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Prince Adam (Cam Clarke) is a care-free misfit living in the peaceful land of Eternia when disaster strikes—the evil Skeletor and his horde of monstrous minions escape from their decades long captivity. With war upon his doorstep, Adam is taken to Castle Greyskull by his mentor Man-At-Arms (Gary Chalk), where he’s given a (long) magical sword that turns him into Eternia’s most powerful guardian—He-Man (also Cam Clarke, sporting a deeper voice). With the aid of Man-At-Arms and the rest of the Masters of the Universe (the universe being the planet of Primus in this case), the mighty He-Man vows to defeat Skeletor's and once again bring peace to his kingdom.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
I was not allowed to watch any television other then the occasional episode of Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood from 1980 through about 1986, when I realized I could just wake up earlier then my parents on Saturdays to watch cartoons. The original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series ran from 1983 to 1985 (though apparently the toy line was released a year earlier), so I never, ever saw it. I also wasn’t allowed to play with action figures that accessorized with weapons (with the exception of Star Wars) until some time around 1989 when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit. He-Man didn’t entirely pass me by, however, thanks to my friends and their more lenient parents. I didn’t know a thing about the universe’s winding mythology, but I knew a cool toy when I saw it. He-Man toys were the epitome of cool. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I think the battle damage figures were the coolest.

The problem I have with looking back on any of the various early ‘80s cartoons based on toy lines is that I wasn’t allowed to watch the shows as a kid, so I don’t share the rabid sense of nostalgia with same-age adult fans. I watch G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, etc, and all I see and hear is cheap animation and terrible dialogue. I can’t even look back on my personal childhood favourites with rose coloured glasses. Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suck, I admit it. This isn’t a statement on the tastes of others, this isn’t me looking down on adult fans, this is me setting up my tastes on the subject of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

The whole revamping of my childhood in the early 2000s was strange. Some things never went away ( Transformers), but others were restarted and aired to the appeal of kids born to my generation. I suppose the reasoning was that these properties were popular for a reason, and if done right studios and organizations could make a little green from both the kids and there nostalgia sick parents. I watch a lot of cartoons (most of them awful), so I’m at least a little familiar with most of these revamps, including He-Man. The only one that really worked is the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, which effectively fills out the kids’ needs while still offering a bit of ‘grittier’ action for the parents.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
The new adventures of He-Man are so close to working out it can be quite painful at times. The new writers smartly reset the entire universe to not include our Earth, and have developed the newly named planet Primus more completely then most ‘for kids’ action series. Unfortunately, they don’t put very much effort into giving these larger then life characters anything satisfying to say, and their adventures become repetitive after five episodes. The tired one-liners and same adventure as last feeble plotting don’t do much to overcome the bigger problem of dealing in characters with names like Man-E-Faces, Evil-Lyn, Stinkor, and, well, He-Man.

The animation is hit and miss, but the hits are pretty impressive, and the character designs are pretty effective (much better then the old show). The action is much larger then the stiff-limbed fisticuffs of the original series, and in true early ’00 fashion everyone in the land of Eternia knows kung fu. But every grand staff spin and masterstroke of the sword ends up undone by really weak editing. A hero will perform a spectacular triple back flip while dodging several hundred laser blasts, only to have the villain he’s facing pause for a solid two seconds before fighting back. Another issue is the show’s strange shading colour pallet. Almost every single character, no matter what colour his or her uniform and skin, is shaded with the same green/brown hue, even if emerging from a jet-black background shadow.

It’s hard to entirely dismiss something as packed with cool imagery as He-Man, however. The hero rides a giant armoured cat, robotic limbs transform into giant guns, and skulls and dragons are simply everywhere. The series originated as a Conan the Barbarian toy line, and even the most deficient plots are infused with at least a hair of a Frank Frazettastic sense of adult fantasy. In effect, He-Man is sort of the kiddy equivalent of Heavy Metal. I can’t think of any other film or television series that balances (however ungracefully) equal parts of science fiction and traditional fantasy, and I’m sure the Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings aspects didn’t escape Cartoon Network or Mattel when they decided to reintroduce the series. Actually, the universe of Eternia could make for a good action film series…

…if only the hero wasn’t named ‘He-Man’.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Video


He-Man is just about average for a TV animation release video-wise, though refreshingly anamorphically enhanced (at about 1.78:1). All three discs are interlaced rather than progressively encoded, leading to a few choppy transitions and some minor combing effects (usually around mouths). The colours are bright enough, or as bright as can be expected from a show with a surprisingly dreary colour pallet, but bright reds are quite blocky around the edges and tend to bleed into areas beyond their borders. The clarity of the disc is enough for one to really revel in the creator’s bad shading choices. Sometimes the medium dark purples of Skeletor’s cape are actually darker then the default shadow brown.

Audio


Again, this is exactly what we should expect from a TV animation release. The Dolby Surround (technically speaking a stereo track that happens to work with PLII) isn’t too aggressive, but opens up to some decent stereo effects during action scenes. The dialogue is effectively centred, though it bleeds a bit into the stereo channels every once and a while. The surround channel is devoted to a few of the bigger sound effects (exploding volcanoes, gusting wind, crushed trees) and the musical score. This particular score is produced by the one and only Joseph LoDuca, the man behind about a million Sam Raimi productions, including the original Evil Dead, Hercules, Xena, and so on. I’d call it above average, but television animation seems to have decent music across the board these days.

Extras


A total of five episodes include commentary from director Gary Hartle, story editor Dean Stefan, writer Larry DiTillio, and moderator Ian Richter. Disc three of this three disc set is devoted to the bulk of the extras, which mostly come down to a collection of video commentaries, which go on quite a bit longer then the episode’s feature length. The commentaries are a bit on the dry side, except the extended video commentaries, which really pick up after the episode ends. Episodes one through three are also available for an animatic viewing, though only on disc three. During the video commentary playback the screen is divided into three segments, so that the commentary, episode, and animatic may be watched all at once (the animatics can also be watched seperetly).

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Disc three’s ‘World of He-Man’ featurette isn’t a documentary as the press material indicates, but a full, twenty-two minute episode devoted to setting up the characters on both sides of the good/evil line, and showing off a few of the more exciting action scenes. Some of these scenes and characters are not yet introduced in this thirteen-episode collection, so this non-anamorphic episode also acts as a teaser trailer for kids that haven’t already seen the series.

Each episode includes the original morals segments, which were apparently never aired on Cartoon Network, probably because the studio assumed kids were bright enough to pick up these not so subtle morals for themselves. The disc itself is finished off with three still galleries (one of character sketches), and DVD-ROM scripts for all thirteen episodes, but the package also includes an eight page booklet and two Masters of the Universe collectible ‘art cards’ by acclaimed comic book artists Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night, Silent Hill) and Dustin Nguyen (Superman/Batman, Detective Comics).

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Overall


The new adventures of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is better than both previous incarnations (or all three if you count the live action movie). The action is appropriately over the top, the music is pretty good, and the animation seems to improve as the show goes on. Unfortunately, the characters still have ridiculous names, the costume designs would still make leather geek blush (and why doesn’t Skeletor have any shoes on?), and the plot and dialogue has been dumbed down for the wee ones. I’ve seen enough episodes to know that, like most modern animated series, things get better, and you could do worse on a Saturday morning.


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