It was 1980, and nothing could touch Kenner's line of Star Wars action figures. Mattel's rival had a Lucasfilm-granted license to print money, and although the Barbie and Hot Wheels lines were solid performers, Mattel needed something to put them back in the game. He-Man, a strange amalgamation of swords, sorcery, and spaceships, was it.
Masters of the Universe quickly blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon, grossing over a billion dollars over the course of its lifetime and spawning two animated series, a television special, an animated movie, a live-action movie, a concert tour (!), and no less than two revivals (each with its own animated series). To say that He-Man was influential to legions of boys aged 5-12 is a bit of an understatement.
So it's a little strange that "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," the cartoon that helped propel the toyline to such heights, took so long to escape from licensing hell and emerge on DVD. But nevertheless, here it is – the top ten episodes, anyway, five per season, chosen by fans.
Evilseed: Plants are taking over Eternia! When He-Man discovers Skeletor's not the one behind it, they realize they must put
aside their differences and team up to stop the viney invasion.
Quest for He-Man: He-Man is teleported by Skeletor to an alien world with no memory of
who he is or how he got there. But how will his friends find him in a universe filled with countless planets? And can He-Man stop an evil pink rabbit from destroying the planet in the name of profit?
Prince Adam No More: As Prince Adam, He-Man must pretend to be a lazy playboy to hide his secret identity. But when his father, King Randor, chooses He-Man instead of his son to escort him during the annual Royal Tour of Eternia, Adam decides to abandon his alter ego once and for all and make his father proud of him.
Diamond Ray of Disappearance: Skeletor has discovered the lost Diamond Ray of
Disappearance! With it, he has the power to
send anyone to another dimension, which he promptly uses on the royal family, in this, the first episode of the series to ever air.
Teela's Quest: Teela, adopted by Man-At-Arms at a young age, has never known the identity of her mother. Suddenly burdened by this, she undertakes a dangerous journey through the Crystal Sea to meet the Oracle and find out the truth.
Into the Abyss: While instructing Prince Adam in wilderness survival, Teela takes a wrong step and plunges into the bottomless Abyss surrounding Castle Grayskull. He-Man must brave the fierce winds to save her.
Teela's Triumph: Skeletor has sent the Sorceress and He-Man to another dimension! As the villain marshals his forces against Grayskull, Teela must take up the mantle of the Sorceress to stop him.
To Save Skeletor: Skeletor has bit off a bit more than he can chew when he summons Sh'Gora, an uncontrollable demon of incredible power, to Eternia. The forces of good and evil must once again team up if they are to save their planet from the alien menace.
The Problem with Power: He-Man inadvertently kills a man in a battle with Skeletor and decides he is no longer fit to call himself a hero. After dropping the Sword of Power into the Abyss, he discovers the truth – it was a trick! Now Adam must retrieve the sword in time to save Teela and stop a goblin army from marching on the royal palace!
Origin of the Sorceress: Morgoth the Terrible, a giant, immortal sorcerer, has broken free from the dimensional prison the
Sorceress trapped him in many years ago. As He-Man and the Sorceress prepare to stop the would-be conqueror, she reveals the events that led to her becoming the guardian of Grayskull.
The episode selection is sort of a mixed bag. "Quest for He-Man" and "Diamond Ray of Disappearance" are in every way ordinary, but the set does do a good job of including
villains besides Skeletor (Evilseed, Plundor,
Sh'Gora, Morgoth). Skeletor, naturally, gets the funniest lines of any of the characters:
He-Man: Skeletor! Follow me to Castle Grayskull!
Skeletor: I know the way, He-Man. I've been there before.
"The Problem with Power" is easily the best, despite its second-place ranking. Written by
J. Michael Straczynski ("Babylon 5"), it shows He-Man so distraught over accidentally taking a life in a rare act of recklessness that he gives up his power. He's bailed out before he gets a chance to do any real soul-searching, of course – He-Man's supposed to save the day, not meditate on the nature of life and death. Originally, Straczynski's script called for the actual death of an innocent, but he was shot down.
With the likes of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini ("Batman: The Animated Series," "Superman," "Justice League"), Bob Forward ("Beast Wars: Transformers"), and others in Filmation's employ, one wonders what kind of ground the show would have covered without such restrictions. Still, the show is what it is – for all intents and purposes, a Silver Age comic book. And that's not a bad thing by any means.
By and large, the episodes look great. Using a digitally-restored PAL version, there is very little grain present for a series two decades old. The downside, of course, is that the episodes are sped up about half a minute. I didn't notice a difference, though some ardent fans will probably be unhappy with the decision. There are also some compression blocking issues that I hope are corrected in future releases, but they only occasionally manifest themselves, most notably during Cringer's transformer to Battle Cat. It goes without saying that this is the best the series has ever looked, despite that.
The episodes are presented in glorious Dolby 2.0 mono, which is fine by me given examples of the alternative (Rhino's awful "Rhinophonic" mixes, mainly – check out Transformers: The Movie for an example of how not to do a 5.1 track). There are no subtitles.
Packaging and Menus:
The collection comes in a fantastic-looking fold-out digipak. He-Man is embossed on the front, and all the characters have a glossy finish that sets them apart from the background. On the inside, one half is comprised of Castle Grayskull while the other is Snake Mountain.
Menus feature different scenes from the interior of Castle Grayskull. The episode selection menu changes with each episode, so
it's a little frustrating how long it takes to navigate through the list. There's a "play all" option, as well.
Here's where I get excited. BCI has commissioned a sixteen-part documentary on the series. Included on these two discs are the first two parts, totaling out to be over an hour of interviews with the writers, animators, and directors about these particular episodes, organized in a countdown format to the number one episode of either season (complete with goofy VH1 "I Love the '80s"-style announcer). Not all comments are overwhelmingly positive, either. Paul Dini in particular seems indifferent to his work on the show.
Besides that there are a few "fun facts" for each episode, two nice 4x6 art cards created by Bruce Timm and Adam Hughes, PDF scripts for the top two episodes of each season, a trailer for upcoming He-Man DVD releases, and, yes, an insert.
Although you'd be hard-pressed to say that "He-Man" elevates the genre of animation in any significant way (Mattel and the Parents Television Council saw to that), it's entertaining fantasy that communicates good values without being overly preachy. The addition of an hour's worth of interviews makes this an easy set to pick up. Recommended.