocalyptic ruins. The titular hero travels the wrecked remains of the once-United States along with his two friends, the magical Princess Ariel and the animalistic (read: Chewbacca-inspired) Ookla the Mok, as they do battle with various monsters, wizards, and other baddies. There wasn't really an "arc," per se. That was pretty much it. When kids tuned in to ABC Saturday mornings in fall of 1980, this was what awaited them:

Seriously, that's some dark stuff in general, but most especially for a Saturday morning skein. The end of the world is the start of the story. And honestly, I think that's why kids loved it. It's the same reason they loved the Planet of the Apes before it (and, as it happens, the music for Thundarr was provided by composer Dean Elliot, who re-used many of his cues from the Apes cartoon show in the '70s). Thundarr told straightforward adventure stories that were aimed at a younger audience, yes, but they never talked down to that audience. Certainly that's the reason I dug it as kid, and why I still do as a slightly taller kid.

Helping matters considerably on that front was the impressive roster of comic book veterans who helped shepherd the series to the screen. From creator Steve Gerber to writers like Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Martin Pasko (who gave Gerber the name for Thundarr's companion Ookla after seeing a sign for the UCLA campus), the production staff was a veritable who's-who of the comic industry's brightest lights. And of course I can't forget the impressive design work by legendary Jack Kirby (who toiled in very similar territory via his Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth series for DC Comics several years prior).

Thundarr the Barbarian enjoyed a two-season, 21-episode run on ABC, and the extant episodes landed on NBC in 1983 for another season. Supposedly its cancellation was less about ratings and more about the perceived violent content, which is both a shame and a head-scratcher, given some of the stuff that would air afterwards. Nonetheless, while Thundarr kind of disappeared from airwaves and brainpans following its cancellation, Warner Bros. (which now owns the many Ruby-Spears assets) did make the series available on DVD a few years ago via its manufacture-on-demand service, and it remains a terrific show that's been seen far too little.

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