August 28, 2019 Power of Grayskull (Documentary Review)
The He-Man franchise has gone through many ups and downs since its inception. It had its peaks, like the classic 1980’s cartoon, and troughs like the 1987 Masters of the Universe film. There were spin-offs like She-Ra: Princess of Power, and a reboot to that spin-off with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. That is not to mention the actual toys, merchandise, fan community, and behind-the-scenes shenanigans involved in creating the Prince of Eternia himself.
It also provided fertile ground for filmmakers Randall Lobb (Turtle Power 2014, Defective 2017) and Robert McCallum (Unearthly 2013, Missing Mom 2016) to work with. Their film, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, aims to show just how He-Man, Skeletor, and the gang became enduring Pop culture icons.
The film covers the men both behind and in front of the scenes, featuring interviews with Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, J. Michael Straczynski, and more. It aims to reveal what the franchise has gone through over the course of its history. While it had previously been shown at conventions since 2017, it will be available to everyone on DVD & digital platforms from September 3rd, 2019 onward via High Octane Pictures.
It sounds like a must-have for He-Fans and She-Ra-ficionados, if they had not already seen it at Powercon and the like. It does leave one question though; does it have the power to go beyond them? In other words, does the film stand up on its own as a good Documentary?
It certainly cannot be faulted on looks. The film has crisp, hi-def visuals illustrating its talking points, like its artsy intro literally showing how He-Man is put together by clipping his action figure together piece by piece. Or transitioning from chapter to chapter by zooming into one of many interconnected picture orbs. Other times, it is more straightforward, with animated text boxes or props to give viewers the information straight up. There are original documents, concept sketches, and rival toy lines to show, for instance, the trouble Mattel was in competing against Star Wars.
Yet the flashy visuals do not distract from the facts. The story of the product itself remains the focus and has its own points of interest. For example, Mattel could have opted for ‘Tank Head’- another of Roger Sweet’s makeshift toy designs over his He-Man concept. Or they could have used He-Man’s original ‘Torak: Hero of Pre-History’ title. Or he could be fighting with ‘Wo-Man’ (Teela) against ‘D-Man’ (Skeletor) and ‘Sea-Man’ (Mer-Man). Think most people will be happy things turned out the way they did.
There is also a discussion on the appeal of early He-Man, in that the line was a literal power fantasy. The figures were the biggest, bulkiest looking figures on the market. To kids back then, He-Man could have chucked G.I Joe back to base camp with one stiff throw. There were also more traditional marketing tactics. The figures had accessories like the Barbie dolls, except they were axes and swords instead of brushes and outfits.
Plus, there are the comics and the TV show. The film does not shy away from the fact they were not purely artistic. They were still advertising toys. Though through its interviews, it argues that it was not dispassionate either. There were creative minds in place working to make the series more interesting than just a Conan-clone. Whether they were building up the world, working against who Straczynski calls “psychologists” (according to them, “looking cross is a violent act”), or giving women a place in animation when others saw it as a boy’s club.
Though as intriguing as the rise may be, there is also the fall. The talk about the Masters of the Universe film throws up some neat tidbits of its own. It makes one appreciate or even sympathize with the effort that went into the film, from the costume design to the sword choreography. One cannot blame Langella’s son who, on getting a private screening of Masters with his dear old dad, slept through it.
Power of Grayskull’s coverage of the franchise’s wilderness years is almost as quiet as the series was at that point. It would have been nice to hear more about the attempted reboots, like the 2000’s series, and where they succeeded and failed. As it is, the film’s take is just slightly more beefed-up than Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us conclusion; that it was made, and it failed. There is no talk about the new She-Ra cartoon either, as that was released a year after the film’s original completion. Talk about rough timing.
Overall, Power of Grayskull has more going for it than just a puff-piece. The film is pro-He-Man obviously, yet it is honest about its limitations. It defends them keenly with extra information, keen answers and clear presentation. Whether it will change people’s minds about the series is up in the air. However, skeptics can at least respect the effort that went into both the franchise and the documentary once it is done. By the power of Cryptic Rock, this film has 4 out of 5 stars!