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Video Games & Movies: ‘Mortal Kombat’ is Still One of the Best Cinematic Adaptations of a Video Game

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After Street Fighter laid the groundwork for the fighting game, Mortal Kombat hit the scene, setting a high-water mark for realistic digitized graphics and pushing boundaries with its high levels of bloody violence, including, most notably, its Fatalities. It sparked so much controversy for its depiction of extreme violence and gore that it led to the creation of the ESRB (the video game rating system). The release of Mortal Kombat for home consoles by Acclaim Entertainment was one of the largest video game launches of all time, with a $10 million marketing campaign that dubbed the date “Mortal Monday.” No surprise, then, that a game this controversial and popular would pique the interest of money-hungry Hollywood executives looking to cash in. Mortal Kombat the movie enjoyed a 3-week run at the top of the US box office, earning over $122 million worldwide. In addition to toys, a soundtrack, and other top-selling merch, the movie was a giant hit.

Working from a script by Kevin Droney, director Paul W.S. Anderson would be making his sophomore feature and the first of several video game adaptations of his career. Anderson, often cited as a Vulgar Auteur (an idiom coined by Andrew Tracy and later made popular by Calum Marsh), has directed eleven feature films over the last twenty years—and not one of them has received wide critical acclaim. But of all his films, Mortal Kombat might just be the one he’s remembered most for.

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The premise of the film is greatly influenced by Enter the Dragon – albeit with a supernatural twist and a spiritual quest for self-knowledge. The film opens by introducing three main characters as selected by the Lightning God Raiden to take part in the titular tournament. Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is a Special Forces officer seeking out the mercenary Kano (Trevor Goddard). Liu Kang (Robin Shou) is an ex-monk who wants to avenge his brother’s death. And Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is a Hollywood actor who wants to prove he can actually fight. They board a ship and travel to an island to compete in the Shaolin Tournament. If the Outworld wins ten rounds in a row, they can enter the Realm of Earth. The Emperor’s sorcerer, Shang Tsung, has led his forces to nine straight victories and with warriors like Scorpion, Sub Zero, and Goro, the future of Earth looks grim.

Taken for what it is — an action movie based on a popular video game — Mortal Kombat isn’t as bad as critics say it is. Sure, there’s wooden dialogue, a silly script, and stilted acting, but twenty years after its initial release, Anderson’s film has aged well thanks to its striking visuals, including a number of strong CGI sequences and a terrific fight between Scorpion and Johnny Cage that serves as the movie’s highlight.

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Admittedly, not much happens here except for battle after battle, but the set-pieces are staged with vigor and spirit. The problem isn’t in Anderson’s direction–it’s in the cast. Longtime character actor Linden Ashby doesn’t have the charisma to portray playboy warrior Johnny Cage as a movie star, and Bridgette Wilson is completely miscast and incapable of playing the hard-boiled kung-fu expert. For a movie that revolves around a fighting tournament, Mortal Kombat suffers from having only one cast member (up-and-coming action film star Robin Shou) who is professionally trained in martial arts. As a result, we are forced to watch Linden Ashby and Bridgette Wilson try their best to keep up with the choreographed action fight sequences.

The development of the game was originally based on an idea that Ed Boon and John Tobias had of making a video game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, but as that idea fell through, a fantasy-themed fighting game was created instead. The development of the movie began with the idea that they would either cast Brandon Lee or Van Damme to star, only Van Damme turned down the role for Street Fighter, and Brandon Lee was sadly killed during the filming of The Crow. Had either of these two men been cast in the film, Mortal Kombat could have gone down as one of the better martial arts films of the ’90s.

Much of Mortal Kombat is indeed laughable, but that only adds to the enjoyment. Most of the actors shoot for the moon, but none more so than Christopher Lambert, bringing every ounce of camp he can and whispering every line with a strange accent. Much more interesting are the villains—particularly the gigantic four-armed Shokan Prince Goro, who looks like a distant cousin to Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop-motion monsters from the ’50s and ’60s. Goro looks great, even to this day, thanks to the blend of animatronics and CGI.

Raiden

Unlike its video game predecessor, Mortal Kombat can’t be accused of ramping up the violence. The producers toned down the original R-rated script and settled for a PG-13 rating in order to ensure they cashed in at the box office. Nevertheless, the movie does faithfully recreate most of the look and style of the video game itself, which makes it more satisfactory than other video-game-to-movie adaptations, such as the disappointing Street Fighter. Along with a hit soundtrack (it went platinum in less than two weeks), impressive special effects (for the time), sweeping panoramas, exotic locales, and a cast of colourful baddies, it’s no wonder why many consider this to be one of the best cinematic adaptations of a video game. For all its flaws, Mortal Kombat is actually a ton of fun—no small feat, considering the original source material. Even Siskel and Ebert liked it!

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

Fantasia Film Festival

Beautiful ‘Shadow’ Stands Out

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As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.

A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.

This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’

Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.

Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife. 

One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.

And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.

Shadow 2019 Film Review

They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.

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‘Incident In A Ghostland ‘— Pascal Laugier Revisits the Genre that Made Him Famous

‘Martyrs’ director Pascal Laugier takes another stab at the horror genre.

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Writer-director Pascal Laugier is well-known for his heady 2008 breakout French thriller Martyrs which is regarded by many as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and took the torture porn genre to untold levels of nastiness. While not his best film (that honor goes to Brotherhood of the Wolf), Martyrs stands as an extreme example of just how twisted French new wave horror films can be.

In 2012 he directed his first English-language feature, The Tall Man, a slow atmospheric thriller about a dying mining town where children begin vanishing without a trace. Despite the star power of Jessica Biel, The Tall Man was both a critical and commercial bomb, and not necessarily what fans of Laugier’s first film were expecting. His latest (and second English-language offering) revisits the grisly torture-porn genre that made him famous but the question going in was, is it any good?

Following in the footsteps of French auteurs Alexandre Aja (High Tension) and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Incident In A Ghostland begins as your typical home-invasion thriller and follows single mother Pauline Keller (French Canadian pop star Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) who relocate to their new home. En route, the trio is briefly terrorized by a speeding ice cream truck before noticing a local headline about a series of brutal crimes sweeping the area. The Kellers haven’t even had a chance to settle in yet and already things aren’t looking too good. Anyone who’s seen at least one horror movie knows what happens next. What follows is a no-holds-barred assault that will leave the audience emotionally and psychologically scarred.

What makes Incident In A Ghostland different than the countless other home invasion thrillers that came before, is that the raid on their house takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film. After managing to survive the attack, we fast forward some years and discover a grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has written a memoir of her family’s traumatic experience that has made her a famous horror novelist. Her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips) on the other hand, isn’t doing so well; suffering from PTSD and reliving that horrible night over and over. It’s here that my plot summary must end in order to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists and turns— but to sum it up, the remainder of the running time jumps between past and present, dream and reality, nightmares and hallucinations and dreams within dreams all while keeping the audience guessing as to what is real and what is in Beth’s imagination.

Like the director’s gory debut, Incident In A Ghostland is light on plot (and even lighter on character development) but extremely heavy on the torture inflicted on the young women who are subjected to unspeakable acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse, both real and imaginary. Like Martyrs, Ghostland dwells on the terror our protagonists experience with the camera constantly closing in on tight shots of their wounds, bruises, and screams as they are kicked, punched, choked, chained and dragged around the house. Needless to say, it’s rather painful to sit through, with each scene stretched out for maximum discomfort. Incident In A Ghostland is the sort of movie in which roughly half the running time consists of women screaming in pain while the other half will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of it all. It’s especially unsettling as Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to acts of pedophilic sadism, and later learning that the then-19-year-old actress Taylor Hickson reportedly sued the production company for injuries suffered on the set. Meanwhile, fans of Farmer may be appalled to watch the French-Canadian idol beaten to a bloody pulp while stabbed repeatedly— and if you have a fear of dolls, I recommend you stay as far away from Ghostland as it features an abundance of creepy doll imagery.

While Pascal Laugier’s most recent offering isn’t as depraved as Martyrs, it’s still an intentionally unpleasant nightmare to watch unfold and while I admire the craft that went into making it, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent watching it. But it is a well-made film featuring stunning cinematography from Danny Nowak (who provides the movie with a sheen polish) and great set design by Gordon Wilding and his collaborators who do a marvelous job in bringing the house to life (so to speak) and making it, as creepy as the villains played by Kevin Power and Rob Archer.

I’ve noticed a few critics online comparing Incident In A Ghostland to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre which in my opinion, is heresy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, a punishing assault on the senses via some of the most extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Incident In A Ghostland brings nothing new to the genre and is just another example of a movie that relies on plot twists and extreme violence to get a rise out of the audience. Whereas Marilyn Burns’ doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory, the hundreds and hundreds of screams heard in Ghostland will soon be forgotten. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever. I’ve already forgotten how Ghostland ends.

Incident In A Ghostland is a Shudder exclusive. For more info, visit their website.

