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"Masters of the Universe 2002": The Power Returns, In Style

After cycling through the entirety of the Filmation and Jetlag series, BCI has recently begun releasing the latest He-Man series in the form of 2002’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Launched in a blaze of glory, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe sought to update the legend of the most powerful man in the universe for an all-new audience. Naturally taking inspiration from the original series’ bible (as well as from the odd mini-comic), the new show begins with a three-part story that finally presents the origins of both He-Man and Skeletor. We start with the evil, blue-skinned Keldor and his forces mounting an assault on the Hall of Elders. Thanks to a failed attack on Captain Randor, Keldor’s face is badly disfigured and he retreats, leaving Randor with a new destiny as King of Eternia as the Elders and their power mysteriously disappear. With Keldor’s forces sealed off in the planet’s Dark Hemisphere behind the Mystic Wall, Eternia now basks in an age of peace. But that peace is shattered when the Evil Warriors break through and try once again to steal the powers of the Elders. As they make their move, King Randor’s young son, Prince Adam, on his sixteenth birthday is called upon to face his destiny as He-Man, defender of Eternia, in its darkest hour. Initially turning away such a lofty destiny, Adam changes his mind once Keldor, now known as Skeletor, tries to force Randor to reveal the true location of the Elders. Finally becoming the most powerful man in the Universe, He-Man sets out to save his band of comrades and confront the overlord of evil for the very first time.

The epic story of Skeletor and He-Man’s origins is handled well, but there is an inordinate amount of padding in the latter two parts of the story, with huge amounts of both episodes featuring no dialogue at all. (I had always suspected that this three-parter was originally intended to be a two-parter, and the commentary confirms this.) Fortunately, subsequent episodes are handled much better and do a good job showcasing various Masters characters and giving them more characterization. Standout episodes include “The Courage of Adam”, which details Prince Adam’s unease at only being truly useful as He-Man; “Lessons”, by original He-Man writer Larry DiTillio, which provides the series’ first real focus on Orko and delves into Evil-Lyn’s past; and “The Ties That Bind”, which partly reveals Teela’s background and true lineage.

One of the series’ best aspects is its careful continuity and world-building. For instance, the Royal Palace is badly damaged by Skeletor’s attack in the first episode, and many episodes later it is still undergoing repairs; there is no “reset button”. It also shows the characters themselves to be imperfect and subject to common human foibles, such as envy and pride. In most other respects, the new series is very much a modernized take on the original and does an excellent job of revamping the Masters of the Universe canon for a new century. It’s almost like having the best of both worlds, with the familiar characters and concepts given the character-building and continuity that the original series purposefully downplayed.

But you can also glimpse some of the reasons the show wound up being prematurely cancelled. It felt made for and marketed toward nostalgic fans instead of a new and younger audience unfamiliar with the original series. This is pretty much confirmed in a commentary where the writers state that they would immediately check out fans’ internet comments on a given episode. This, for instance, is why Cringer/Battle Cat does not speak in the series, as it would have “skewed too young”; it also explains why less emphasis was put on humorous situations and characterizations, as in the old series. I can also certainly imagine the opening credits (a tribute to the Filmation series) simply confusing new viewers. Such reverence toward the original means there are some nice references that old-time fans can catch that won’t distract new viewers. Most, if not all, such references to the original show came from a large encyclopedia developed for the series by He-Man super-fans Busta Toons and Zadoc Angell, although their laudable efforts sadly went uncredited on the series itself.

