❉ A fast-paced, fact-packed retrospective of the toy franchise’s rise & fall.
Proclaiming itself to be ‘The Definitive History’ within the title is a confident move on the part of Power of Grayskull’s producers, Randall Lobb and Robert McCallum, resonating with Lobb’s similarly-titled 2014 documentary on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon. The title alone prompts an obvious question: Is it?
I’ve had an interesting relationship with He-Man throughout my life, never really seeing the attraction of muscle-bound heroes as a child, and always feeling like the odd one out in the playground while the other boys ran around screaming ‘I have the power!’. This film offered me a deeper view into a key part of pop-culture I’d previously never had access to. As a result, it’s not for me to say whether Lobb and McCallum left any stones uncovered, but certainly in its feature-length run time, it packs the facts in, moving at such a fast pace there doesn’t seem wasn’t room for more raw data. I fail to see how this could have been any more in-depth at 95 minutes, and by the time the credits rolled I felt I had a clear understanding of the story of He-Man’s rise to fame and ultimate end.
The entire presentation is slick and watchable. As a “non-fan”, attracted to this film only by my interest in pop-culture, it had to be, and from the classy opening montage it’s made clear that this will be an intelligent look at the history. Throughout the early parts it even seems to speak to viewers with my level of knowledge, by first firmly rooting He-Man into the history of toy licenses, discussing Star Wars in particular, before delving into the unknown.
They also take a little time to explain the in-universe mythos of He-Man, likely unnecessary for 95% of the audience, but a great help to rope me in, and throughout we have the opportunity to pour over sketches and designs that surely any animation fan will enjoy. The soundtrack is sensitive and keeps the pace moving nicely, and there’s plenty of trivia, such as why Battle Cat has his saddle, to keep us entertained. Again, some of this may be obvious to more experienced viewers, but it shows a real appreciation of the breadth of the audience.
Where the film lacks, and I suspect it’s an intentional choice on the part of the producers, is any real heart. In this documentary about macho superheroes, it would have been lovely to hear about some of the emotions experienced during the creation or demise of the He-Man legend. Instead we are paraded a series of well-informed talking heads clearly narrating the story, but rarely giving us an insight into the people.
Notable exceptions are Tom Sito, who brings non-present individuals to life so well through his anecdotes, and J Michael Strackzynski, who grumbles a little about the misperceptions of violence and the misogyny he saw in the fact that She-Ra was not allowed to be directly violent herself. To me, this is a missed opportunity, as I would imagine a lot of the facts from the storytelling can be heard elsewhere.
The beauty of the film documentary genre is the ability to see the people behind those stories and the emotion behind them. There’s clearly a desire there – Paul Cleveland’s note that “it was pretty sad” when the range died the first time seems on the verge of… something. Something that is brushed aside as we’re moved into a whirlwind overview of the various attempts to relaunch He-Man. Just extending the run time by 15 minutes to allow a bit of time to get the feelings out would have made a world of difference.
There’s a few odd stylistic choices too. The interviews are constantly accompanied by captions that just don’t go away (after the sixth time we’ve seen Dolph Lundgren, we should know who he is without support) and a strangely cheap-looking interstitial sequence with spheres flying around the screen to take us from one segment to the next. It stands out because so much of the editing is paced beautifully, and in most cases there’s been sufficient time setting up the lighting and cinematography to make this a genuinely beautiful and professional looking documentary. The odd slips, especially in post-production, seem baffling. Does this ruin the film? Absolutely not. It just suggests a certain level of incompleteness that keeps it shy of being a perfect review of the era.
As an unabashed fan of the 1987 feature film, I was surprised and thrilled to see it given a suitable amount of time, covered by wonderful interviews with Lundgren and Frank Langella (too much to hope for Courtney Cox to share her memories, of course!), and amazed to see the amount of love and attention Langella gave a role which other actors of his stature would have considered beneath them. For me, this portion of the documentary was a real gem, and one that could easily have been brushed over as they otherwise focused on the toys and cartoons.
Despite my misgivings about some elements, this is definitely a film to spend an evening enjoying, whether reminiscing over childhood memories or like me, gaining a deeper insight into something that has indisputable historical significance.
❉ ‘THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ is released September 3 on DVD and Digital from High Octane Pictures.
❉ Matt Dale is the author of ‘Quantum Leap: Beyond the Mirror Image – The Observer’s Guide to Quantum Leap’, the most in-depth publication on Quantum Leap ever written, available from tmebooks.uk. Follow his musings on twitter @Matt_Dale