So yesterday (December 17th) was my birthday. Coincidentally, a package I had been waiting on arrived just on that very day.
I had pre-ordered the 30th Anniversary Box Set of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which includes every episode of the original Filmation cartoon, every episode of the 2002 series that played on Cartoon Network, and the “top 20 best episodes” of The New Adventures of He-Man from 1990. It also includes a Soundtrack CD, and a bonus disc containing documentaries (one of which is brand new).
Now, I’ve said in the past that the original Filmation version of He-Man is the best cartoon ever made, and I still stand by that. I feel, however, like I never really adequately explain why its so good. To be completely honest, it’s hard to say anything definite. This is one of those cartoons where every time I watch it, I come away with completely different thoughts–I like things I hated before, and hate things I liked before–so its literally a new experience each time.
However, there are a couple of near-definites I can latch on to. These are those near-definites.
So, without further ado:
Ten Reasons He-Man is the Best Cartoon Ever
Reason 10 – The company behind it. While I am by no means a Filmation fanboy (honestly, I find most of their non-He-Man shows kind of lame), the company simply deserves respect. Filmation used in-house, union animators at a time when their competitors outsourced to Japanese or Korean studios. They focused on a small, core cast of characters who they developed over 130 episodes when most other toy-based cartoons of the decade (such as the original version of My Little Pony or Transformers) constantly rotated their casts out just to name-drop as many toys as possible. Predating Lauren Faust by a couple of decades, the people at Filmation (including executive producer Lou Scheimer) acknowledged that just because its a cartoon does not mean it has to be vapid or moronic, and it shows.
Reason 9 – The soundtrack. When you say “He-Man,” almost assuredly the first thing that comes to your mind is the theme song, and that’s if you don’t think of the other background songs, the incidental music, the character themes. Every song is emotive, and many of them are almost as memorable and iconic as the theme song itself. Simply put, He-Man wouldn’t be the show it is without its soundtrack (in fact, that’s one of the 2002 revival’s biggest weaknesses–its music is bland and forgettable).
Reason 8 – There’s only one two-part episode in the whole run. One reason I don’t watch a lot of TV is because I just can’t be bothered to keep up with all the intracate storylines these modern shows have going, where if you miss even one episode you’re completely lost. While He-Man by no means lacked continuity, it was and still is wisely written so that every episode (save for “House of Shokoti, Part 2”) can be watched in whatever order you want. You don’t have to worry about keeping up with details, you can just have fun.
Reason 7 – Body language. Despite budgetary constraints, He-Man really showed off the advantages of animation over, say, comic books. If you watch closely, a lot of characters in the background are usually reacting with subtle looks and gestures to what others are doing or saying. One thing I really like, is that when He-Man is doing a feat of strength, it looks realistic–he heaves and grunts. There’s a great example of this in the very first episode, when he’s trying to widen a chasm so he can grab the Diamond Ray–it actually very well conveys how much he’s exerting himself to do that. Stuff like this helps make the show more “real,” and gives it depth.
Reason 6 – Eternia. There are a lot of episodes (particularly in the first season) that involve villains other than Skeletor. I used to consider this a bad thing, but after watching She-Ra, I realized something. See, in she-Ra, every episode save one involves the Horde, and it almost feels like Etheria didn’t exist until the Horde conquered it. He-Man’s Eternia, on the other hand, really does feel like a rich world full of undiscovered mysteries and secrets, and the presence of characters such as Game Master and Zodak give you a feeling that the clash between He-Man and Skeletor are just one of the many things going on in this world.