The animation by Dong Woo and Dong Yang is little short of fantastic, clearly indicating that the series had a lots of resources pumped into it. The character designs are some of the most detailed seen in US-produced series for many years, and both studios animate them well, particularly in some exceptionally choreographed fight sequences. Like most action animation these days, much inspiration is taken from anime series and movies. Ironically, the only flawed piece of animation is the transformation of Adam into He-Man, which features a distracting jump cut between Adam and He-Man. In that respect the original is still the best. Audio-wise, the voice work is uniformly excellent, featuring many luminaries from Beast Wars and the series’ immediate predecessor, The New Adventures of He-Man. Cam Clarke does a predictably superb job as the young Price Adam and heroic He-Man, making them quite different from each other. Other highlights include the former voice of He-Man himself, Gary Chalk, doing an admirable job as the gruffer Man-at-Arms, while Brian Dobson provides a fitting tribute to Alan Oppenheimer’s seminal Skeletor. Joseph LoDuca’s music is appropriately epic and fits the series well, with the ending credits showing off the series’ theme quite nicely. The opening doesn’t feature so well in this regard, though, and mostly comes off as a (nice-looking) truncated mess.

The series set itself is very compact, much more noticeably so than past He-Man and She-Ra sets, although like those it too features the excellent work of Emilano Santalucia. The DVD presentation is just as good as past He-Man DVDs; and, most pleasingly of all, the episodes are finally presented in their original anamorphic widescreen ratio (for the very first time anywhere). In an age when much newer series such as The Batman, Teen Titans, and Fantastic Four have not been released in widescreen despite being produced in the format, this makes quite a welcome change. Additionally, the first season of the series has yet another Easter Egg for older fans by including moral tags at the end of each episode—something not seen on other animated series for many years. Predictably, these were edited out in many markets, but they can all now be finally seen with crystal clarity.

It being the first officially sanctioned He-Man DVD set from Mattel, I had hoped for some interesting extras—perhaps a featurette on both the original and 2002 toy ranges, for instance—but there isn’t, sadly. I can only hope the final set will come with such a featurette, or a featurette on the Image comics. I would also have liked to see the original trailer that debuted on the internet a couple of months before the series began airing—again, I can only hope it will turn up on a future volume. There isn’t even an Andy Mangels-produced documentary detailing the production history of the show—a real shame considering it’s under six years’ old. Instead, there are some good artwork galleries showcasing both the initial design-work and final artwork for the Heroic Warriors. Also included are character profiles, again for the heroes only.

Five episodes come with commentaries, and here the absence of Andy Mangels (the former producer of He-Man DVD extras on past BCI sets) is most felt, as he was an excellent moderator. Additionally, the commentaries themselves sound noticeably tinny compared to past BCI sets. Most annoyingly, most of disc three (which holds the extras) is given over to “video commentaries” that simply regurgitate three of the commentaries on the other two discs. In these, the participants are shown at the top of the screen, while the episode itself plays in a small window. Anyone familiar with BCI’s odd habit of having a small video window in the center of the screen for interviewees on past sets will recognize the presentation. For these extras, there is about an episode’s worth of additional unfocused comments from the participants. I would rather have had a complete commentary on another episode, even if it meant cutting the release down to two discs.

The last notable extra is “The World of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” promotional video, which was produced after the first season had aired. This was presumably made when cracks in the toyline’s marketing strategy were beginning to show, ultimately resulting in the main He-Man fan website actually having a “buy a figure” day to support the line a month before the second season even started airing! Although this special is also in widescreen, like the series, it is not anamorphic, and its picture quality is surprisingly poor. A promotional non-widescreen version of this same special released in the UK in 2003 has a much clearer picture, like the rest of the episodes in the set.

There is one significant flaw in this set: Thanks to an unmonitored replication error, one of the episodes on the first volume, “The Courage of Adam”, is missing almost three minutes of footage, skipping the entire ‘robot He-Man’ sequence. BCI was, however, quick to announce a replacement program once the error was pointed out, although I’m uncertain as to whether or not this will ultimately include corrected sets actually at retail.

BCI has done a decent job of putting the final He-Man series on DVD at long last. Although I would’ve preferred a complete season one set on the order of past He-Man DVD releases, I can understand why the series has been split up into three more easily manageable sets. The series was unfairly neglected when it was first broadcast and, perhaps more than any other animated series in recent years, is due for re-appraisal. Thankfully, the episodes here look and sound literally better than they ever did, so if you missed the series the first time around, or simply want to see it again, this is the ultimate way to do it.

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