"The Best of She-Ra": He-Man's Softer, Pinker Side
Recent hit television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias have finally removed the novelty of female action heroes, but no one could have predicted that two decades ago when the trailblazing film The Secret of the Sword introduced the warrior She-Ra’s fantasy adventures to the world. Finally it has arrived on DVD along with five fan favorite episodes in the well appointed Best of She-Ra set.
If not quite the first action cartoon with a female lead, Filmation’s She-Ra Princess of Power was certainly the first explosively successful one. Riding the coattails of the massively popular He-Man franchise, Secret belongs more to the big lug than the heroine. The lackluster “film” is actually just the first five episodes of She-Ra edited together, which explains the jerky, episodic manner in which the duo is bounced from one crisis to the next.
One interesting difference between these very similar franchises is that She-Ra is a rebel fighting to dismantle an oppressive regime while He-Man is well, the man, trying to maintain the status quo. Curiously She-Ra continues to place a distant third behind Malcolm X and Dr. King in gangsta rap mentions.
The other main difference is that She-Ra inhabits a kinder, gentler world full of pinks, jewels, and many goofy, cutesy characters. I’m reminded of the Spongebob Squarepants episode in which he tries to gain access to the popular “adult” bar, but to his great disappointment the bouncer redirects him to the Candyland inspired Weenie Hut.
Secret opens on Eternia, where the Sorceress dreams of a kidnapped child trapped in another dimension. She dispatches Prince Adam and Cringer to follow a magic sword to find the child, though oddly she doesn’t reveal their quarry’s identity. Not even a picture?
The duo find themselves on the world of Etheria, where aiding some peasants quickly places them in league with the forces of the Great Rebellion (GR), which opposes the dictator Hordak and his brutal Hordesmen. He-Man is stunned to discover that the steely Hordesman captain Adora is the one he seeks. He manages to place doubt in her mind about the justness of Hordak’s rule, and after some deliberation she embraces her alter ego as She-Ra, twin sister to He-Man. There isn’t a moment to lose, for many dangers await them both on Etheria and Eternia. Hordak plans to use his new teleportation machine to permanently banish the GR, while Skeletor hopes to use Adora as bargaining chip to seize control of Eternia.
The fan-selected episodes are unsurprisingly heavy with He-Man crossovers. Plots include She-Ra losing her powers and He-Man getting caught up in a love triangle. These episodes are refreshingly offbeat compared to the rather dry film, with numerous characters cracking occasionally effective jokes.
As the title indicates, “The Price of Freedom” tackles an uncharacteristically ambitious subject. A group of peasants takes refuge in a mountain cave when Hordak’s army razes their village for their defiance. They declare freedom is much more precious than their homes, and hold out until She-Ra arrives to lead them to the hidden GR camp. You know, though this is inspiring, viewed through the lens of recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq it takes on a very different meaning.
Unlike the dorky Adam, the motherly Adora is much the same as her heroic alter ego, just toned down slightly. She has additional powers beyond the super strength that her brother shares, but they may cause NOW to gag. The healing ability is one thing, but the power of empathy? Perhaps in other episodes her intuition and bed making skills come into play.
Hordak seems like Skeletor’s boring cousin who sat by watching boneface get all the girls in high school. He does loosen up in later episodes, but mostly he’s just aping Skeletor mannerisms like hurling campy insults at his hapless henchmen. In one amusing scene an underling is terrified he’s about to be vaporized when Hordak extends his multipurpose cybernetic arm, but it turns out he’s just trying to do some vacuuming.
She-Ra’s supporting cast is weak even by He-Man standards. The Errol Flynnish archer Bow isn’t bad, but is underused and sports an embarrassing heart emblem on his chest. The very pink young sorceress Glimmer looks and sounds like she should be backing up pop star Jem rather than She-Ra. The much less annoying flying koala bear Kowl fills Orko’s mascot role, but there are other odious “comic relief” types on hand like the Smurfish Twiggits and Madam Razz, a witch by way of Jewish Brooklyn. As for the villains, Catra is an extremely obvious Catwoman knock-off with an ersatz Earth Kitt voice, Mantenna a wimpy looking bug-eyed fish thing, and Grizzlor a cowardly mental midget in a cheap gorilla suit.
Since there’s nothing close to resembling a compelling action sequence in this package, the only goodwill is generated by its smattering of laughs, both intentional and not. He-Man is cheered when he levels the Horde’s enormous prison, although he doesn’t bother to evacuate it first. Oops. Skeletor gets the biggest laugh when he and his cronies bizarrely disguise themselves as effeminate Italian pastry chefs to infiltrate our heroes’ castle.
Filmation’s famously mediocre animation takes stock footage recycling to new heights in She-Ra, borrowing liberally from predecessor He-Man. At least the video quality is superb, hardly having aged a day.
Most of She-Ra‘s score is also borrowed from her brother’s program, although her catchy main theme is original. Unfortunately there’s also an atrociously sugary, synthesized pop song called “I Have the Power,” with music composed by 80s cartoon maestros Shuki Levy and Haim Saban on what must have been an off day.
As with BCI’s He-Man releases the packaging is covered with fantastic artwork, though a little pink. Again two original art cards are included, one depicting a berserk She-Ra about to behead Catra.
Disc 1’s fun commentary for Secret from producer/Filmation CEO Lou Scheimer, writer Larry Ditillio, director Gwen Wetzler, and actor Alan Oppenheimer discusses animation and voice acting techniques, and several great anecdotes such as the time Scheimer’s friend and actor Ted Knight sued him for back pay.
After two vintage trailers and the script, the rest of the extras tortuously focus on “I Have the Power.” Masochists can endure a music video (which includes a hilarious scene of Adam lip synching), a side-by-side storyboard comparison, a sheet music sing-a-long (someone’s going to want to play this?!), an “alternate” recording, and a Spanish recording. Give me your worst Hordak. I no longer feel pain.
Disc 2 supplies scripts and a solid documentary full of staff interviews on such issues as She-Ra’s creation as an empowering figure for girls, her original but unfortunately copyrighted name “Hera”, and the care taken in animating her to preserve the secret of the skirt.
The Best of She-Ra is a sure bet for fans of both franchises, assuming the He-Man crowd has a good hiding place for the radioactive neon box. Anyone not suffering from nostalgia can pass, unless you’re a student of low-tech animation techniques or dying to see He-“Man” shed a tear. Yes, it happened, and only on the third take of “I Have the Power.” Sissy.