When I was kid, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a great cartoon. It had everything someone who loved Sci-Fi and Fantasy could want in a show. By 1985, the show had run its course, but how many other animated cartoon shows can you think of that had over 120 episodes? In 1987, a live action film was released in theaters titled: Masters of the Universe. It was, in short, a dud at the theater. I always wondered why. The cartoon had its following, so a built-in audience was there. Perhaps they were a bit more mature, now, but a live action film made sense for the audience. I always thought the film didn’t need to be what it was. Thankfully, a commentary track supplied some of the answers.
Before we get into all that, here is the quick plot to Masters of the Universe. The evil Skeletor (Frank Langella ) has won a decisive victory on Eternia. He now has control of Castle Grayskull and the Sorceress (Christina Pickles). He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his companions are now on the run as the planet has come under Skeletor’s control. How and why did this happen? It turns out that Skeletor stole a special key that can unlock any door, even in space and time, and slipped passed Grayskull’s defenses. The maker of this key has become a wanted man as both the heroes and villains are now hunting him. Luckily, the locksmith/ key maker Gwildor (Billy Barty) knows what Skeletor has done with the key and wishes to set things right. After a quick rescue and exposition about the key, He-Man and his companions team up with Gwildor. This, of course, leads them to be attacked, forcing them to use the only copy of the original key to escape.
It’s all perfect for any 8 to 12 year old that really liked the cartoon. Here we have Skeletor brought to life by Frank Langella, chewing through each and every seen as if it were Shakespeare. Parallel that with a hulky and fairly articulate Dolph Lundgren as He-Man who saves the day when he needs to. These two actors could not be more opposite in their careers or acting choices, yet they are not the problem. The problem stems from the Cannon Group hemorrhaging money (see further shoddy film making in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace) and a poor script wrapped around a 17 million dollar budget. To get around the swords, robot warrior henchmen, magic, and the setting of a fantastical world, He-Man and company escape to Earth. This quickly turns the film into a “fish out water” story, wrapped around a young couple that may be the Masters of the Universe’s only salvation.
Any story on the written page will go through multiple changes before it gets put on the screen. There are the director’s choices. Then, there are the actor’s choices. Finally, and it really comes down to this: the fact of how much money the director can play with. Gary Goddard’s commentary really highlights how he did a lot with a little in his directorial debut.
The budget of 17 million dollars was one of the highest at the time (Goddard states that most films were being shot for around 5 to 6 million). This film had everything in it that could challenge a first time director. It had tons of special effects, night shoots, first time movie actors, multiple companies to approve everything, sword fights, and a cow that wouldn’t act on cue. Goddard didn’t even have the privilege of casting the lead, which had been preset with Lundgren.
Goddard’s main focus of the commentary is highlighting the depth and scope he brought to the picture with lighting. His argument was that He-Man, Gwildor, and company would be unbelievable during the day. Every scene had to have a Wizard of Oz-like quality to it and that would be his saving grace for such a low budget. The budget constrained him on multiple levels as there was no second unit, Cannon cut his shooting days down, and the world of Eternia had moved locations from Iceland to Vasquez Rocks in Southern California (where Kirk fought the Gorn in Star Trek’s “Arena”). The cutting down of the shooting days is the most fascinating part to his commentary. Goddard had the world’s largest set constructed for Grayskull. It was two connecting sound stages and would play heavily into the final sword fight between He-Man and Skeletor. The day before the fight, Cannon told Goddard that he was done and to wrap the picture. Within two months, he was back to shoot what we see as the final battle. It works really well if you know the story behind the film. If you are just watching it, well, it seems pretty lame.
Commentary tracks are a great resource for any film if the director really lets loose on his own picture. Goddard did go into the why Orko wasn’t used in the film, as well as who and why Pig Boy was in the film (blink and you’ll miss him). Goddard also mentioned that it was a great summer and a great cast. Everyone gave their all for what they thought was a fun adventure.
The Blu-ray Experience:
The commentary was from the original 2009 DVD release. The picture and the sound were superb. However, as it is with any dated effects film, Blu-ray highlights many of the outlines or pre-digital effects. Here, we see that all of Goddard’s lighting tricks and techniques really paid off in the event of Blu-ray technology. His colors pop as each and every scene has a whimsical feel to it. The regular scenes of Earth, that do not feature any Eternians, feel plain and ordinary, as they should. When the Masters of the Universe show up, the film truly takes us off to that merry old land.
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