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"Best of He-Man": Yes, It Does Have Some Power

Despite their popularity, most of the eighties cartoons are remembered only nostalgically. Let’s face it—most of them aren’t as good as we remember. Some are plagued by horrible voice acting (Thundercats), some are so reliant on their toylines that it’s impossible to connect them to any character (Transformers, GI Joe), and some are just bad (M.A.S.K.).

And then there’s He-Man.

While it’s not as sophisticated as nearly every modern action cartoon, it is something of a miracle that this show—controlled by a toy company and produced by perhaps the cheapest of animation studios—turned out as well as it did. This is entirely attributable to the talent Filmation had amassed for this series. Any animation fan will recognize the names gracing this show—Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (of the DC animated universe), Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio (story editors of the equally great Beast Wars: Transformers) and J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5). Hell, even Barney Cohen, writer of Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter, checks in here. With that pedigree, it’s no surprise that the show had quite a few episodes that were above average.

After years in limbo, Entertainment Rights (the current holders of the Filmation library) and BCI Eclipse are bringing the classic He-Man series to DVD. While companies like Warner Bros. continue to release their classic animation in high-priced, bare-bones sets, BCI Eclipse has launched its newest big property with an affordable, two-disc set with some meaty extras. The Best of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is a set with enough to whet the appetite of hardcore fans—and affordable enough to attract new fans, although it’s not without some caveats.

The episodes are on the whole extremely good and very representative of the series. The two highlights are the Dini-scripted “Teela’s Quest,” a heartfelt story of Teela searching for her mother, and the Forward-written “The Problem with Power,” an extraordinary (for the time) episode in which He-Man “kills” a villager (though, to make the execs happy, the villager is a secret villain in disguise). This foreshadows “Code of Hero” in Forward’s Beast Wars, which also deals with death in a major way.

That doesn’t mean these episodes don’t have some marks against them. He-Man‘s biggest failure is in the animation department, even though all animation was handled at Filmation rather than outsourced to Korea. The Filmation house style—use every pose at least twice an episode—is in effect here. Scenes that need visual impact are hampered by an over-reliance on stock poses or for other reasons. In “Into the Abyss,” for example, it is revealed that He-Man’s power comes from a bottomless pit that tunnels straight into the heart of Eternia. We see this occur from Teela’s point of view inside said abyss, but the actual energy bolts are handled in a slow, static, clumsy manner.

Yet strangely, the actual drawings are rather nice—more expressive and more detailed than what other companies, such as Hanna-Barbera, were putting together at the time.

Video quality is the major issue with this release. The transfer is bright and vivid in image quality, but it fails in two specific areas. These are film-to-PAL masters, which means the framerate looks a little off, and the sound is pitched higher as a result. Sometimes a film-to-PAL master can look decent, like the 1990s remastered Speed Racer, but that is due to the large amount of camera pans (Filmation subsisted on long camera pans). The oddness is frequently noticeable, and it looks like a scene has been sped up somehow, when it really hasn’t, detracting from the film’s look.

More irritating is the amount of DVNR this series has been subjected to. You notice this at the very beginning of the credits sequence, when Cringer… well, cringes. He transforms into a blob of green and orange, without any lines or definition—they all vanish. It’s not as bad as in some shows, but you can’t help but notice the line quality disappear or degrade. Episodes have a varying amount of DVNR, ranging from very bad to passable—you can usually tell from the opening Cringer animation.

This may not be a problem on BCI’s end, however as they have indicated that the episodes were remastered several years ago by Hallmark, and these are the masters Entertainment Rights has inherited. Hopefully the box set episodes will look markedly better.

BCI hasn’t overload the discs with extras, but what is there is of high quality. There are two documentaries (which we’ll cover in a moment), and DVD-ROM scripts for “Teela’s Quest” and “Origin of the Sorceress.” Inside the box, BCI has included two art cards featuring modern interpretations of the He-Man crew. These include an ultra-exaggerated interpretation by Bruce Timm and a nice Adam Hughes cheesecake painting of the Sorceress. Even the chapters menus show some care as each provide little trivia facts on each episode.

The meat of the extras is the in-depth documentaries. There are two, one on each disc, each about thirty minutes long. Each counts down the five episodes on that disc and looks at the episodes in detail. While the over-the-top narration by Wally Wingert doesn’t quite work, these are really fascinating interviews. The staffers—including Dini, DiTillio, and Straczynski—each go into their experiences with the show and how they created and crafted their episode ideas.

It’s interesting to see the attitudes each staffer has towards the show. Straczynski offers a very analytical perspective to his episode, going into the most detail with his feelings on the Sorceress. DiTillio is the most enthusiastic, wearing a He-Man shirt and going into a fun little monologue on why Skeletor wasn’t so palatable to the French. Dini offers a more downbeat view on the show—his interviews almost always approach the subject of what couldn’t be done with the characters and the limitations of working at Filmation.

It’s very interesting stuff—the kind of material you don’t normally see on a release like this. And the best part is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg—these are just the first two installments in a lengthy 16-part interview series that will encompass not only the Filmation He-Man, but also the inferior New Adventures series as well. If these documentaries are proof of things to come, then the future is bright.

So, is it worth buying? Yes, even if you are planning on getting the season box sets. The episodes are of good quality and the documentaries are fabulous. For $19.99 and often less, this is really a steal—if you’re at least passively interested in He-Man, then go for this. Hopefully more companies (Warner, I’m looking at you) can invest in their classic series the way BCI and Entertainment Rights have.

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