Documentary Review: "Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" (2019)
The 1980’s were an unbelievable time to grow up, so much so that kids and teens now romanticize the decade on the internet ad infinitum (and for damn good reason). The Reagan era brought about social change and a drive to create and prosper that you simply had to live through to truly understand and to feel. There are a cubic fuckton of great examples of this, but none of them have a story quite like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Full disclosure: He-Man was my end-all, be-all as a kid. I was born in 1979; I AM the definitive He-Man kid! G.I. Joe was great. Star Wars was (of course) fantastic. He-Man, though…that was my shit. Period. The cartoon, the cartoon and the toys consumed me for years. There’s literally a line in the later pages of my baby book that says “he’s crazy about everything HE-MAN!!”.
That’s 100% truth.
Still, I am a professional critic with a job to do. So, I sat down with the documentary, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and firmly turned off the nostalgia center of my brain and told my inner child to shut the fuck up and go to sleep. “It’s time to do your job!”, I screamed to myself.
It almost worked, but this documentary has the power! It also has the history and depth to back it up. And despite my best efforts, I still ended up with the tears of my inner child drying on my cheeks and a wild urge to hit up E-Bay and immediately spend money I don’t have to fill that hole in my soul.
Power of Grayskull is thorough and comprehensive, starting in 1975 with the very set up that opened up the toy market and birthed the idea of He-Man. A “who’s who” of the creators and Mattel executives are extensively interviewed about the creative process and development of the groundbreaking toy line. If you have any doubt about the phrase “groundbreaking”, you will have your mind changed. The TV show “The Toys That Made Us” covered much of what’s in the first 30 or so minutes of Power of Grayskull; thankfully we get another hour on full history of Eternia’s hero (and his twin sister, She-Ra). Also interviewed at length are Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella, He-Man and Skeletor (respectively) of the 1987 feature film. The filmmakers spend time with the voice actors and writers of the cartoon series, too. They really leave no stone unturned, up to and including a couple of those ubiquitous uber-geek collector interviews. You get every angle, from the rise and fall all the way up to the 2000’s reboot. It’s deep without overstaying the welcome.
I learned a slew of interesting things about the franchise. I had no clue there was a huge premiere for the cartoon at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I never knew there was a Superman vs. He-Man comic (or knew anything of DC Comics’ presence in the early days). While I knew of Frank Langella’s fondness for the role of Skeletor in the film, you get to really see how proud one of America’s greatest actors is of his performance (also for damn good reason). In short, if He-Man was a part of your life at all then you’ll get so much more than you bargain for out of this outstanding documentary.
Beyond the nostalgia factor and the historical value, the film really shines in the She-Ra segments. A lot of women were behind the creation of both He-Man and She-Ra (franchises with no licensed establishments, for the record…a raw creation), and they tell the raw truth of what it was like to create great TV in a man’s world. Many will say that She-Ra is the better of the shows, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue. Further revelation comes in the understanding of how censorship and standards helped to create a show that wasn’t just a “smash ‘em and bash ‘em” action show birthed something utterly unique in a decade of pretty signature entertainment. It’s the story of a community creation; the definition of the expression “it takes a village…” at a time when most stories came from one male voice. It’s powerful and relevant.
Then there’s the segments on the much-maligned feature film, and it is some genuinely heartbreaking stuff from a “what could’ve/should’ve been” standpoint. Sure, Hollywood is full of those stories, but we wanted so much from the movie in ‘87. I can still feel the keen disappointment that was in my heart leaving that theater on opening weekend as well as the appreciation I’ve gained for the film over time and subsequent viewings. Behind the scenes photos, concept art, and video show you that there’s a story left to be told there. Langella and Lundgren are both very honest and fond in memory, but you’ll be touched by Langella’s love of the character and the heart he put into the role.
A good documentary should make you feel the nostalgia of that moment as well as enlighten you to things that you didn’t know while lighting a fire of interest of renewed interest. Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe does all that.
All I’ve really got left to say is my hopes for the upcoming film in 2021 have just gone past the moon and all the way to Eternia. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a glass of chocolate milk and watch some old He-Man episodes in my Underoos.
Wait, am I the only one who did that? Perhaps I’ve said too much…..
[Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premieres on Streaming and DVD on 9/3/19]