If you grew up in the 1980s, then you've probably heard of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Filmation brought the character to life in Saturday morning cartoon format, paving the way for an eventual leap to the silver screen. This occurred in 1987, when director Gary Goddard (Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future) took the plunge. It's a mixed bag of a film, fondly remembered for the sense of wonder it managed to evoke, despite its limitations.
The film is loosely based on the Masters of the Universe premise, where the evil villain Skeletor (Frank Langella) has overthrown the forces of Eternia and captured Castle Greyskull, the source of a magnificent universal power. The last pockets of resistance fighters band together, led by He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), a champion of good who possesses exemplary strength and courage. Aided by Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher), and the beautiful Teela (Chelsea Field), He-Man stumbles upon a group of enemy troops who have captured the diminutive Gwildor (Billy Barty), an eccentric inventor who possesses the Cosmic Key, a device which can open a gateway to anywhere in time and space. Gwildor admits that Skeletor was able to enter Grayskull by stealing the Cosmic Key, but he did not steal the prototype. He uses the Key to open a door directly into Castle Greyskull, and there the warriors make their stand. He-Man and his friends are outmatched, however, and forced to flee into another portal to an unknown region of space. They end up arriving on Earth, circa late 1980s. Skeletor wastes no time sending his warriors through the gate to pursue He-Man and steal the key. Among them is the seductive Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), a wicked sorceress who plans to ensnare them all in a trap. He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and Teela are forced to ally themselves with Julie (Courtney Cox) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), two humans who have become caught in the crossfire. When Skeletor sends a massive contingent of troops to Earth, it sets the stage for a climatic battle between the forces of good and evil. If Skeletor wins, it will signal an infinity of never-ending darkness under his grip of evil power.
The film's achilles heel is the time period in which it was made. Director Gary Goddard was one of the founding fathers of mainstream CGI adoption, but it was too expensive to put into a theatrical film of this magnitude, and it shows. Numerous sacrifices had to be made for the sake of bringing MOTU to life, most notably the absence of Orko in favor of Gwildor, a replacement character. Billy Barty was a fine actor, but the character he plays here is a thoroughly irritable substitute acting as a comic relief linchpin, and smacks too heavily of Screwball, another of Barty's roles from the 1985 film 'Legend.' For its time however, the special effects were quite amazing, including an entertaining hoverboard sequence. Setting the film on Earth destroys much of the wonder which the MOTU universe is known for, and one suspects this was largely due to budget constraints. Thankfully, the Eternian sets are breathtaking, even if they are a major departure from the cartoon series and comics which the film was based on. There is enough variation on the characters to keep the story moving. Skeletor's best and brightest are unique, but thankfully none have to hone much of their acting chops. Dolph Lundgren plays the part of He-Man with surprising integrity and enthusiasm, but he's no A-lister. The real star of the picture is Frank Langella, who literally throws himself into the role of Skeletor with jaw-dropping mastery. If Langella took the role for the sake of a paycheck, it certainly doesn't show here. Every subtle nuance, glance, and gravelly threat serves to create a thoroughly convincing, menacing villain of epic proportions.
MOTU would have benefited from today's technology, but Goddard and his crew must be given credit for taking on such an illustrious franchise, and crafting a pretty good film. Parents and critics dumped on the film in the 1980s, while most children were awestruck with wonder. Those same children are now in their 30s and 40s, making it a classic aimed specifically at them. It's nowhere near the greatest sci-fi film ever made, and by today's standards, it's largely going to evoke a lot of groans, especially if it's your first foray into the franchise. Nevertheless, Masters of the Universe is one of those magical films that manages to bring out the inner child in everyone. What bad can come of that?
MOTU on Blu-Ray has a few things going against it, from a visual standpoint. Optical special effects compositing was a mainstay of this film, and as such, it won't hold up to a high def transfer all that well. Unsurprising. It was an 80s film, and few of them translate to HD resolution. That being said, the movie is well balanced in contrast, which can be a rare thing for movies of the time period. Scenes of Eternia and the interior of Castle Greyskull, for instance, benefit remarkably from this finely tuned contrast, producing solid blacks without killing off detail. Colors, despite being nicely saturated, are still plagued by the source material, which is quickly becoming stone-age as cinema technology continues to rapidly expand at a geometric rate. If you were a kid growing up with this move in the 80s, be prepared to feel very, very old. Unfortunately, this 25th Anniversary edition has been slapped with the insult of a lossless 2.0 Master Audio track, which is about as disappointing as you can get. Obviously Warner thought quite little of the film to refrain from producing a DTS mix (or 5.1 mix, for that matter) for this release. We're knee deep in "meh" territory here, which is a shame. The final insult is the lack of any special features. You get an audio commentary from Gary Goddard (the same as the 2001 DVD release), and the trailer for the film. Talk about underwhelming! It's a disappointment, really. MOTU may not have been the most successful film, but it was created by a crew with a lot of heart and dedication. To those who loved the movie when it came out so many years ago, it's inexcusable, and enough for me to lower my initial 4-star score down to 3 stars.