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"He-Man Season 2 Volume 1": Trying to Keep the Skeletal Man Down

Filmation’s He-Man occupies a confounding place in the pantheon of American television animation. Its tremendous success gave birth to a wondrous new era of syndicated cartoon programming while simultaneously ushering in an undertone of crass commercialism. However one may regard He-Man‘s standing today, the premiere season was clearly an unstoppable phenomenon. Season 2 Volume 1 attempts to up the ante, if only slightly.

He-Man's posseI must admit I’m not much of a fan of the sword and sorcery exploits of the mighty He-Man and his meek alter ego Prince Adam on the planet Eternia. The unabashedly simplistic animation and constant pandering to 5-year-olds are particularly tiresome. Having levied those charges though, I found this set to be considerably less painful than expected, although no thanks to our titular hero.

Frankly, I don’t know why they call the show “He-Man” when it clearly should be “Skeletor.” Every second this bony baddie is on screen is comedic magic, whereas the rest is bland drudgery. The simple writing does contain an interesting idea now and then, which I suppose is to be expected given the contributions of accomplished writers like Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski and Batman: The Animated Series‘ Paul Dini. However the vanilla art design remains a real turnoff, and the heroes range from forgettable to downright annoying.

This set contains the first 33 episodes of season two, and if I never see a pair of fur briefs again it’ll be too soon. A wide variety of characters get their chance to bask in the spotlight, including many new ones. Disappointingly, Eternia’s favorite rogue has his screen time reduced, as the writers foolishly feared the first season was suffering from “Skeletor syndrome.” Plots are generally of the save the world type, with the occasional comedy and character pieces.

“The Cat and the Spider” is a good example of the first variety. In questionable role model behavior, a tomb raiding He-Man swipes a statue containing a fearsome demon and cat warrior Kittrina is dispatched to recover it. Before she can do so it’s stolen away by Skeletor’s swinging henchman Webstor. He-Man and Kittrina race to Skeletor’s Snake Mountain base to retrieve it before he unwittingly unleashes the cataclysmic evil within.

I love how Skeletor’s henchmen freely insult him to his face in this episode. Even Cobra Commander got more respect than this. Also better security. He-Man casually waltzes directly into Skeletor’s inner sanctum without anyone noticing.

Skeletor's electric personalityAs in most episodes He-Man provides some educational content, here explaining how a cloud can be seeded with salt to produce rain. He doesn’t mention what quantity of steroids is required to hurl a 10-ton block of salt into the sky though. This episode’s moral is a very reasonable plea for racial tolerance, although later He-Man’s cranky cohort Teela will have the nerve to tell kids never to play pranks.

Most notable about this story though is the bizarre hint of bestiality that arises when the humanoid Kittrina starts lusting after Cringer, Adam’s cowardly pet tiger. I guess since they both have whiskers it’s supposed to be OK.

Humor dominates in “Trouble in Trolla,” but unfortunately it’s of the odious Orko variety. Learning that his uncle Montork has been unseated as head of the Academy of Magic by young upstart Snoob, the diminutive comic relief wizard travels to his homeland of Trolla with He-Man to investigate. Orko discovers Snoob to be in league with Skeletor’s minion Whiplash, and soon ends up their prisoner.

To my considerable amusement He-Man’s mentor Man-at-Arms expertly expresses the sentiments of the audience when Orko attempts a magic trick, saying, “I’d rather see the mystery of the vanishing Orko.” In the finale He-Man shows what he thinks of the Geneva Convention by locking Whiplash in a small, unventilated box while he enjoys a lavish feast.

“The Rainbow Warrior” is surprisingly not about Greenpeace but He-Man’s mother Queen Marlena. In his latest hopelessly inefficient plan Skeletor decides to enlist the royal guard in an attack on the magical Castle Greyskull by taking King Randor and others hostage. Meanwhile Marlena wistfully reminisces about her exciting days as a daredevil astronaut before coming to Eternia.

When phone booth stuffing goes wrongThere’s a hilarious exchange between Skeletor and old pal Beastman over how many times the former has failed to conquer Castle Greyskull. He testily asserts the first time was just for practice and doesn’t count.

The relentless recycling of stock footage is what really makes He-Man a visual bore, as much as 75% per episode according to one writer. A lot of the original character movements were rotoscoped using an actor, and admittedly look surprisingly real. After one’s seen the same move for the 36th time though it begins to look robotic. The video quality of this set is superb for a 20-year-old show, almost looking brand new.

Highly informative commentaries for the three episodes described above are provided by staff writer Larry DiTillio, executive producer and Filmation CEO Lou Scheimer, voice director Erika Scheimer, and some animators. Among their many observations are that stories often had to feature the latest toy, the entire production was done in house, and long pan shots were used to fill time. It’s nice to see Lou has a sense of humor about the woefully cheap animation.

The first documentary offers a brief overview of the season, and then a parade of the show’s writers talking briefly about the episodes they worked on. From the start He-Man had an educational consultant who encouraged the writers to build stories around common dilemmas kids might face, such as stopping a talking skeleton from enslaving the planet.

“The Magic of Filmation” gives a brief but engaging history of the small studio that supplied a large percentage of American cartoon series between 1965 and 1988. Its first break was landing Superman in 1966, at which time money was so tight they were using a mannequin for a receptionist.

Cats in heatAlthough not all-inclusive, there are very thorough and well-written profiles presented for a few dozen characters, artifacts, and creatures with brief video clips. They’re a good resource, though they mostly repeat info given in these episodes.

A neat animated storyboard for one episode allows the viewer to watch it play out side by side with the finished animation. Amusingly nearly every frame is marked as using a piece of stock footage. Also there are five original scripts on CD-ROM, which are fun to compare to the completed episodes.

I would be gravely remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal packaging. Not only is it covered with great artwork but two collectible art cards are included, one of which is a surprisingly PG-13 image of a crazed Beastman carrying off Teela for purposes perhaps best left unexamined.

For He-Man fans Season 2, Volume 1 is a great set that I can’t recommend highly enough. For the rest of us, well, if you buy one piece of Mystery Science Theater fodder this year, you probably can’t do much better than this. Now, if any fans are petitioning John Woo to give Skeletor top billing in the proposed He-Man film I’ll be happy to sign. I only ask for the inclusion of a Jar Jar clause for you know who.

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