Review by Roger Ash
Fans of Thundarr the Barbarian have been clamoring for a DVD release of this cult animated show from the 1980s for years. With the inclusion of a Thundarr episode on the Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s DVD set, it seemed like Warner Brothers was testing the waters for just such a release. And now they have finally released it as a Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection: Thundarr the Barbarian DVD set (although H-B didn’t actually have anything to do with the show, but they own the rights to it) as part of Warner Brothers’ DVD-On-Demand Archive Collection. The four-disc set contains all 21 episodes of the series’ two-season run.
The premise of the show is fairly simple. In 1994, a planet passes between Earth and the moon, creating ecological destruction. 2,000 years later, the world is vastly changed, and humanity ekes out a living amongst savage tribes of mutated beasts and warring wizards who use a mix of science and technology. Thundarr and his companions Princess Ariel and Ookla the Mok ride across this savage land fighting injustice where they find it. And if you forget the premise, it’s repeated at the beginning of every episode as part of the opening credits. This show has quite a vocal and enthusiastic fan base, but does the show hold up 30 years after it originally aired? Before we answer that question, let’s take a look back.
Lords of Light!
Saturday morning animation in the 70s and 80s was, to be brutally honest, not good. Rising production costs and smaller budgets from the networks forced corners to be cut. Some animation duties were shipped overseas and done at a fraction of what they would cost to produce in the US. Limited animation, a style perfected by H-B to produce animation on a smaller budget than theatrical cartoons, became even more limited. Most Saturday morning cartoons were produced very cheaply, and you could easily see that in the end product.
Another huge influence was watchdog groups like Action for Children’s Television. These groups worked to make shows educational and keep cartoons from being more than half-hour advertisements for toys or cereal. They also hated violence. The general maxim at the time seemed to be if a child could repeat an action they saw on TV and harm themselves or others, it was forbidden. Elmer Fudd blasting Daffy Duck in the face with a shotgun? Nope. Edit that out. Jonny Quest firing a rifle at the bad guys? We can’t show that again.
It was into this environment that Thundarr was unleashed. A post-apocalyptic adventure starring a barbarian doesn’t seem like a show that would work with these restrictions, but it did. Thundarr the Barbarian was produced by Ruby-Spears, a company founded by former H-B employees Joe Ruby and Ken Spears. It reminds me of classic H-B animated adventure series like Jonny Quest and The Herculoids. Even before the first episode aired, there was a lot of talk about the show in the animation, science fiction, and comic fan press due to the number of comic creators working on the show. I’ll admit I was excited about Thundarr because the show was created by one of my favorite comic writers, the late Steve Gerber. Gerber is best known as the creator of Howard the Duck, but he also wrote memorable runs on Marvel’s Defenders and Man-Thing. Martin Pasko, Buzz Dixon, Mark Evanier, and Roy Thomas –- all of whom were known for their work in comics -– were also on the writing staff for Thundarr.
On the art side, Thundarr had a majorly impressive résumé as well. The three lead characters were designed by comic and animation legend Alex Toth — Ariel is a quintessential Toth girl — who had done design work for many H-B shows, including Space Ghost. Many of the other characters in the series were designed by one of comic’s most important artists, Jack Kirby. Kirby co-created many of Marvel Comics’ most famous characters, including the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men, and Iron Man, as well as the highly influential Fourth World series for DC. Fans of Kirby’s work can see his touches all over the show. The wizard Gemini, who has a face on each side of his head, could easily have fit into one of Kirby’s Fourth World stories. Also on the crew was Doug Wildey, who is best known as the creator of Jonny Quest.
Thundarr suffers from many of the same problems as other animated series of the time. The animation is poor. For an adventure show, the action is often paced so slowly that there is no tension. The voice acting, outside of the three lead characters, is pretty bland. Want to know who the villain is in a given episode? Listen for the character who’s yelling. Most of the villains in Thundarr yell a lot. The rules against violence often led to ridiculous situations, such as in the episode “The Brotherhood of Night”, where Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla face a pack of werewolves. The werewolves don’t turn people into werewolves by biting them, but instead through some vague mystical process.
On the plus side, the backgrounds are often gorgeous and look a bit like settings from Jonny Quest. Part of the fun of the show is seeing the locations the episodes are set in. You get to see the ruins of famous places like Washington, DC, Mount Rushmore, and the Alamo. Robert Ridgley (Thundarr), Nellie Bellflower (Ariel), and Henry Corden (Ookla) do a nice job voicing their characters. In fact, the relationship between the three main characters is my favorite part of the series. And the villains, yelling aside, are just fun. There’s no grey area here; these are bad guys whom Thundarr and crew need to take down.
The first four episodes are the weakest. They have a lot of battle sequences that don’t quite work due to standards and practices at the time. Thundarr has a great weapon (more on that in a minute), but he can’t use it on anyone. But starting with the fifth episode, “Treasure of the Moks”, there is a subtle shift as the show gains more of an action/adventure focus. The fights are still there, but they are fewer. I give the writers a lot of credit for finding a way to make the show work within the strictures of the system.
The episode “Stalker From the Stars” is a personal favorite. Thundarr and crew face an alien that’s abducting humans. The alien travels underground, so you never know where it will strike, which greatly adds to the menace. It encases people in a cocoon, like a spider wrapping its prey in webbing, and takes them back to its ship. This is a very creepy, moody episode. However, it does feature a piece of logic that amuses me. The alien has fangs. Vampires have fangs. Therefore, the alien is a vampire! I’m not sure why this was necessary, as the episode works just fine as an alien invasion tale.
Ariel! Ookla! Ride!
As I said before, the main reason I still enjoy the series is the three main characters. Let’s take a closer look at them. Thundarr is a typical barbarian in the style of Conan. He’s strong, brave, and will always fight for what’s right, but he’s not very bright. He’s also extremely macho, and the idea of a woman who is a warrior is laughable to him. Parts of the episode “Attack of the Amazon Women” are hard to watch, as his views on the Amazons are so low. His main weapon is the Sunsword (think lightsaber), a formidable weapon that can slice through the villains’ weapons and destroy robots with ease. But when faced by a human or semi-human adversary — this world is filled with humanoid rats, lizards, and monkeys — all he can do is wave it around menacingly due to standards and practices. He also gets all the catch phrases in the show, including the exclamations “Lords of Light!” and “Demon Dogs!” Many an adventure begins with “Ariel! Ookla! Ride!” before they ride off on their steeds.
Princess Ariel (it’s never revealed what she’s a princess of) is the smartest and most powerful of the group (when she remembers that she is). She has studied the past and is quite knowledgeable about ancient customs and machinery. This comes in especially handy in the episode “Portal into Time” when Ariel, Thundarr, and Ookla travel back in time to old Earth (the 1980s). She is also a very powerful sorceress, but it seems like she forgets that sometimes (or more likely, the writers do). For example, she can create a mystical bridge that they can ride their horses across, yet she needs Thundarr’s help to get out of a pit she’s fallen into. She also seems to have a thing for Thundarr, but he’s either too dense to notice or he doesn’t care. In one episode, she makes an offhand comment that she is of Chinese descent.
Ookla is a humanoid lion-type thing called a Mok. You get a brief glimpse into Mok culture in “Treasure of the Moks”. According to a female Mok in the episode, Ookla is quite the looker. I’m not sure how smart he is, because he communicates in growls and roars that only Thundarr understands. Ookla is very loyal and very strong. If you’re thinking he sounds kind of like a Wookie, you wouldn’t be wrong. He also provides much of the comic relief in the series, many of those moments involving water (Moks hate water). For you trivia buffs, writer Martin Pasko named Ookla after the well-known institute of higher learning, UCLA.
Answer the Question!
Back at the beginning of the review, I asked if the show holds up 30 years after it originally aired. My answer is: Sort of. I’m sure I’ll bring down the wrath of Thundarr fandom on my head when I say that this is not a great show. It was great compared to the other Saturday morning shows produced at the same time (1980-1982), there’s no question about that. But taken on its own, it’s a good show, but not great. It’s fun, and I enjoyed seeing it again after many, many years, but it’s missing that certain something that would elevate it to greatness.
Since this is part of the Warner Archive series, there are no special features on the discs, which is a shame. I was surprised that the Thundarr featurette that was on the Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s Vol. 1 set was not included. The series has also not been restored, but the best prints available were used. For the most part, the show looks fine, but not outstanding. The episodes “Treasure of the Moks” and “Attack of the Amazon Women” are definitely showing their age and would have profited immensely from some restoration. But at least we have something now, and that’s a good thing.
I do think the problems I talked about above, such as the poor animation and the standards that were imposed on it, definitely factor into my opinion. I think fans of the series will really enjoy this DVD set, but I’m not sure how many new fans it will attract. Releasing it as a Warner Archive title that you only see online instead of on the shelves of the local Target is also going to help it stay a fan product as opposed to reaching new viewers. But for fans of the series, this is a treat. You can get your own copy for $29.95 at the Warner Archive site. (The publisher provided a review copy.)