Connect with us

Toys We Love

The Transformers: Lessons in Warfare, Scale, and Childhood

Toys We Love Spotlight

Published

on

The Transformers are an enduring part of American pop culture. Starting with the introduction of the first toy lines in the early 1980s, the animated series went on to define a large part of ‘80s culture, reaching its apex with the release of The Transformers: The Movie in 1986. After a disappointing performance in theaters, however, the brand reached a nadir in the post-movie era, receding from the front of American pop culture until the late 1990s, when Transformers: Beast Wars brought the franchise to the forefront again.

It was into this climate that I was born. By the time I was old enough to watch TV and get toys courtesy of the North Pole and my parents, I began to take an interest in the series. After all, what five-year-old boy doesn’t like the idea of giant robots fighting each other for control of the earth and the universe?

My local video store (yes, those used to exist) had a copy of the first three episodes of the original Transformers series, Generation 1, on VHS. I remember renting this one particular copy from the store and watching it at least three times, sun-faded front cover and all. Even then, I loved the series, though I only had a few generic dollar-store “transformers,” an Armada Megatron that I had received for my fifth birthday, and a couple of hand-me-down G1 figures from my Dad.

Some of my earliest memories of Transformers came from a trip my parents and I took to visit my Dad’s former college roommate, a professed 80s culture geek. I remember watching a ton of G1 episodes, like “Dinobot Island,” as well as The Transformers: The Movie on his large projection-screen TV, an experience which inculcated within me an intense love of the series.

Optimus Prime The Transformers The Movie

Optimus Prime, bastion of bravery and an excellent role model for a maturing boy.

The first real episodic Transformers show that I watched with any sort of consistency, however, was Transformers: Armada. Now, I don’t remember much about this show — for good reason, as it’s derided by many Transformers fans for its poor animation, bad dubbing, and terrible story — but what I do remember is one particular toy that I really enjoyed: Armada Unicron.

I think it was the Christmas of 2002 when I first got Unicron. I remember having seen him in the store and (probably) telling my parents something or another about it, but I was utterly shocked when Santa brought it to me as a present. As a kid, Unicron was an impressive toy that towered over all of my other Transformers. He was such a hefty toy that I had trouble just picking him up from the ground. After having seen The Transformers: The Movie, I was just impressed by having the planet-eating destroyer of worlds himself in toy form. It was good to be a kid.

My consumption of Transformers-related content stayed relatively the same for a couple of years. Since my family didn’t get any of the channels that the shows came on, I was often left to make up what stories I could from my own memory, but we had Netflix (back when it was a DVD mail-in service), so I was able to watch some of the old series, including Beast Wars, Beast Machines, and Transformers: Energon on DVD. As usual, however, I spent most of my time in school or playing on my GameCube.  

When Michael Bay’s Transformers released in theaters in 2007, it ushered in an entirely new era of Transformers fandom across the world. With the return of G1 originals Peter Cullen and Frank Welker as the voices of Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively, the ‘80s were alive and well again. This transformation (pun fully intended), brought about the introduction of an entirely new show, Transformers Animated, which aired on Cartoon Network. Before the days of DVR, it was nearly impossible for someone like myself, who was usually involved in any myriad of school activities on any given day, to find the time to watch a show at its air time. 

Unicron Armada Transformers Toy

Just look at this toy! Even today, it’s impressive.

However, luckily enough for me, Cartoon Network aired reruns of two episodes of Animated every day at 6:30 AM. As someone who lived literally two minutes away from school, I usually didn’t leave my house until around 7:45 or 8:00, so I had plenty of time to watch the show. I remember getting up every morning, fixing myself a big bowl of cereal, and sitting down to watch Animated before anyone in the house was up. Just me, Transformers, cereal, and a lot of fun. 

Soon, as I aged and Animated was replaced by Transformers Prime, I grew into a more nuanced appreciation for the shows’ storytelling. Prime, a dark tonal contrast with Animated, found me at the perfect time in my life. I appreciated its reverence for Optimus Prime and its overarching themes of sacrifice and leadership. While some would say it was boring or over-wrought, for a burgeoning pre-teen it was an engaging combination of cool and edgy that I thoroughly enjoyed.

