05th Sep2019

‘Power of Grayskull’ Review

by Chris Cummings


There’s been a whole slew of television shows and documentary films about nostalgia lately, with many focusing on a number of toy-lines from the 80s and other decades of the past. The Toys That Made Us is likely the most well-known of the lot, landing on Netflix with two seasons so far, talking about toys from Star Wars to LEGO to Transformers all the way to He-man. I am a nostalgia-head, a toy collector and a fan of the 80s, so when a chance to see this documentary, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, came up, I jumped at it. A film talking about the history of the famous line of He-man toys from Mattel? I’m in. I grew up playing with wrestling figures, smashing Robotech toys together in a battle for supremacy, busting poltergeists with my Ghostbusters and kicking butt with my Hero Turtles. I also remember going to my cousin’s house on a weekend and playing with He-Man toys. Fighting for ownership of Castle Grayskull. Choosing whether to be the “good guys” or the “bad guys”. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is so iconic, so vibrant and so incredibly 1980s.

This documentary film was made by Robert McCallum who made documentaries like Nintendo Quest and is working on a documentary series about box art called Box Art: The Stories Behind the Covers right now, and Randall Lobb, who made the rad documentary Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2014. Their resumes speak for themselves, they’re qualified and have put out quality work in the same realms before. This is a well made, slick and insightful film, full of the kind of information, stories and factoids you hope for. The assembly of talking-heads that were brought on board is also something to behold. I have always been a fan of the Masters of the Universe movie that came out in 1987. I loved it as a kid, not seeing the flaws that existed in it, and so hearing from its star and action-film legend Dolph Lundgren was pretty damn cool. Aside from He-Man himself, people like Frank Langella (who played Skeletor in that same film and is a terrific actor in his own right) and an array of writers, artists, actors and marketing folks from Mattel appear, and there’s rarely an interviewee who doesn’t have something interesting to say. I am a big for of documentaries like this, that do the research and bring in the right people to talk about the chosen topic. This is some quality stuff.

Some of the stories that are told within this film are riveting, and many of them I wasn’t aware of before going in. I know plenty about the toy-line and have read about bits and pieces of the history of it, but this was a lesson, and an entertaining one at that. If The Toys That Made Us is a little too fast-paced for you and you feel like it skims over the details too much, then you should really check this out. While you might think that 95 minutes isn’t quite enough to give a definitive history of one of the most famous and beloved toy-lines in history, McCallum and Lobb do their damnedest to make every minute count. We begin at the beginning and hear about the launch of the line back in 1982 with those ultra-muscular crazy figures we all know and love (or, those of us who grew up in that era do anyway) and what follows is a detailed breakdown of the line, of what it launched and how it lead to one of the biggest franchises of the 80s. It all began with some 5 inch plastic heroes and villains, and resulted in comic books, a hit animated TV show, a spin-off called She-Ra, more lines of toys (that are still being released to this day in various forms) and of course the motion picture.

I loved hearing about the lasting appeal of He-Man over the years and would have really liked more time looking at that, and the collectors who still hold on to the power of He-Man to this day, but while there are moments I wish went on a touch longer, I can’t complain. There’s just so much going on here. We get stories about He-Man breaking new ground in an age where smaller toys like GI Joe were the norm. We hear about the seemingly random and super-fast creation of the hugely popular cartoon. We hear about Mattel passing on the massive Star Wars line and in order to save themselves, through a series of events, they birthed He-Man and The Masters of the Universe. There are so many accidents that went on to create the characters we know and we hear about it here, such as Battlecat being created because the cat mould was much too big at the side of He-Man himself, so they threw a saddle on the cat and created the kitty-steed that is so iconic to the series. There’s a ton of mind-blowing tales to be heard and every time the Castle or action-figures appeared on screen I got that hit of nostalgia that I love, a feeling of being a kid again.

Hearing from actors who worked on the Masters of the Universe film to Mattel creators who worked on the line of toys is really interesting, and hearing the story about how this huge success story was accomplished through the words of those who were closest to it is done brilliantly. The talking-heads offer tons of fascinating facts, and while it pulls things back visually as a film, its focus on giving a true definitive history shines through. Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe really is a respectful and wonderfully made look at one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenons of all time. If you have even a fleeting interest in toys, in the 80s or in how a huge franchise can be born out of creativity, then check this out.

Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is available on DVD and Digital, in the US, now.


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