Saturday, August 04, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture Turns 25

This past week, word broke that G.I. Joe: Retaliation director Jon M. Chu is in the mix to helm a potential big screen revival of the Masters of the Universe property. The timing for this news couldn't be more apropos, as next week marks twenty-five years since the release of what was at one time (and maybe still is?) one of my all-time favorite flicks: Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture. From the perspective of the jaded here-and-now, it's easy to dismiss as chintzy and dated, but back then, when I could backfill story and aesthetic failings with my own imagination, it was pure, unfiltered movie magic.

For some context, Mattel's Masters of the Universe had dominated toy aisles, kidvid, and merchandising upon its debut in 1982, but by '87 it was clearly on the wane. Thus, the feature film represented kind of a last stab at relevance for the once-Most Powerful Property in the Universe. Produced by exploitation mavens Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for their Cannon shingle (just two weeks after their ill-advised Superman IV: The Quest For Peace bombed hard and killed that franchise), Masters of the Universe launched on August 7, 1987 with the hope that it would lead to a series. Here's the trailer:

Dolph Lundgren as He-Man. Frank Langella as Skeletor. This was a big deal. Or, I assumed it was, anyway. I was seven, remember.

This mag was how I became aware of the movie's existence
It's easy to forget how iconic and indelible these characters had become by the late '80s, and it's actually kind of impressive when you consider how little time they had to bake in the pop culture oven. While I didn't know who either of those two actors were, it's apparent that the marketing materials tried like heck to position The Motion Picture as something momentous even as it bumped up against the reality of being a toy-based movie in a time before the major studios devoted sizable summer real estate to stuff like Battleship.

In addition to Lundgren and Langella squaring off against each other as the leads, Masters of the Universe also featured a young Courtney Cox as Julie, the teenager He-Man and his friends team up with when they're inadvertently transported to Earth for the majority of the film's running time (a clever way of cutting down on the budget busting outer space antics that were way outside Cannon's wheelhouse). This also allowed them to neatly sidestep stuff like He-Man's giant, talking tiger, or his "Prince Adam" alter ego.

Still, even with the technical and budgetary constraints of bringing the world of Eternia to the screen, director Gary Goddard (whose Captain Power TV show would debut the following month) lent scope to a mostly-Earthbound story. Despite his game efforts, however, the movie didn't make much of an impact with critics, who mostly dismissed it, or at the box office, where it failed to recoup its $22 million budget (which, despite what you may think, was actually pretty substantial). So, even with a post-credits tease, no sequel. Of course, none of that mattered to me then. And really, it still doesn't.

Here was the hero whose adventures had dominated my playtime for the majority of my seven years brought to stunning, vivid life. The memory of that experience is one I'll carry with me forever. In the quarter-century since, I've seen  Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture countless times, and when the 25th anniversary blu-ray comes out in October, I'll be ready to pop in that disc and have the triumphant strains of Bill Conti's title theme (trying very hard to evoke John Williams) transport me back to the summer of 1987, when Dolph Lundgren had the power.


Brian said...

Back in the days before DVR, I remember waking up at the crack of dawn so I could watch He-Man. It's funny, for as much as I loved it, now, I remember very little about it besides the action figures.

Another thing I remember was at the time the film came out there was a Muppet magazine, and for whatever reason, to this day, whenever I see the film on TV I think of this image from that issue:

He-Frog and the Muppets of the Universe

Zaki said...

That's hilarious! I Love that you were able to fj f that image online.

Imran said...

If I recall correctly this movie had elements of sci-fi which is not like the TV show. Reminds me more of He-Man New Adventures from the 90s.

Zaki said...

Well, the NEW ADVENTURES show didn't come until a few years later, but the original MOTU always did straddle a line between fantasy and sci-fi, so this film still fit comfortably within those confines. It left stuff out like Battle Cat and He-Man turning into Prince Adam, but it didn't eliminate the possibility of them existing outside this particular story.