When I sit down to think about the impact the Transformers series has had on my life, there’s one point in particular that sticks out to me: the imagination that playing with Transformers encouraged. While the brand was doubtlessly born of a commercial desire to sell as many pieces of plastic as possible, it nonetheless developed into a series capable of some interesting, if not always deep, storytelling. 

I copied this sense of storytelling when it came time to play with my toys. I remember incorporating various weather machines, weapons of ultimate power, and energy crystals into overarching narratives that could last a whole afternoon. Narratives in which Autobots died, lost limbs, or were otherwise in peril before the power of the Matrix of Leadership or Primus himself showed up to save them in the end. While this may not seem all that unique, I credit the series with instilling in me a sense of narrative detail. In fact, I remember not mixing my G.I. Joes and Transformers together, because in my internal head canon, they weren’t to scale (everyone knows that Transformers are at least three to four times taller than humans.) 

Megatron vs. Dinosaur G1 Transformers

I can safely say that I probably played out this exact scenario at least four or five times in my childhood.

However, Unicron himself created all sorts of problems for an internal narrative. For a being the size of a planet, he was rather puny in scale when compared to the other figures. So, I would always put Unicron to the side and pretend that the smaller Transformers were mere dots on him, tiny little specks that could barely be seen, the same as they had been in The Transformers: The Movie. I feel like the toys gave me an appreciation of the tropes of narrative fiction that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated. 

Today, I still love the series and try to watch The Transformers: The Movie at least once a year. Newer entries, like Transformers: Rescue Bots and Rescue Bots Academy allow me to share my love of the series with my younger siblings without encountering the darker elements of some of the classic shows. It allows me to teach them all about the Cybertronians that I grew up with, and perhaps encourage them to craft stories of their own. Now, excuse me while I help the Rescue Bots put out a fire on Wayward Island…

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Toys We Love

Beanie Babies: The Collectables with Heart

Toys We Love Spotlight

Published

on

For our Toys We Love Spotlight, I’m looking at one of my personal favourites: Beanie Babies. I had collected so many of these growing up, and households worldwide in the 90s and early 2000s were sure to have at least one Beanie Baby in their possession (was it even the 90s if they didn’t?). These plushie companions were cute, cuddly, and collectable, so it’s not a surprise that the Beanie Babies craze swept the globe, forcing parents and toy collectors everywhere to dig into their wallets.


Beanie Babies had a few aspects to them that made them stand out from your average plushie. Firstly, they did not have as much stuffing as most soft toys. Whilst some thought that this made them look cheap, it also made them light, posable, and gave them a realistic feel and look. The bear Beanie Babies were particularly good to pose, and this set them apart from run-of-the-mill teddy bears. Another element that made Beanie Babies more unique was their special tag. Each toy had a tag attached which had the toy’s name, date of birth, and a quotation etched inside. The former was something that could have been a risky choice, as although it wasn’t completely taking away the child’s choice of name — there was nothing stopping them from just calling their Beanie whatever they wanted — a pre-selected name can be difficult to sell, as kids can often take great pride and pleasure in naming their toys.

It was a great success, however, and worked as a nice finishing touch for the Beanie Babies, adding a dash of personality and flair (something much needed in the often critically over-saturated soft toy market), as well as making each Beanie Baby feel like their own creature with their own little stories. Adding to that was the wide variety of animals that were available, such as Tiny the Chihuahua, Pegasus the Unicorn or Swampy the Alligator. This means that the desires of each individual child or enthusiastic collector could be catered to (I myself favoured the dogs and bears).

The puppies were my Beanie Baby of choice. They were all such good boys and girls.

The Beanie Babies also had their own way of tackling difficult issues in society, showing them to kids through the guise of a soft toy. I’ll give you an example through my own experience: I had a Beanie Baby that (as odd as it may sound) gave me more of an understanding of the horrors of September 11th. Weird, right? Allow me to explain. I was only just nine years old on that now-historical day when the twin towers in New York were attacked and so many innocent people lost their lives. I had come home from school (it was afternoon time here in the UK when it happened), and I remember my mum watching it on television in complete shock. She had watched the whole thing whilst I’d been at school.

