The G.I. Joe and He-Man franchises have a lot in common. Both launched new toy lines in 1982, TV series in 1983, and feature films in 1987. Both are today fondly remembered 80s pop culture icons, and both, reportedly, are due for feature film revivals. And each one has a black sheep in the family: a nearly forgotten early-90s sequel series that departed drastically from the beloved original. Now, thanks to the brave folks at BCI Eclipse, He-Man fans can no longer pretend that The New Adventures of He-Man was the product of a fever dream.
Fans are rarely tolerant of change, and New Adventures, produced by Jean Chalopin of Inspector Gadget and Real Ghostbusters fame, is full of it. The more sci-fi oriented New Adventures take place not on Eternia but a million years in the future on planet Primus, where He-Man is summoned by its wise leader Master Sebrian to help defend against an army of evil mutants led by Flogg. The planet is protected only by a psychic shield, which has several gaps through which the mutants occasionally attack. It would seem an easy job for He-Man, but his old nemesis Skeletor manages to follow him to Primus, and is eager to exploit the technology-rich planet. He installs himself as Flogg’s adviser, and quickly makes him his puppet and begins using the mutant forces to renew his war on He-Man. But episodic clashes between He-Man and Skeletor more or less follow the same pattern as the original series.
A few original series characters, like Teela and King Randor, return for brief cameos, but most big names like Man At Arms, Beast Man, Cringer, Evil-Lyn, Orko (oh happy day), and Trap-Jaw are AWOL. Though her costume is a little less avian, the Sorceress remains much the same, surfacing from time to time via telepathic visions to dispense pearls of wisdom to He-Man. He-Man’s friends on Primus instead include a team of bland “warriors” such as Hydron and Flipshot, who in practice usually stand around in their Centurions rip-off costumes watching He-Man do their job for them. Sebrian’s assistant Mara is suspicious of Prince Adam’s true identity, and keeps him on his toes. The young farm boy Caz wants to emulate his hero He-Man, and occasionally tags along on missions uninvited.
|“My blood pressure is down, and the headaches are gone! Thank you Phantom Zone!”|
Although Orko is gone, he is replaced by four “wacky” scientists who are the bane of the show. They’re always “comically” bickering in the most annoying voices imaginable, sometimes solving a problem with technology and sometimes creating one. Fortunately their screen time is usually brief, so you can easily fast forward through.
At least the villains provide some genuine amusement. Flogg is mentally on par with Beast Man, and his underlings are far stupider still, so it’s a wonder the mutant fleet doesn’t self-destruct long before causing Primus any trouble. As with Primus’ warriors, most of Flogg’s henchmen get very little development, apart from the endearingly moronic Slushhead. I thought at first his name was Flushhead, as he wears a bowl full of murky liquid on his head, which affects his voice accordingly. He really seems to enjoy his work, occasionally slipping into song or dance, as long as his two brain cells aren’t taxed. During one of Skeletor’s pre-mission briefings he is rendered catatonic by his vain effort at comprehension.
The change in setting also has led to changes in both character and character design. Our ever-bland hero has traded his goofy trademark Prince Valiant bowl cut for an equally goofy 80s ponytail, and his drab and uninspiring new costume looks like something pieced together from an after-Halloween sale at Kmart. He’s also been given more human and less imposing proportions, even as his ego seems to have grown. While the Filmation version was modest and kind to a fault, this one occasionally brags during battle and coolly quips when Skeletor falls to his apparent death. He maintains his Prince Adam alias in a slightly less girly fashion. The pink shirt and lavender tights are gone, but never fear, he now sports pigtails.
|“This isn’t the copyright infringement you’re looking for.”|
Skeletor’s initial costume is relatively close to the Filmation one, but a few episodes in he drops it for what looks like a futuristic set of samurai armor. He also gains piercing red eyeballs, which, depending on how well he’s drawn, look either creepy or goofy. Alan Oppenheimer’s unforgettable high-pitched cackle has also been replaced with what at first seems a rather ordinary, low-key performance by Campbell Lane. He starts to grow on you after a few episodes, though, as he easily switches between gentle condescension and menacing threats. This Skeletor’s powers of deduction are considerably stronger, typically keeping him one step ahead of He-Man.
