Thursday, October 07, 2010

Culture Shock 10.07.10: 'Thundarr the Barbarian' survives apocalypse

If you grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons during the 1980s, chances are you're familiar with Ruby-Spears Productions, even if you don't recall the name.

Ruby-Spears produced some of that decade's most memorable cartoons, and one of them has finally made its long-overdue debut on home video.

Warner Bros., which owns most of the Ruby-Spears library, has just released "Thundarr the Barbarian" on DVD-R through its Warner Archive label, online at The Warner Archive is a burn-on-demand service, so the DVDs aren't manufactured until you order them, and they're not available in stores.

But don't let the hassle of ordering direct from Warner Bros. deter you. "Thundarr" holds up surprisingly well for a 30-year-old cartoon constrained by the draconian standards-and-practices rules of early-'80s Saturday-morning broadcast television. If you now have children of your own, "Thundarr" is something you can enjoy together. It goes best with a bowl of Sugar Pops, or Corn Pops, or whatever Kellogg's is calling them now.

"Thundarr" is Conan the Barbarian meets He-Man, even though the show actually pre-dates "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" by a couple of years.

Two thousand years in the future, the Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, littered with the ruins of the 20th century civilization. (The apocalypse in question is said to have occurred in 1994, when a "runaway planet" passed between the Earth and the moon with catastrophic results. So we really dodged a bullet.) But a new civilization has emerged, populated with human survivors, mutants, aliens and the occasional power-mad wizard who mixes science with sorcery.

The wizards are the ones who menace Thundarr and his friends during most of their weekly adventures.

"Thundarr" clearly owes a debt to the original "Star Wars" saga, which was in full swing when the show debuted in 1980. Thundarr's weapon of choice is his "sun sword," which works a lot like a lightsaber, except, this being a children's show, he never cuts anyone's arm off. Thundarr's best friend is Ookla the Mok, who is a bit like a Wookie, except with a lion's head. Like Chewbacca, Ookla speaks only in grunts and snarls.

Joining Thundarr and Ookla in their adventures is Princess Ariel, the one magic-user who uses her powers for good rather than evil.

The main reason "Thundarr the Barbarian" still entertains while most other cartoons of its era don't is the team of writers and animators behind it.

"Thundarr" was created by Steve Gerber, creator of Marvel Comics' Howard the Duck, which is not to be confused with the turkey of a movie that came later. One of the staff writers was Mark Evanier, writer of the comic "Groo the Wanderer" and a veteran of well-regarded cartoons like "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Garfield and Friends." The production design was the work of comics legend Jack Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and other Marvel characters. And the character design came from Alex Toth, who also designed the characters for "Space Ghost" and "Superfriends."

Although it ran for only 21 episodes over two seasons, "Thundarr" has cemented its place among Saturday morning's most enduring TV shows and developed an enthusiastic cult following.

Most other Ruby-Spears shows, however, are products of their time.

The studio almost cornered the market for cartoons based on arcade games ("Dragon's Lair," "Space Ace" and "Donkey Kong"), produced animated versions of "Punky Brewster" and "Mork and Mindy," and even made cartoons based on the "Rambo" and "Police Academy" movies, as well as an animated Chuck Norris miniseries.

None of these shows hold up as well as "Thundarr." OK, most of them just don't hold up. But they're a window to the '80s.

Maybe, like "Thundarr," they'll resurface, too.

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