I didn’t really understand what was happening to be honest. Even when I was watching the repeats of the plane crashing into the side of the tower, I was somewhat oblivious the gravity of the situation (though as a nine year old child, I suppose I could be forgiven for that). The news continued to report the tragedy for a long time, and my school held assemblies to discuss the matter. I knew people had died, and that made me very sad, but I remember thinking that people died all the time, so why was this one incident reported on so much? About a month or so after, TY released three Beanie Babies as a tribute to those lost during 9/11. One of these was a Dalmatian Beanie Baby called Rescue, and I wanted him the moment I saw him, not really knowing the true nature of his purpose. My mum obliged happily, knowing what he represented. I remember taking my little Dalmatian with the red collar and American flag on his leg home and reading his tag. It read:

To honor our heroes
who lost their lives in the
national catastrophe that
took place on September 11, 2001.
We mourn for them and express our
deepest sympathy to their families.
God Bless America

Rescue the Dalmatian was joined by America the Bear and Courage the German Shepherd. The Beanies were a set of three released to honor those who perished in the tragedy of 9/11.

I found Rescue in my room recently, and the memories flooded back to me upon reading it again. I remember looking into all the acts of heroism and bravery after reading Rescue’s tag, and that’s when the situation really hit home to me. I looked into the stories of firefighters and first responders and those who had died, as well as all the search-and-rescue dogs attempting to save people among the chaos. As a child, it can be hard to see past your immediate opinion and truly consider the sheer weight of a situation, but with Rescue’s help, I was able to see just how this event was indeed very different to anything I had ever seen before, and how serious it was. It was the first time I felt like I was thinking like a grown up. I looked at the world differently from then on — obviously as I got older, but also from my ability to think harder and search deeper. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have even bothered if it wasn’t for Rescue reminding me of exactly how much was lost on that day.

Rescue, perhaps the goodest and bravest boy of them all.

Beanie babies will forever be ingrained in culture. They are still bought, sold and collected even now and will remain a timeless staple of most of our childhoods. They certainly are for me. Especially you Rescue, the bravest firefighting Dalmatian the world has ever known.

Continue Reading

Toys We Love

The Lego Brick Is A Playground For the Imagination

Toys We Love Spotlight

With millions of unique brick combinations, every piece of Lego is an opportunity for the imagination to run wild.

Published

on

Lego

Before me, stretched a plastic kingdom of verdant grasslands dotted with castles, forests, and warring armies. It was populated with a host of magical races, ranging from noble knights to hideous ogres to undead skeleton warriors. This was the most epic fantasy world that my then-ten-year-old mind could imagine – and I had built it into existence with Lego.

My collection of these colorful little bricks let me make the fantasy realm of my dreams become a reality. They supported my childish creativity, and in doing so, they also sparked my lifelong passions for writing and storytelling. That’s the magic of Lego: with millions of unique brick combinations, every piece of Lego is an opportunity for the imagination to run wild.

From Pixar’s iconic Toy Story films to Netflix’s hit The Toys That Made Us series, it’s been widely recognized that quality playtime can have an incredible impact on a child. However, the unfortunate thing about most toys is that they are inherently limited. No matter how expansive your imagination may be, there’s only so much you can do with a toy car or action figure at the end of the day. Lego, on the other hand, has no such limitations. It has always been dedicated to one simple mission: helping kids to play well by capturing the simple joy of creativity. After all, this very concept is embedded in the company’s name – it’s a portmanteau of Leg godt, a Danish phrase meaning nothing less than “play well.”

Lego

On store shelves, Lego masquerades as a fairly typical toy. Every set comes in a box containing an assortment of pieces and an instruction booklet to build a pre-designed set – pretty standard stuff. However, it is only when these instructions end that the true fun begins. Every Lego set can be taken apart and reassembled into something else entirely. A racecar can be rebuilt as a spaceship, and a modern fire station can become a castle in a fantasy kingdom. Every brick offers boundless possibilities, allowing even the craziest ideas to materialize through the right pieces.

