On Friday night, Cartoon Network fires up “ThunderCats,” its satisfying update of the 1985-’90 animated classic about feline humanoids fighting to survive on a desolate planet against incredible odds – and against an aggressively hammy performance by the evil sorcerer Mumm-Ra.
As beloved as the original’s awesomely implausible plot and iconic Rankin/Bass animation were, the show may be most remembered for birthing one of the most ridiculous and irritating cartoon characters television has ever known: Snarf.
In stark contrast to his young charge, Lion-O, the unflappable and bipedal alpha ThunderCat, this vexing nursemaid sidekick was merely a whiny fur-blob who padded around on all fours and dished out no end of shout-outs to himself. “Snarf!” he would say, all too frequently. “Snarf! Snarf!”
Interestingly, in Cartoon Network’s faithful adaptation of “ThunderCats,” Snarf is more often seen than heard. When he does utter his dubious catchphrase, it’s not nearly as intrusive as you’d expect, and he otherwise uses no verbal language. Curious about what prompted the show’s producers to alter a character that fans love to hate, we phoned up showrunner Michael Jelenic and visuals producer Ethan Spaulding to explain themselves.
Can you walk us through your Snarf strategy?
Michael Jelenic: Our Snarf strategy actually shifted a couple of times during the course of development. Early on, there were a lot of people who did not want Snarf to appear. Snarf came very close to getting the axe. And then he was reimagined as a sort of tough battle cat. Like, a Doberman pinscher version of Snarf — but a cat. And that development sort of made sense. But at the same time, that isn’t really true to what his appeal was. So, after that, it went back to, “Let’s cut him out.”
Jelenic: Yeah. I was always an advocate for keeping him in because out of all the characters from the original show, I remembered Snarf. In the 1980s, my favorite characters always tended to be the annoying ones that everyone hated. Like, Murdoch was my favorite character on “The A-Team,” and Screech on “Saved by the Bell.” So I think the compromise was, “Let’s keep him in the show and let him be comic relief as he was always intended, but let’s, you know, keep him from talking.”
Hilarious. What ultimately made you to decide to put him back in?
Jelenic: During the course of development, the first thing anybody would ask about when we were pitching it was, “What are you guys doing with Snarf?” Because he wasn’t really included in the pitch one way or the other. We hadn’t made a decision. So it was like, okay, if they’re asking that in the room, they’re going to be asking everywhere else. He had to be in there.
But before Ethan Spaulding [came on board], there was another producer who was going to be working on the project and he wanted things to be more serious and realistic. Up to that point, it was either Snarf is going to be bad-ass or he isn’t going to be in it. Once Ethan came on board, the possibility of making an old school Snarf became more of a possibility.
Ethan, were you surprised by the Snarf plan after signing on?
Ethan Spaulding: I understood why they wanted to cut him out, really. But at the same time, there’s a way to make him cool, you know? Because he had a cool-looking design. In the back of my head, I said we can probably keep him. Just tone him down and it’ll be fine.
He does look pretty similar.
Spaulding: We wanted to keep as much as possible because there were some really cool aspects to him in the original [pictured at left]. There’s a cool aspect where he looks like he’s part dragon. He’s a cat, but he also has scales on his stomach and claw-like, fleshy hands. If you remember the Rankin/Bass “Hobbit” cartoon, the dragon Smaug had a lot of those design elements. We were like, “Yeah, let’s keep that because it’s totally weird.” So he still has that. We changed the eyes a little bit to make him more cat-like and, I guess you could say, a little bit cuter. We might have fattened him up a bit.
Your version deploys him mostly for cutesy comic effect. So, is he more like the ThunderCats’ pet?
Spaulding: It’s the same role; the old Snarf is there in the visuals and in spirit. Even though he doesn’t speak English to Lion-O straight out like he did in the original, he’ll speak in his cat-like sounds and everyone understands him, you know? It’s kind of like R2D2 or Chewbacca.
Jelenic: I think the result of what we've done is that he doesn't overpower this show in the same way as he did in the other one. He's more of an accent. But he's super charming. Every time, the camera cuts to him for a close-up, it's pretty cute. From what I hear, girls really respond to him.
Have you guys ever discussed how Snarf, a cat who walks on four legs, could be so different than Lion-O, a cat who walks on two? It’s like the age-old Pluto vs. Goofy debate.
Spaulding: That’s a good question and something we wrestle with. We talk about that because, at one time, we were like, “Can they ride horses?” I mean, you want to get them riding some creature. But it’s like, wait a minute — and you think exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like, there’s cats with four legs and then there’s cats with two legs. What’s the science behind that?
So we get a little vague around there on purpose just to keep some mystery. Some stuff, you won’t know. You’ll see these other mutants and animals on Third Earth and you’ll just have to accept them, because we’re going pretty detailed. My take on it is that the Snarf is just an older race of cats and they evolved. Something happened there.
In the scripts, would you actually write, “Snarf says ‘Snarf’”?
Jelenic: I would. I don’t know if we’ll be doing that going forward but the scripts would say, “Snarf: ‘Snarf! Snarf!’” — which is some of the easier dialogue I would have to write.
Have you imposed a limit on the number of times per episode that Snarf can say “Snarf”?
Jelenic: There is a Snarf equation that we’re working out for how many you can get in before it gets annoying. A little goes a long way. Sometimes it’s better just to see the character and not hear him.
John Sellers is TheWrap's resident "ThunderCats" expert and is totally on Twitter. "ThunderCats" debuts on Cartoon Network on Friday, July 29, at 8 p.m.