But he’s also more comical, which really seems to have irked the fans. Old Skeletor liked to make jokes at his underlings’ or enemies’ expense on occasion, but he was otherwise generally on message. This one frequently makes sarcastic cracks, has a wide variety of exaggerated comic facial expressions, and sometimes falls prey to slapstick. It takes a little getting used to, but overall this Skeletor is even more entertaining than the great original. When He-Man inconveniently turns up to interrupt one of his close brushes with victory, Skeletor forgoes the usual bombast and instead tiredly complains that he’s had a long day and suggests taking a rest instead of fighting.
|“Adam, prince of the Eternians- Avert your eyes!! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people not groveling.”|
One of the more creative episodes on this set is “Adam’s Adventure,” by Michael Reaves, author of many Batman: The Animated Series stories. Skeletor perfects a device that can recognize He-Man’s brain waves, allowing him to track and capture his starship. Frustratingly, his quarry is traveling as Adam with a group of friends, so Skeletor is unsure which one is He-Man. He cleverly throws the group into a lethal trap, assuming that He-Man will have to reveal himself to save his friends. However, stubbornly resolved to protect his secret identity, Adam instead engineers an escape through quick thinking and the use of the scientists’ instant plant growth formula: by hiding in the suddenly sprouting forest for a moment, he is able to re-emerge as He-Man and clash with Skeletor. The latter gains the upper hand by transforming the plants into monsters, but He-Man counters with a laser blast that turns them into flowers, setting off Skeletor’s violent pollen allergy. Wait, Skeletor has sinuses? He-Man has flower power? Methinks he’s hung around She-Ra a little too much.
The one area where New Adventures takes a decided turn for the worse is the soundtrack. I’m not suggesting 80s cartoon music maestros Shuki Levy and Haim Saban gave the Filmation series a work of art for a score, but it has character and the main theme is quite bracing. Their score for New Adventures, on the other hand, is so terminally bland and lifeless that it actually detracts from the action. Dated or not, the original score would have been a better choice for this show.
|“Look, I’m not going to argue about it, Slushhead. Only one of us bathes in rotting vegetation!”|
On the positive side, the show gets a facelift in the form of Japanese-produced animation that, though occasionally off model and not terribly impressive, is still light years ahead of Filmation’s original series. It also has just enough fluidity to give some action scenes something close to excitement. Unsurprisingly, the art design leans slightly in an anime direction, though it’s unfortunately only slightly less bland than in the original series’. Mattel’s horrendous toy designs and an ugly color scheme are no help.
The series contains some interesting messages, none more insistent than the mantra of the “power of the good and way of the magic” showing the way to enlightenment. Take a drink each time you hear it and you won’t last two episodes. The show touches on the potential hazards of global warming and genetically modified crops, though perhaps not intentionally. On the other hand, there’s an episode that calls pacifism and reliance on government dangerous and suggests individuals take up arms instead, so there’s something for everyone, I guess.
More direct lessons are provided by the returning PSAs, though they’re not always the most useful ones. One warns of the dangers of heart attacks, which one wouldn’t imagine being a pressing concern for 8-year-olds. In my favorite segment, children are shocked to find their small playground vandalized with Skeletor and Flogg’s goofy self-portraits. Truly their evil knows no bounds.
The transfer looks good for the most part, although I did notice one instance of obvious pixelation and a few fuzzy spots. On the outside BCI’s packaging is flawless as always, covered with vibrant character art. As with the Filmation sets there’s a couple of cool character sketch cards, a booklet with episode summaries, and helpful character profiles. The image gallery contains a healthy number of neat concept sketches, including an amusingly lascivious-looking He-Man.
|Even the most powerful man in the universe has bad design days.|
The documentaries, however, are a letdown. “Creating the New Adventures of He-Man” contains only vague plot recollections from the show’s writers, and very little in the way of production details. The brief notes on the chapter menus are much more revealing, sometimes amusingly poking fun at the program’s shortcomings. I was interested by one writer’s lament that scripts had to be written extremely literally lest the Japanese animation team be thrown visually off track by a metaphor or colloquialism.
“The Comic Book Adventures of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” offers loads of detail on He-Man’s brief career in comics for all eight people who care. Apparently Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm contributed some artwork, and Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai did some lettering.
Via CD-ROM you can read story outlines for several episodes, and the fascinating series bible. He-Man is described as “hip, more human, sensitive and caring,” having “the time to pause and learn philosophy and spirituality…” Conan would be appalled at what had become of his legacy.
Fans of the Filmation He-Man series and even non-fans are advised to give The New Adventures of He-Man a shot. Sometimes change is good. He-Man might even prefer a little more. Despite now proving himself the manliest man in two universes, he still can’t get a date.