In large part, this incredible power of the brick is derived from Lego’s adherence to “The System.” Ever since the mid-1950s, nearly every single piece of Lego has been designed according to the same standards of size and structure. This allows for something truly special: you can take one brick from a new set from 2019 and pair it with a piece made in 1959, and they will both click together perfectly. It ensures that over the company’s more than half a century of brick making, there’s a piece for every wild idea. In fact, according to Kristen Stadelhofer, a Lego Culture Mediator quoted in The Toys That Made Us, there are over 900,000,000 unique combinations of pieces for a single group of 2×4 bricks alone. Considering the thousands of other types of bricks produced over the last sixty years, there are effectively endless combinations, again providing plenty of chances for imagination to shine through.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these little bricks isn’t the way they can interlock with each other, but how they can impact their users. As explained in an excellent article from MIT, Lego naturally fosters an engineering-focused mindset, as should be expected with any type of construction toy. However, it can also promote a parallel, but somewhat contrasting behavior. Lego’s emphasis upon unbridled creativity easily supports an artistic viewpoint, creating an appreciation for the visual arts, design, and in my case, writing and storytelling.

Lego

Let’s go back to that medieval kingdom from the introduction. Growing up, it was my proudest achievement. Consisting of untold thousands of pieces and taking up several massive gray base plates, it was a gloriously ambitious project that used almost the entirety of my collection at the time. But it wasn’t long before I realized something about my medieval land: it needed a story. A realm this expansive and beautiful needed a detailed history of its own, one full of specific events and colorful characters. There was only one option available to me: I had to write. Thus, I began to craft little stories and poems about my kingdom, which soon grew into full-length novels and epics. Before long, I became more interested in my writing than in my creation. I haven’t stopped writing since then.

In more ways than one, this article wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Lego. If my creations hadn’t inspired me to spend countless afternoons crafting their extensive stories, I likely wouldn’t have discovered my love of writing. Lego sparked my creativity more than any other toy had before it, and I know I’m not the only one to have had such an experience.

There are so many ways to play well. The best toys have the power to ignite the imagination, stimulate ingenuity, and foster lifelong passions. But not many toys offer the limitless opportunities that Lego does. With the endless potential contained within every single brick, Lego truly offers a playground for the imagination unlike anything else. Its creativity can inspire passions that last a lifetime, just as it has done for me. Lego gives imagination and personal expression free reign, and in my own experience, that’s the best possible kind of play.

Continue Reading

Toys We Love

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Ruled the ’80s

Toys We Love Spotlight

Published

on

If I had to name three toy lines my friends and I were obsessed with growing up, they would be G.I. Joe, Transformers, and the Masters of the Universe. As the youngest in my family, I was extremely spoiled and I was the only kid amongst my group of friends who could proudly brag about owning every He-Man action figure. I had every character from He-Man’s royal alter ego Prince Adam to the Evil Horde, led by the evil tyrant Hordak, and so on. I even had all the vehicles including the Road Ripper, Bashasaurus, Attak Trak, and the Land Shark— not to mention Castle Grayskull, the Fight Zone and the slime pit (which drove my parents up the wall). I mean I had it all!

There was just something about He-Man that I loved so much as a kid. While I had plenty of G.I. Joe figures, my dad would always make me choose between Joes and the MOTU toy line and nine out of ten times, I opted for He-Man. The Masters of the Universe was like no toy line I’d ever seen—and I always preferred the 5 1/2-inch figures’ with muscular physiques over the tinier 3 3/4-inch Joes. Perhaps it is because at the time I was also a huge fan of the WWF and would spend more time playing with my He-Man in a WWF wrestling ring than say battling Skeletor and his evil minions while saving a make-believe world of Eternia from his evil grasps. While the He-Man action figures weren’t nearly as tall as the classic WWF toy line, they were still twice the size of their contemporaries, all of them featuring impossibly large proportions and colorful, eccentric personalities that somehow seem to fit right into the world of wrestling. And unlike their competition from Kenner, He-Man and company stood tall in action-packed poses inspired by characters found in Frank Frazetta’s fantasy paintings. Don’t get me wrong; G.I. Joe figures were and will always be cool, but they were just soldiers— He-Man, on the other hand, was like a God and he came packaged with larger weapons, including his trusty shield, his battle-axe and his Sword of Power.

He-Man

At around the time I started collecting He-Man toys I also took an interest in reading comics which makes sense given that the original He-Man action figures came packaged with minicomics – an idea Mattel marketing director Mark Ellis came up with. He partnered with the folks at DC Comics and asked them to whip up a comic they could slip into the packaging so that the prospective retailers would get not just a toy line, but some built-in crossover marketing as well. While many of my friends were reading Marvel, my older brother controlled our weekly allowance and decided what comics we would buy — and well, he was a D.C. guy. As it turns out, D.C. at the time was running a series called DC Comics Presents which featured team-ups between Superman and a wide variety of other characters of the DC Universe. Debuting in issue #47 was none other than He-Man himself in a story titled, “From Eternia–with Death!”. Putting He-Man in a crossover with the Last Son of Krypton was a huge deal and it pretty much blew my small child mind. Here was one of America’s most adored and enduring heroes, the Man of Steel, battling the son of King Randor and Queen Marlena a.k.a. the most powerful man in the universe. The following months, a three-issue Masters of the Universe limited series was sold separately on newsstands and further sparked my interest in both comics and the MOTU.

DC-Comics-Presents-47

Thinking back to my childhood I recall several debates with my friends about which toy line was better. Some preferred Transformers and others G.I. Joe, but for me, He-Man made more sense as a collector. Those robots in disguise will forever be one of the most revolutionary toy lines to ever exist but they were also far more expensive and for every Transformer toy my dad would buy; I could have two MOTU figures instead. G.I. Joes from what I remember were roughly the same price as He-Man figures, but most of the figures I wanted were nowhere to be found in retail stores nearby. Apart from a few faves like Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, the local toy shops didn’t carry a wide variety here in my town and as a collector, I was obsessed with getting the entire collection of whatever it was that I collected. I guess thinking back, there were a lot of reasons I chose He-Man as my favourite toy line but something I maybe didn’t notice or think about until I was older was He-Man’s appearance.

Early He-Man concept sketches by toy designer Roger Sweet and production artist Mark Taylor had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded a sword much like the heroes seen in the Frank Frazetta’s sci-fi/fantasy comics. In preparing for a meeting with Mattel executives, Sweet took one of Mattel’s Big Jim figures and sculpted three prototypes in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the success of space operas (such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars) and the success of G.I. Joe, Mattel opted to go in a different direction and settled for an entertaining mix of science fiction and sorcery designing He-Man as a Herculean Barbarian like-hero sporting the massive physique of a bodybuilder. As it turns out, not only was I a huge wrestling fan and D.C. Comics fan but Conan the Barbarian was one of my favourite movies at the time and Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) looked a lot like He-Man.

In the documentary, The Power of Grayskull, the creators of the Masters of the universe acknowledge, they based all of their early decisions when creating the toys on Mattel’s market research and feedback from various focus groups of five-year-old boys playing with toys. I guess focus groups really do work as Masters of the Universe entranced millions of kids when it premiered back in 1983. Mattel’s upstart toy line was flying off the shelves for several years in the mid-’80s, becoming a billion-dollar franchise thanks to toys, but it was the hit animated series that put it over the top.

He-Man 80s Cartoon Filmmation

Before the cartoon launched, He-Man’s backstory and mythology were established via the aforementioned mini-comics that accompanied the action figures sold in stores but given the size of these comics, they didn’t do much to flesh out the characters nor create any consistency among storylines. In these, neither Prince Adam nor the idea of He-Man having a secret identity was anywhere to be found but thankfully the Filmation animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe would remedy this problem. The Filmation show was, in many respects, groundbreaking and was one of the most popular cartoon shows of the 1980s. It broke the Saturday morning mold and proved that an animated series could have a large viewership in a weekday timeslot. It was one of the first children’s shows to air in first-run syndication and thanks to the cartoon, more and more of my friends started playing with He-Man toys while humming the catchy opening theme song composed by Shuki Levy and Haim Saban.

