When one looks back at the old days of after-school television in the 1980’s, one cannot help but think back fondly at some of the iconic characters and stories we used to get our fill of in half-hour increments that helped define many elements of what has become our popular culture. Stalwarts like Transformers, The Smurfs, GI Joe, Inspector Gadget and more brightened up living rooms and entertained us every Monday through Friday to the point where it has left an indelible mark on our lives we have not soon forgotten. One of those staples from cartoon lore was the ongoing story of He-Man as he battles the evil Skeletor in his continual quest to protect his beloved Eternia and the mysteries and magic held within the hallowed Castle Grayskull. While the show and the characters themselves have remained a fond memory in many a grown-up heart, the love for this series is truly embraced in the new documentary Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (95 minutes, FauxPop Media and Pyre Productions, directed by Rob McCallum and Randall Lobb, now available on Netflix) which takes an in-depth look at this icon of 80’s lore that captured the hearts and minds of many as it became a symbol for our fascination with pop culture.
Devoting almost equal amounts of time to the toy line, the television series and the failed live-action movie, directors McCallum (known for Nintendo Quest and Missing Mom) and Lobb (producer of Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) construct Power of Grayskull as a documentary that gives the audience a three-part narrative of the He-Man phenomenon. Phase one deals with how the massive success of the Star Wars toy series from rival Kenner and an unsuccessful marriage with Conan the Barbarian forced Mattel Toys into a desperate search for an alternative. Where this led to was a merging of concepts and ideas from the fantasy, science fiction and action-adventure genres that would evolve into the eventual He-Man action figure series that garnered its own large share of the marketplace for a better part of a decade. From the internal struggles behind the scenes to the pressure of production deadlines to the many complications that came with creating some of the characters themselves this is the strongest and most fascinating part of Power of Grayskull and for many also the most illuminating.
The second piece to this documentary involves the promotional tie-ins used to reel in kids to the He-Man mystique which would have many of them running to Mom and Dad trying to convince them to head to the local toy store as fast as possible. While the commercials that aired and the comic books both assisted with the telling of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe story, it was the famous cartoon series that gets outlined in the film that brought the most attention to the characters and proved to be a winning stroke not only for its animated adaptor Filmation but for Mattel itself when it came to getting more He-Man toys rung up at the cash register. The film delves into what fundamental storylines were imprinted into the series, how the characters were portrayed by their voice-over talent and why there was so much importance placed on the always out of place public service announcements that came at the end of each episode. Some well-deserved attention is also given to the She-Ra animated series and why her role in the He-Man story is so important and places seeds with the audience why her part of the lore is being reimagined for a modern audience.
The final stage of the film focuses in on the failed 1987 live-action movie adaptation, Masters of the Universe and the possible how’s and why’s of its ultimate demise. With detailed interviews from stars Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella, the audience is privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. While this practice is now commonplace for modern movies now as a bonus feature for the home video arrival, for this documentary it seems like a final touch to ensure a great deal of the He-Man story, both the rise and fall of it, gets told. While there are some notable points made during this part of the documentary, more attention would have been better served with the cartoon series (and why it was limited to only two seasons and the eventual fallout for Filmation) and less weight given to Masters of the Universe in the documentary because of its reality as a critically panned film (17% on Rotten Tomatoes) that can only be seen as a box office disappointment (Approximately 17 million dollars as per Box Office Mojo) and a footnote that most He-Man fans would rather soon forget (leaving them hoping a 2019 remake from Sony will do the trick instead).
Despite the small flaws that keep this documentary from perfection, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe does a magnificent job of educating new viewers while at the same time reminding devoted fans why He-Man in its own right became a much-beloved part of our pop culture past. From its toy creation roots and the heights of its success as a prosperous action figure line to a worldwide syndicated television success that spun off into an ultimately failed attempt to recreate that magic within a live-action movie setting, Grayskull delivers on its nostalgic-filled promise of taking a look back at what made He-Man so special to many of us who are now well into our 40’s and 50’s. With a look and feel created by McCallum and Lobb that oozes much love and devotion to the He-Man mystique, it’s no wonder why this film is a must-watch for your next Netflix binge and one of the best documentaries of 2018, even with standouts such as RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers among others dominating the critically lauded airspace.