Reason 5 – Intelligent morals. I gotta admit, when I see the stuff that passes for “educational content” in cartoons nowadays, I shake my head and fear for our culture. Today we dumb down political issues into soundbites, while at the same time never teaching kids stuff that will actually help them. Funnily enough, He-Man is as relevant today as it was in 1983, and the lessons the characters teach at the end of each episode are far more practical than the fluffy, pat and vacuous stuff you hear today. Sometimes they even say stuff that television studios today would be too pussy to handle, such as the episode “Double Edged Sword” (a kid who thinks lasers are cool tries to be a hotshot, ends up crippling his dad for life) or “Trouble in Arcadia” (while on a drive, Teela rants to Adam about male chauvinists… and then they’re both captured by a city of women who treat men like pack animals. The ideal embodied in this episode is closer to Susan B. Anthony’s philosophy than the garbage that passes for feminism nowadays). Granted, there are episodes that are preachy or heavy-handed, but at least we don’t have the heroes’ personalities flip-flopping just to showcase an anti-bullying story (right, MLP season three?) I gotta admit, when I pick an episode at random, the message I get seems to always be something I needed to hear at that exact moment. Truth is truth and wisdom is wisdom, regardless of decade.
Reason 4 – Everyone has a story. Most cartoons, then and now, were satisfied to just introduce a bunch of faces and get on with it. In any other cartoon, Mer-Man would’ve been just an aquatic-themed servant. But instead, he has a personal grudge against Man-at-Arms and makes several solo attempts to conquer the underwater kingdoms. In any other cartoon (including the 2002 remake of He-Man), Queen Marlena would be just a name and a face, no personality. But this is He-Man, so instead she’s an astronaut from Earth who is also a trained fighter pilot and wishes her people took her seriously, and may also be the only person sharp enough to see that Prince Adam is He-Man. Or there’s the wizard Malik… I could go on.
Reason 3 – Nobody is a “type.” And it just gets better. I mean, any other show, if you had an episode where the lead female and the villain’s woman were stranded in the desert together, they’d fight and trust each other uneasily. In this show though, they wind up getting to know each other better and developing respect for each other. And Orko, the comedy relief, actually does useful things in each episode and is instrumental in resolving conflicts. He, too, has feelings and insecurities that he sometimes acts on. And what about Adam? Is he just pretending to be useless or is he actually useless? The portrayal is nuanced enough that its open to either interpretation. I was honestly surprised that there’s an episode where Cringer gets on Adam’s case about having an argument with Teela–things like that just don’t happen in cartoons (except maybe MLP: Friendship is Magic).
Reason 2 – A consistent universe. Despite the stand-alone nature of the stories, the writers all clearly had the same or similar visions of what Eternia was like, which gives this shared universe a cohesive feel. And, too, they all had a strong grasp of the characters. So you never have instances where “one episode they’re all scrolls and quills, the next episode there’s tractors and movie theaters” (unlike MLP:FIM) nor do you have instances where villains have completely different motivations from episode to episode (unlike Batman: the Animated Series). This helps Eternia feel more like a real, living universe that you’re peeking into and less like a cartoon you’re wasting your time watching.
Reason 1 – It’s just plain fun. I gotta admit though… for all the serious bits, for all the well-done characterization, for all the consistency and escapism and music and animation, what really keeps me coming back to He-Man is just that its a damn good time. And when the episode is over, there’s always the silly or over-the-top parts to joke about–like my favorite game, “what drug was the Comet Keeper smoking, and where can I get some?” Many cartoons try too hard to be dark, brooding or serious, despite having completely implausible premises or laughable plots. He-Man knows its silly, and just runs with it, which gives the show a charm that other, darker shows are just missing.
And that’s that!
Now, as I said the 30th Anniversary set also included the complete 2002 series and twenty episodes from The New Adventures of He-Man. Unfortunately it didn’t include any She-Ra because a different distributor owns the right to that. However, the bulk of the bonus features focus on the 1983 cartoon… and rightly so, if you ask me. Both 2002 and New Adventures have that unfortunate curse of having interesting ideas, but lousy executioon.
I do, however, consider She-Ra a worthy follow-up to He-Man. While it does have a less interesting setting and some more annoying side-characters, I love the Evil Horde, always kinda felt Hordak was more compelling than Skeletor, and honestly kinda feel She-Ra herself is more compelling than He-Man. There’s just something about ass-kicking women that I like (and She-Ra does it without being a hateful bitch, which makes her better than every “strong woman” in every cartoon or movie made nowadays).
One last note, I’m not likely to update my blog again until after December, though I will respond to comments. Merry Christmas everyone!