Before the animated series Masters of the Universe, TV shows and movies had spun off toys, but never in reverse. It was the first of its kind and everyone watching knew it was going to be something truly special. At its height, He-Man was the highest-rated kids’ show in America. According to the New York Times, the show’s premiere brought in nine million viewers in the United States alone. One can only imagine just how many people watched the animated series given that it was also broadcast in 37 foreign countries.

He-Man was notable for breaking the boundaries of censorship that had restricted the narrative scope of children’s TV programming in the early ‘80s. It helped evolve He-Man’s origins and ushered in an era of after school programming that was must-see for my friends and me. It helped too that the cartoon was controversial as pundits, educators, and parents argued the animated series was on the air solely to sell the toys. And because so many parents hated it, liking He-Man at a young age made you a rebel. While some of my friends weren’t allowed to play with He-Man, I was, and so many kids would often hang out at my house for a chance to get their hands on the toys. It sounds silly and it is, but for kids my age, He-Man was the coolest thing ever.

Even to this day, the He-Man cartoon is oddly entertaining which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the talent behind it which featured early script-writing work from J. Michael Straczynski, later the creator of Babylon 5; Paul Dini and Brynne Stephens, both of whom who would go on to write acclaimed episodes of Batman: The Animated Series; Beast Wars story editor Larry DiTillio; and David Wise, later the head-writer of the TV version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like the toys, the cartoon became a beloved part of my childhood – and while the toys may have come first, the show cemented their place in pop culture history.

Masters-of-the-Universe

It’s crazy to imagine just how much money Mattel lost when CEO Ray Wagner passed on the chance to partner with George Lucas and develop a Star Wars toy line. As Mattel watched Kenner turn Star Wars into a toy giant, the manufacturing giant was desperate for a hit and looked to pick up the pieces by developing their own unique brand. He-Man gave Mattel their own piece of the action and for the time, MOTU was the biggest toy franchise on the market making selling $38 million the first year with profits soaring to a height of $400 million in 1986. Not only was MOTU outselling Star Wars, but the toy line was also beating Mattel’s other big star, Barbie herself. Some say, MOTU was born out of Mattel’s great failure in passing on the chance to work with Lucas— but I disagree. Just about everything related to MOTU was invented on the fly and despite some early test marketing, the employees at Mattel created one of the biggest toy success stories of all time through a combination of ingenuity, creativity and a lot of improvisation.

Another reason why I loved He-Man as a child was because of the amount of imagination that went into creating each and every character. Sure, there were some figures that were clones of older releases such as Beastman and Mossman but there were also a ton of figures that looked unlike anything else on the store shelves including Trap-Jaw, Leech, Mekaneck, Clawful, Webstor, Ram Man and Two Bad, to name just a few. With well over 50 figures in the classic line in addition to various vehicles and playsets, The Masters of the Universe stood out for its seriously weird and sometimes horrific designs.

My three personal favourites apart from He-Man, of course, were Prince Adam, Teela and He-Man’s archnemesis Skeletor. Prince Adam’s transformation into He-Man is arguably as iconic as Clark Kent changing into Superman’s outfit while in a phone booth. Superman clearly has his trademark catchphrases but my friends and I always thought it was so much cooler to hear the chant: “By the power of Grayskull. I have the power!” And as far as we were concerned, He-Man’s alter-ego Adam was way cooler than Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent with his largely passive and introverted personality.

Teela

Teela, on the other hand, was a fierce warrior goddess imbued with the spirits of great warriors of the past and her background was shrouded in mystery. She was first introduced as an abandoned child who was adopted by Man-At-Arms, only to later discover she was the biological daughter of the Sorceress but never learn who her real father is. Of all the characters, in both the comics and the animated series, Teela’s story arc was without a doubt the most complex and heartbreaking since after learning the truth about her mother, Sorceress erases the revelation from Teela’s memory for her own protection. In my young mind, Teela was to MOTU what Princess Leia was to Star Wars and what Wonder Woman was to the DC Universe.

And then there was Skeletor…

Skeletor isn’t just evil, he’s one of the most charismatic cartoon villains ever. The blue-skinned, skull-faced nemesis of the citizens of Eternia delivered arguably some of the greatest insults of all-time with his imperious cackling voice (courtesy of actor Alan Oppenheimer). In fact, his insults were so good he even inspired one of the funniest Twitter accounts. He-Man’s ultimate nemesis (a.k.a. the Evil Lord of Destruction) may be a coward who crumbles at the sight of the man he calls a “muscle-bound moron,” but Skeletor is also the ultimate entertainer.

For a good part of my childhood, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was the hottest thing (other than perhaps, Nintendo). I spent countless hours playing with the action figures, reading the comics and watching the animated series. And then 1987 hit.

For a good part of the ‘80s, He-Man was the master of the toy universe, eclipsing even Barbie, G.I. Joe and Transformers in sales. But business missteps caused MOTU’s sales to decline 98% plummetting from $400 million in 1986 to $7 million the following year. Unsold action figures littered the shelves and retailers weren’t happy and it didn’t help that 1987 was also the year the critically panned Masters of the Universe movie was released. In the end, it wasn’t Skeletor who killed He-Man but rather those that created him.

But what really hurt the popularity of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?

Depending on who you ask, some people will point the finger at Mattel for not staying innovative and releasing new and exciting characters to add to the roster. Others will blame Cannon Films for producing an embarrassing and poorly made motion picture which turned He-Man from cool to dork. Others will turn to She-Ra: Princess of Power, a spin-off show which launched in 1985 and focused on Adam/He-Man’s twin sister, Princess Adora. While She-Ra was part of the same universe, the toys were ostensibly designed to hook young girls who might not have been interested in He-Man’s machismo antics, but the problem was, many boys quickly rejected She-Ra since they felt she resembled a doll and not an action figure.

She-Ra-1985

I can’t speak for anyone else but my loss of interest in Masters of the Universe had everything to do with all three reasons mentioned above. Mattel’s later designs and character releases just weren’t as creative and interesting as those that came before. I found myself often returning to Toys ‘R’ Us to see the same figures stacked on the shelves, always waiting and hoping for a new “cool” figure to be released, but they were nowhere to be found. She-Ra also complicated matters as many of the boys in my neighborhood and at my school began to bully kids who played with He-Man, calling them gay and calling the action figures, dolls— just another part of the insidious homophobia that plagued ’80s culture. And yes, the motion picture starring Dolph Lundgren pretty much put the nail on the coffin but that’s something I’ll write about in the near future.

The truth is, I was also getting older and spending the majority of my free time either playing sports or playing video games. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe will always hold a special place in my heart but eventually, I became interested in other things, toys or otherwise. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day and with so much yet to discover, I just couldn’t fit MOTU into my then busy schedule. Looking back, however, I have very fond memories of the franchise and whenever I look at the action figures still sitting on my bookshelf, I can’t help but smile thinking back at simpler times.

  • Ricky D
Continue Reading

Film

‘The Power of Grayskull‘ Really is the Definitive History of He-Man and The Masters of the Universe

Toys We Love Spotlight

Published

on

Anyone who has watched the popular Netflix show, The Toys That Made Us, would know that the history of He-Man: Masters of the Universe is complicated. The toys that Made Us dedicated an entire episode to He-Man and despite watching it numerous times, I walked away still not knowing the entire story behind what is considered one of the most successful toy lines ever produced.

Directors Randall Lobb and Robert McCallum look to remedy this problem with their attempt to go even deeper into the He-Man universe with their new documentary titled, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man. The documentary which will be available on digital and DVD for the first time this September chronicles the beginnings and blockbuster-success of the toy sensation featuring interviews with Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Richard Edlund, J. Michael Straczynski, and Alan Oppenheimer, to name just a few. The Toys That Made Us may have come first, but this 95-minute documentary truly lives up to its title as the definitive history of He-Man — and while it may not be as lively and entertaining as the Netflix series, it does offer an exhausting look at the 40 plus years of development of Mattel’s hottest toy.

He-Man and the accompanying Masters of the Universe franchise would make their debut in 1982 with Mattel’s release of the original 5.5-inch hyper-muscular action figures. Masters of the Universe, often abbreviated as MOTU, was a radical departure from the smaller and lean 3/4-inch heroes of say, G.I. Joe. Here was a thickset swordsman whose story—defending Eternia from the evil Skeletor— began its’ mythos through the minicomics that came packed with the toys throughout the 1980s. Whereas, The Toys That Made Us ripped through the origins of He-Man with humour and speed, The Power of Grayskull gives us a detailed breakdown of just what happened with the brand during those early years when the action figure market was exploding. Designed under the shadow of Star Wars, He-Man’s surprising popularity spawned a multi-billion-dollar empire that included toys, comic books, cartoons, live-action movies, and a sister spinoff show, She-Ra: Princess of Power. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of creatives to interview but somehow Lobb and McCallum manage to cram four decades of He-Man history into an entertaining romp packed with interesting nuggets of information that will have you digging through your childhood toy box.

When He-Man arrived on the scene, it caught the world by storm and made a whopping $38 million for Mattel in its first year alone. Many creative individuals were partly responsible for its success and The Power of Grayskull gathers an impressive roster of artists, creators, and collaborators to explore the mindset behind the unusual toy line. Much like The Toys that Made Us, most of the fun comes from watching these creatives tell stories (and sometimes disagree on the facts) about the surprising success of an unlikely, unparalleled, pop culture phenomenon. He-Man was a huge gamble in 1982 and somehow became a blockbuster sensation, earning well over a billion dollars by 1984. In his prime, He-Man was outselling Mattel’s original superstar, Barbie.

Perhaps the best story told in the doc centers on how Mattel passed on the chance to partner with George Lucas and develop a Star Wars toy line. As Mattel watched Kenner turn Star Wars into a toy giant, the manufacturing giant was desperate for a hit and looked to pick up the pieces by developing their own unique brand. In order to make up for their huge loss and stay competitive in the market, designer Roger Sweet and production artist Mark Taylor (who worked on Barbie) had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded a sword much like the heroes seen in the Frank Frazetta’s sci-fi/fantasy comics. In preparing for a meeting with Mattel executives, Sweet applied clay muscles to an existing line of boy’s action figures and created three different He-Man characters in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the success of space operas such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars, Mattel opted to go in a different direction and settled for a barbarian look. And thus, He-Man, was born.

The Power of Grayskull doesn’t break new ground but it’s still fascinating to hear the creators reminisce about the early days working for Mattel and how the action figures, the comic and even the Saturday-morning cartoon were invented on the fly. Through a combination of ingenuity, luck and a lot of improvisation, the employees at Mattel created one of the biggest toy success stories of all time. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a documentary, The Power of Grayskull consists mostly of talking-head interviews. It lacks the polish, graphics, and fun animation of The Toys That Made Us but with a longer running time it also spans the entire breadth of the franchise’s history from its initial beginnings through to the development of the 1987 Canon film (Masters of the Universe) and on to the creation of She-Ra and into a breakdown of the recent reboot.

Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes rush through recent iterations of the toy line and its lasting appeal with collectors making me wish the documentary was just a tad bit longer. That aside, The Power of Grayskull offers fans a chance to learn more about the toys they grew up with and how they evolved over the years all while walking a tightrope between fan service and investigative journalism. It’s guaranteed to bring back fond memories for fans of the franchise as they witness He-Man go from a throwaway idea to a toy that was once flying off store shelves. Regardless of how many He-Man documentaries you’ve seen, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a newfound appreciation for what is now a staple in American pop culture.

The Power of Grayskull has the power September 3 on DVD and Digital from High Octane Pictures. Watch the trailer here.

  • Ricky D
Continue Reading
Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.

Learn more by clicking here.

Advertisement

Trending

11 Shares
Share
Tweet
Reddit
Pin