Cartoon Caravan: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Filmation, 1983)
If you were born and raised in any period from the 70s to the 90s, odds are that you had some fantastic cartoons on your television. Odds are even greater that you had one you loved especially. One you never missed if you could help
If you were born and raised in any period from the 70s to the 90s, odds are that you had some fantastic cartoons on your television. Odds are even greater that you had one you loved especially. One you never missed if you could help it. One that you would hum the theme song to or daydream about in school. If not, then I envy you. Life in a cave must have been amazing too.
Mine was a little tale about a place called Eternia, where swords and magic met technology and one ripped-as-fuck hero fought tooth and nail to keep a buff, angry skeleton from ruling the world. Not Predator. That’s a horror movie. I’m talking about He-Man, the superhuman punk-destroying pillar of righteousness who has endured as a pop culture icon for 37 years so far.
I was fascinated by He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as a kid, since I was perhaps three years old. I watched most of it on syndication, but I was devoted. The toys, the books, all of it. I even had a sort of pup-tent that went over my bed frame bearing the logo and likeness of the Blonde One himself.
The real story of Eternia began, surprisingly, in 1976. Mattel was in the throes of a classic struggle that many toy buff and kids would insist continues today: The search for the next big action figure line. Lots or R&D, along with some concepts similar to He-Man (that didn’t go far commercially) led up to the final product in 1981. Instead of “Masters of the Universe,” the toy line was meant to be called “Lords of Power,” but members of the team suggested that might sound “too religious in nature.” I guess I see what they meant, but have you ever been to the Church of the Lords of Power? I haven’t. It sounds awesome. Odd nitpicking aside, Mattel was ready to ride into battle. In 1982 the toys hit the shelves, and on September 5th, 1983 the episode “Diamond Ray of Disappearance” aired on television. He-Man had hit the big time, and history was made.
Diamond Ray of Disappearance, the very first episode to air. Enjoy.
The cartoon incarnation of He-Man was made by Filmation, a production company that did both live-action and animated programming for TV. Founded in 1962, the folks at Filmation had serious experience, serious chops, and a fantastic end product. The show ran for 163 episodes, which his a testament to the impact it made on its audiences.
Let’s start with this sick fucking intro. I mean, just the music alone – a chest-welling, uplifting rock-orchestra piece worthy of a galactic superbowl – is colossal in its weight and cheeseburgery beefiness. Then here comes Prince Adam, a guy who is built like a brick shit-house and yet somehow convinces everyone that he’s the biggest pussy on Eternia. I mean, he does still live with his mom and dad… but it’s a little different when your parents are monarchs. “Fabulous secrets” were revealed to him, however, and so he can turn both himself and his pet giant cat into total, rampaging badasses by calling on the power of Castle Greyskull.
Not a bad thing to have in your back pocket when you have shitty neighbors; the evil sorcerer Skeletor craves not only the secrets of Greyskull, but rule over Eternia as well. The cackling, imperious dickhead and his gang of hooligans are constantly flexing on King Randor, He-Man, and the Sorceress who guards Castle Greyskull. Both sides of this epic conflict fill their ranks with numerous allies… I mean, this is a cartoon meant to sell toys, right? Adam (and He-Man) usually rolls around with a minimum entourage of the following homies: Man-at-Arms, the royal arms-master with a super-sweet stache; Teela, Man-at-Arm’s daughter, a serious ass-kicker who has no patience for Adam’s bullshit but just adores He-Man; and Orko, the addle-brained court magician who always seems to fuck things up but sometimes manages to save the day with his poorly-controlled spells. Of course, Skeletor has some friends, despite being a serious douche. He has a tense but workable relationship with Evil-Lyn, a sorceress whose main magical strength seems to be conniving fuckery. A roster of goons including Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Mer-Man and Tri-Klops serve as Skeletor’s vanguard (read: cannon fodder) in the long war against Eternia.
One really cool thing about MOTU – and perhaps a lost art in all but the softest-themed toons today – was the moral message at the end of each episode. Sure, this show was a consumerist vehicle for an extensive line of kid’s toys, but why not drop some wisdom on the kids? This would always be a theme presented in the story itself (like sharing, responsibility, safety, etc), and more often than not, it was He-Man or Man-at-Arms sitting down for the fireside chat moment.
The animation is remarkably smooth for a timetable-produced toon, and characters are shown running, jumping, etc. in a very natural way. In the tradition of Filmation (and by spiritual sisterhood, Hanna-Barbera), the backgrounds are lush and skillfully colored, on par with motion picture matter paintings sometimes. But what really does it, what really sells the product, is that music.
A total of 72 figures and toys were released, and the series made Mattel insane amounts of money. As for the cartoon, it ran in syndication until 1988, when USA Network bought it and ran it until 1990. The heroes and villains of MOTU briefly returned in a new 1990 series (with its own new toy line), and He-Man resurfaced once more in a new show on Cartoon Network’s Toonami. This show was presented more seriously in tone, and also delves more into the history of Eternia (including an origin for Skeletor). In 1987, Cannon Films released a movie under the MOTU banner, with a more cosmic focus and a somewhat darker tone. This film starred 80s action bull Dolph Lundgren as He Man, and also featured Frank Langella as Skeletor and Courteney Cox as… A normal woman.
Needless to say, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe has secured itself a high spot in 80s pop culture. Even now, in the digital age, it can be seen on Netflix, as well as on YouTube. Mattel markets high-end versions of the original figures as collectibles, perfect for the nerd who always wanted a more poseable, articulated sci fi barbarian. There have even been video games; the two that come to mind are the Intellivision (naturally) and Game Boy Advance versions.
Perhaps the war on Eternia will never end. After all, without one another, good and evil have no meaning. He-Man taught us a lot of things, but perhaps that was the bigger message.