He-Man and the Masters of the Big Ripoff

The surprising cheapness of many American-made cartoons

December 9, 2009

By Avi Green

I once stumbled over this article on a site called 11 Points that talked about how the old Masters of the Universe cartoons (usually beginning with He-Man and possibly She-Ra’s names as a quasi-adjective) were some of cheapest animated cartoons ever made, not just because of the limited motion involved, but because there was so little action to watch as well. All the kinds of things, that, as children, we were not commonly prone to consider during our youth. On top of all that, it was more a toy commercial than anything else.

Indeed, thinking about it nowadays, this would-be Saturday morning cartoon series, based on a toy line from Mattel first launched in the early 80s, was one of the most underwhelming I’d ever seen, with animation and voice acting that was kept to the utterly threadbare minimum. He-Man’s animated series, made by Filmation, which has been defunct for 2 decades now, ran between 1983-85, and its followup in She-Ra during 1985-87. There were plenty of scenes like where He-Man, star of the first official series, would change from his regular guise as the planet Eternia’s Prince Adam into the silly strongman (and his own pet tiger into “Battle-Cat”), letting out that laughable line of his, “I HAVE THE POWER!” that were stock footage used over and over ad nauseum. Same goes for She-Ra, when Princess Adora changed into the funny female warrior with that laughable line of hers, “I AM SHE-RA!” (I can’t recall what her white stallion was named now though). And there were even plenty of times when Orko, the goofy little gremlin who was one of their best pals at Castle Grayskull, would be shown using one panel sketch that was flipped back and forth like a mirror, done to keep yet more expenses as low as possible. Apparently, that’s why plans to name him Gorko didn’t work out; how can you reverse the letter G at ease? It does make me wonder though, why they couldn’t have dropped even the letter O from his cloak and saved a bit more money while they were at it!

The executive producer, Lou Scheimer, provided a ton of the voices for many of the male characters, while his daughter did many of the female voices. Yep, MOTU was a family affair. Who knew? Not the children, who didn’t typically care to read the staff credits, that’s for sure.

And, lest we forget, there was no personality or character development of any kind, and the villains were there just so they could sell action figures in real life. Skeletor would often have a different minion working for him almost every consecutive episode, and – no surprise really – there was never any romance between He-Man and his female counterparts, or She-Ra and her male ones. Or at least not what might be considered groundbreaking, like lovemaking. (Sadly, some young boys seem to think lowly of that.)

There’s a few other details I decidedly won’t get into just now, but on top of all that, while the article made for great reading, what do people expect of an American-made cartoon like that, honestly? See, that’s the problem with a lot of American-made cartoons: in contrast to Japan, where they can have writing more sophisticated than you think, most of those made in the United States and Canada are not being done with giving children something really intelligent to think about as they grow older in mind. Translation: these American made cartoons are dumbed-down. Certainly there are some exceptions like Filmation’s earlier Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which ran during 1972-85, but for the most part, they are just dumb, dopey popcorn nonsense with only the interest of keeping the kiddies “entertained”, nothing more.

In fact, even the cartoons based on GI Joe and Transformers were pretty cruddy, and the one based on the first of Hasbro’s franchises was a far cry from the comics written by Larry Hama during 1982-94. Featuring mostly wooden animation, they told their juvenile tales without leaving much to think about in the aftermath.

In fairness, when the 1990s came around, animation did improve a bit, but was still a far cry from the mastery Japan has succeeded in presenting, whether in cels or in computerized format.

That aside, what was so great about Masters of the Universe, really? Back in my childhood, I only owned exactly ONE toy from that line, and it was an action figure of Hordak, and I’ll say in fairness that it did come with a nice little mini-comic included. But other than that, I never owned nor cared for any more of that line, which, after several years, lost popularity faster than the Cabbage Patch Dolls and never regained the full recognition it once had in the kiddie market. And if my major lack of interest in the MOTU line is any indication, one has to wonder if it was ever popular at all. At least I for one wasn't as much a victim of the ripoff as others were.

Aside from all that, one cannot expect animation in the US and Europe to improve much, if it’s still at flat levels after all these years, nor can we possibly expect them to gain writing as sophisticated as what some Japanese cartoons can have. It’s a shame of course, but the main reason why it may not happen seriously, as I realize, is because animation as a whole, doesn’t have a big enough following among adults in the west, and is unlikely to gain a sizable audience in the future either, for as long as we have television and movies.

Copyright 2009 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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