Even if you're not a big fan of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," you've got to admit that any afterschool kid's show that features she-demons and witch-queens has a certain subversive appeal. In the episode "Wizard of Stone Mountain," for example, a lovestruck sorcerer named Mallek makes a Faustian
deal with a creepy little demon named Lokus in exchange for Teela. When Lokus makes good on the agreement, Evil itself ("the master of fear and destroyer of hope, the enemy of Mankind throughout the universe") comes to collect on Mallek's soul. That's pretty hardcore for boys aged 5-12. Naturally, He-Man stops him, but it's no wonder that conservative religious groups had issues with this stuff.
They missed the point, of course. Not only does good always win out over evil here, but "He-Man" is probably one of the most ethical action cartoons of all time. And unlike "G.I. Joe", which just threw in random safety tips or whatever at the end of the show to qualify as educational, "Masters of the Universe" almost always relates the moral to the episode itself. There are some clunky ones (like "A Friend in Need," in which a friend of Teela's becomes addicted to magic pills from a drug-dealing Evil-Lyn), but watching as an adult, I can appreciate what Filmation was trying to do with the show. It's a toy commercial, sure, but it's not just a toy commercial.
The 33 episodes here comprise the first of four planned volumes (and the second "He-Man" release after last August's 10-episode "Best of..." set). The booklet states that they're in "story continuity order," as opposed to original production or broadcast order. I guess that means doing things like
swapping "Orko's Favorite Uncle" (MU027) and "The Return of Orko's Uncle" (MU023), but there's really not a lot of that and so the set's essentially in production order.
Ironically, some of the biggest clunkers in the
collection are "Diamond Ray of Disappearance"
and "Quest for He-Man," which somehow made it onto the "Best of..." release. Meanwhile, any number of better ones — "She-Demon of Phantos," "Masks of Power," "Ordeal in the Darklands,"
"The Defection," and my favorite, "The Taking of Grayskull" — went unnoticed. In "The Taking of Grayskull," Skeletor manages to steal He-Man's sword and pull Castle Grayskull into an alternate dimension that he rules. When He-Man and Teela arrive, they find Skeletor sitting on the throne of Grayskull with the Sorceress chained to the wall. "Masks of Power" has a man and woman eager to join the ranks of Skeletor proving themselves by finding the masks of the evil King Demos and Queen Terella, which, when worn, possess the
two with the souls of their former owners. And in "She-Demon of Phantos," Skeletor turns the queen of Phantos into an evil witch to sabotage relations with Eternia. There's nothing particularly deep about any of it, but it's consistently fun, and if you have kids, they're sure to get a kick out of it, too.
As with all of the "He-Man" DVD releases, the show is adapted from a cleaned-up PAL transfer, and it looks sharp (certainly better than it ever looked during the original broadcasts). The main problem is the same as the "Best of..." collection: when Cringer is transformed into Battle Cat, there is an obscene amount of pixelation. It's not an enormous issue, but
it's something that needs to be corrected for upcoming volumes.
The language tracks consist of English and Spanish Dolby 2.0 stereo. As a result of the PAL transfer, everything is sped up by four percent, meaning voices are slightly more
high-pitched than you may remember them. I didn't notice any difference, though.
Packaging and Menus:
The set looks better than most big studio releases, with nice, large character designs on the discs and glossy scenes in the folds of the digipak. The spine features part of an image of Castle Grayskull; if you collect all four boxes it will apparently form the complete image. I'm guessing you'll want to display it with the castle on the outside, anyway, since the other side features the most hideous shade of neon, florescent green that I've ever seen. I've asked someone involved in the design about this strange choice and learned that all of the sets will feature a bizarre color on the opposing spine. FYI.
The menus are stylish but slow, especially in the episode navigation; on a slower player you might wonder if the thing has locked up. Also, when you load a disc, you are irritatingly forced to wait through all the company logos, since all buttons are disabled until you get to the main menu. Give the people a chapter skip button, at least, guys.
There's quite a bit here for fans of the show. "The Secret Origins of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" is a 20-minute overview of the beginnings of the series and the themes that the writers and directors tried to follow throughout its 130-episode run. Among other things, Lou Scheimer and others stress the innovative nature of a first-run syndicated series intended for weekdays with 65-episode seasons. The second documentary, "The Stories of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," is half an hour long and presumably the first of four parts. The writers of the various episodes recall how episodes came to be and some of the troubles (usually budgetary) that they ran into along the way.
A storyboard version of "The Taking of Grayskull" can also be found on the bonus disc. Normally I skip storyboards, but I like how this one is formatted, with three different
options for watching the episode (with both storyboard and finished episode visible in all three). Unfortunately, it managed to lock up my DVD player at the 1:15 mark every time. Skipping past that point may save you some frustration if your player has the same problem.
In addition, fun facts are spread throughout the episodes, mainly covering the differences from script to screen, and there are profiles of 50 characters, creatures, and artifacts in case you ever become embroiled in a heated debate about just what a "Creeping Horak" is.
On the DVD-ROM, there are five scripts in PDF format: "Diamond Ray of Disappearance," "Quest for He-Man," "Evilseed," "Ordeal in the Darklands," and "Prince Adam No More." Finally, there are two postcards by artists Alex Ross and Bill Sienkiewicz. Ross's is a very nice pencil sketch of a battle royale between good and evil, while Sienkiewicz's is a more abstract take on Skeletor and Evil-Lyn.
Simply put, if you liked the "Best of..." set, this is more of the same. Recommended.