The children of the 80s may still be in denial, but it's time for real talk: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was little more than a hugely successful toy commercial campaign designed to push sales of action figures and accessories (sold seperately).
The success of the Star Wars toy line established that kids didn’t want just one toy from a show or movie, they would buy as many as they could. This inspired Mattel to develop a massive cast of distinctive characters, working in conjunction with animation studio Filmation by incorporating them all into the show. When the time came for the Masters of The Universe to reach the big screen, the commercial imperative remained the same: make a movie that would sell even more toys.
But the filmmakers didn’t have much in the way of weighty material to work with. The cartoon series' episodes involved He-Man and a squad of ever-changing heroes battling Skeletor and a squad of ever-changing bad guys for control of their world, Eternia. Perfect fodder for a kids cartoon, but Star Wars had seriously raised expectations for movies aimed at kids.
And so the decision was made just to copy Star Wars.
The first sequences of the film are lifted almost directly from Star Wars – certainly some cinematography, with set design and music altered just enough to keep the lawyers at an arms distance. Skeletor’s theme is generously just one or two notes different to Vader’s.
But it would be doing a disservice to the memory of this cult classic to remember it only as a Star Wars clone. That's just the jumping-off point. The film's writer, David Odell, had quite extensive experience in kids’ entertainment. He was an Emmy winner for his work on The Muppet Show, and was consequently drawn in as a writer on one of Jim Henson’s most fondly remembered tales, The Dark Crystal. He obviously had a lot of ideas for this story and wanted it to go further than the cartoon series (and be more than just a Star Wars rip-off).
In fact, there are so many ideas smooshed into this 106-minute film, it's kind of hard to keep up with. The premise involves a bizarre elf-type leprechaun critter (not from the cartoon series), who creates a magical synthesizer/light projector thingy with the ability to open a wormhole through which the user and their cronies can travel to anywhere in the universe. Skeletor (Frank Langella) now believes he can control Eternia because he has got his hands on the only device, but as he tries to enslave the planet, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) obtains one as well. He-Man, however, accidentally uses his Cosmic Key to travel to New Jersey, where the device is lost but soon discovered by a teenage musician and his girlfriend, whose parents have just died in a plane crash.
You got all that?
It’s hardly the obvious approach to plotting a He-Man film, and the pacing of the action and some interesting performances mean it’s actually a crazier journey than you can imagine. Lundgren is a laughably awesome He-Man (via Conan the Barbarian) in his first role after shooting to fame as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. There’s the great before-she-was-famous performance by Courteney Cox as the Earth damsel in distress with future Star Trek: Voyager star Robert Duncan McNeill as her boyfriend, and a stack of legendary Hollywood B- and C-listers filling out most of the main roles. Meg Foster rules as Evil-Lyn; Billy Barty giggles and hoots as the weird leprechaun, Gwildor; Langella camps it up as Skeletor... it's all more than the idea of this movie deserves.
The production values are hilariously low, the cheap '80s FX look bad even for the time, it bears almost no resemblance to the cartoon, AND rips off massive chunks of Star Wars. Yet, these factors don't detract from the movie. They’re actually what make Masters of the Universe the type of terrible movie that is impossible not to enjoy.
The film was a flop at the box office, but the real failure of the film is that it barely sold any toys for Mattel.
Watch Masters of the Universe now at SBS On Demand: