I’m going to guess that it’s because people think back to watching the show in their childhood, and then to more recent discoveries of Studio Ghibli films, and assume that Thundercats must have been made many years earlier than the likes of Totoro, but there has for years been a tendency online to say that Pacific Animation, who animated this quintessentially 80s series, went on to become Studio Ghibli, or that Pacific Animation Corporation was the name for a group of studios that included Topcraft. It is a prevalent myth that I want to lay to rest. While not far off the truth, it is nonetheless false.
For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to say Thundercats animators went on to form Ghibli when by the time Thundercats went into continuous production in 1985, Ghibli were already hard at work on Laputa, which would be the company’s first film in 1986. The fledgling studio did not have the capacity to work on both, and of course Thundercats was still being produced in 1990, by which time Ghibli were well-established and certainly not churning out Saturday morning kids’ TV.
What it is true to say is that several staff members who worked on Topcraft’s Nausicaa went on to work on Thundercats. Nausicaa transformed Topcraft, and the bulk of the studio’s staff were absorbed into Ghibli. However, many staff members did not want to join Miyazaki and Takahata’s new company, and instead went to join others, like Oh! Production, or form new studios. One of these was Pacific Animation Corporation, an animation company in its own right, not a name given to a group of other studios, nor Ghibli in disguise. While, as I have observed before, some of the first series of Thundercats looks like it could be taken right out of one of Miyazaki or Takahata’s works with Toei, neither of them had any part in Thundercats whatsoever. So while a link exists, it is a tenuous one indeed.
Thundercats was my favourite cartoon as a child, after Transformers. I have over the past few years rewatched the show from beginning to end, and nostalgia played a big part in why I enjoyed it so much – for the truth is, it really isn’t a very good show. It has a great concept, iconic designs, some very well-done episodes and some brilliant humour, but it is also overall very poor.
The story may well be familiar: when the planet of Thundera is destroyed, a small number of its inhabitants escape in spacecraft. One of these holds key nobles of the planet, the Thundercats. Wise elder Jaga sacrifices himself so that the others may live – the swift Cheetara, with psychic powers; the muscular Panthro, a capable mechanic; the thoughtful Tygra; the mischievous young ‘Thunderkittens’ Wilykit and Wilykat; and the heir to the throne, young Lion-O - along with his comic relief nurse Snarf. In a not-entirely-explained failure of his suspension capsule, Lion-O awakes at their destination as a muscle-bound adult, and for the first season at least, is a child in an adult’s body.
Lion-O, guided by the rest and acting as their leader, must establish a new home on Third Earth and defend it from various iconic bad guys, including the Mutants and Mumm-Ra, an ancient evil Egyptian wizard. The Thundercats are later joined by other survivors – blind father figure Lynx-O, handy Bengali, Snarf’s relative Snarfer and the athletic Pumyra, who oddly barely features in the fourth series and is conspicuously absent from the final episodes.
Certain things work in Thundercats and others do not. Giving Lion-O trials, being tempted by different vices and overcoming them, meeting new, powerful enemies, or being tricked and then thinking their way out of trouble: these can prove good templates for the largely episodic series – although there is a degree of continuity, with different cast members joining, vanquished foes staying in captivity, and a whole new planet becoming the Thundercats’ home base. But the big problems come from lazy plot solutions – one of the series’ biggest failings is the Sword of Omens, which contains the Eye of Thundera. At first, the magic sword is a useful tool, but only that – it can show Lion-O his friends in danger (‘Sight Beyond Sight’), it can summon the others, it can extend and it can shoot energy beams. By the end of the show, it can break any spell, cross dimensions, repair broken structures, shoot hugely powerful lasers and anything else the writers feel they need to end the episode. We get good set-ups, plenty of peril, and then it’s too often undone by this magic solution.
And while it wouldn’t occur to a small child, the need to sell toys is too prominent. The Thundercats often gain new vehicles for only an episode or two before they vanish. Captain Hammerhand is well-designed, but his cohorts are obviously based around what actions can be given to plastic models. The Lunataks are introduced as equals to the Thundercats, each of them at least a match to one of the heroes, but then a season later any Thundercat can easily overcome all of them at once. Mumm-ra gets more humanised with episodes centred on him, and even a pet dog, but he soon devolves from power-hungry to prattling about how wonderful evil is apparently for its own sake, and ends up really stupid – in one episode he transforms Ma-Mutt into a fly in order to spy on things he can already see in his cauldron.
Thundercats is full of great ideas and great characters. I could forgive embarrassing misfires like an episode centred on moths and spiders if overall the campy fun was satisfying, but taken as a whole, it’s enjoyable only knowing it’s crap, really. That said, I love the Thundercats and especially Wilykit and Wilykat, always my favourities; I can’t wait for the Studio 4°C reboot. But much as I enjoy the nostalgia, the simplicity and the world, if asked if Thundercats is good…I have to say no.
For my final word, what I wrote in 2007: ‘I will defend the show’s quality from detractors; it’s formulaic, simple and the dialogue is atrocious, but it’s imaginative, sincere and fun in a way very few shows today ever manage. Yes, it is sincere, for while it’s written in a way that seems somewhat condescending, you can tell the creators are writing what they genuinely think kids will like and what they think is good stuff, rather than patronising them with attempts to be hip and postmodern.’