You know you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when an official studio DVD release resembles a bootleg purchased out of the trunk of some guy’s car. Thundarr the Barbarian–a third-tier Saturday morning cartoon produced by Ruby-Spears for the undemanding children of the early 1980s–must have some fans somewhere. They deserve better than the package assembled for them here. Hit the jump for my full review.
The show itself certainly doesn’t justify much. It’s a hastily redressed riff on Star Wars, presenting a colorful, kid-friendly variation of the post-apocalyptic wasteland scenario. Thousands of years after a “runaway planet” devastates the surface of the Earth, a new world arises: full of “savagery, super science and sorcery” the opening titles assure us. That gave the animators the means to slap whatever they wanted onto the screen and still make it fit within the context. (Rumor has it that Jack Kirby contributed some of the designs; if so, he’s… um… done better.) A hero arises in the form of Thundarr: his six-pack abs covered by a brown fur shift, bringing justice to the land with the aid of his miraculous Sunsword (it’s not a lightsaber). He travels with a pair of sidekicks: Ookla the Mok (he’s not a Wookie) and the magic-using Princess Aerial (she’s not… oh never mind). Together, they set out to right wrongs, protect the weak and do all that other standard-issue good guy stuff that doesn’t require the writers to put a whit of thought into anything.
As with a lot of Saturday morning efforts, each episode follows a rigid formula: the gang arrives at the ruins of some widely recognized contemporary landmark, where the week’s robot, wizard or mad knight plots some horrible deed against some hapless community or another . Thundarr promptly places his hide-covered boot up their Mad Max asses, the saved villagers thank him, the end. The basics never varied, nor did the shoddy animation which brought them to life. Warners prepared a relatively clean transfer for the DVD, which lets all of the flaws show up beautifully in inescapable high definition. Continuity errors appear with embarrassing regularity, while the creature design often seems lifted from earlier Saturday morning fare. Character development is non-existent. We never learn why Thundarr fights for justice, or how he and his companions ended up together. The show just chucks us headlong in the assembly line of episodes, each one all but indistinguishable from its fellows.
Admittedly, Thundarr’s two sidekicks both constitute a step up from other shows of the period: Ariel seems competent and assertive (a comparative rarity for female characters) and as a designated Wacky Animal , Ookla proves far less annoying than, say, Gleek from The Super Friends. It’s also worth noting that–as cheesy and amateurish as the show appears–it still provides a hefty dose of nostalgia. Those who watched it with more innocent eyes back in the day may get a kick out of its shoddy adventure stories, or smile at how they could have loved such absolute piffle so much. Gen X parents might have fun sharing the memories with their kids, and if you’re looking for pajama party fodder, you could do a lot worse.
The basic graphic features a generic “Warner Archives” logo and two crude options allowing you to either select a single episode or run all of the episodes on the disc. That’s it. The discs themselves suffer from sloppy mislabeling (with episodes incorrectly noted on the wrong disc), and the DVD packaging looks like something quickly cranked out on Photoshop somewhere. Whatever fans this show has, they’ve earned some basic care and attention after waiting so long to see it on DVD.
All of which is a way of saying that casual viewers probably shouldn’t bother. Warners has released individual episodes of Thundarr in its Saturday Morning Cartoons series, and only completionists need more than an episode or two to scratch their nostalgic itch. Those pining for the complete series can enjoy the decent image quality here: the only thing about this set which improves upon a bootleg. As for everyone else, Thundarr works best as a fond memory, a memory which this set exposes to the harsh and unblinking light of a decidedly disappointing reality.