  • Ricky D
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‘Nekrotronic’ Sells its Soul to Monica Bellucci

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Some movies are just so hard to grasp that trying to do so would be futile. In some instances, that can be used to a film’s advantage, such as Kiah Roache-Turner’s 2014 debut, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, in which explanations didn’t really matter. Understanding what was happening in that film wasn’t the point; it was just about accepting the ride. That’s the same strategy employed in the director’s 2018 follow-up, Nekrotronic, a supernatural social media haunt that opts for the same deprivation of logic for the sake of a fun B-movie romp.

Co-written with his brother, Tristan, the script takes a kitchen-sink approach to the insane story of demons possessing humans through social media. As the eternal fight between Nekromancers and demons rages on, they’ve become locked in a new type of cyber warfare. An app being designed by a soulless corporation of human husks is overseen by the Queen of the Underworld herself (played by the always incredible Monica Bellucci), and acts a lot like Pokemon Go — but as users find ghosts instead of Pokemon, they unknowingly give their souls to the underworld. And so,  the fate of all mankind now rests on the shoulders of a sanitation worker (Ben O’Toole) and his best friend (Epine Bob Savea).

Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible.

This Ozploitation film tries really hard to give explanations to virtually everything it introduces, and that’s an admirable effort in a story that very clearly doesn’t care that much. It’s Ghostbusters with a little bit of They Live, and an aesthetic that feels like the video game Doom more than any movie in recent memory. There are 3D-printing demon souls and giant lasers, wraiths, and ghosts that travel through the internet like it’s a series of tubes, and a refusal to stop introducing new conceits. That Nekrotronic has logic presented at all is like if the Alien movies tried to give motivation for the xenomorph attacking its prey — endearing to attempt, but so very unnecessary.

Nekrotronic

That is the major issue that plagues Nekrotronic. The Roache-Turner brothers want to do everything, but by doing everything it’s easy to lose focus on the central conceit — which is hard to pinpoint, because there are so many small emotional beats that are all treated like huge deals at various times. There’s not even really much in the form of a social commentary on our reliance with social media and technology; Nekromancers once put demon souls into the internet as a form of containment, and then didn’t realize that the Queen of Hell would discover a way to use the internet to release the demons. That’s a neat genre explanation that could be mined for more of a critique on apps that data mine and do more harm than we really realize, but unfortunately, the movie only passively mentions this point, then walks away from it immediately.

Instead, Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible. The cyber-horror aesthetic lends itself really well to the narrative; while it very much looks like a B-movie, it looks like a B-movie with a budget. The visuals are also very vibrant and filled with more colour than Wyrmwood, which is justification for a more riotous feeling — and the really bad jokes support that spirit.

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But the ultimate reason to sit through this very boring, exhaustive assault on the senses is for Monica Bellucci. She chews scenery, whether it’s for the benefit of comedy or horror; no one else comes close. If Nekrotronic did anything really right, it was casting Bellucci as a demon from Hell that says phrases like “No more Mrs. Nice Guy” as she tries to come off motherly, seductive, and terrifying at the same time. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that the Roache-Turner brothers are hellbent on telling entertaining stories — they just missed the bar with this demonic affair.

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 8, 2018 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and the Secret Power of Storytelling

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ sets about exploring the magical past of Hollywood, but it unearths some haunting memories as well.

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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

*Warning: The following article contains major spoilers

The Manson family murders account for one of the most notorious massacres in the history of the United States. Taking place at 10500 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, the victims were five adults and one unborn child, that of actress Sharon Tate. The notoriously grim crime scene photos speak for themselves, and the boogie man nature of a twisted mind like Charles Manson remains a haunting memory over 50 years later. It is with this chilling story that we enter the world of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

It’s about a Hollywood we may have heard of, but that most of us — including Tarantino himself — would never have had the chance to see for ourselves. This is a place where westerns are some of television’s most popular shows, actors smoke and drink on set, and legends like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen just pop up as if they were regular folks like you or I. It’s a fantasy land in this way, and it’s clear that this is part of the appeal for Tarantino.

With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a huge surprise that Tarantino decided to right the wrongs of a tragedy that still lingers in the memories of old Hollywood like a nasty bedtime story. The Manson murders are infamous in their carnage, and cut down in the prime of her life, actress Sharon Tate remains martyr-like in her tragic fate. Herein lies the power of film, and storytelling in general: the power to create a better world — in this case, one where Tate is allowed to live on and have a happy life as a wife and mother. When conceived this way, the title “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes on a different meaning; this film is very literally a fairy tale.


Portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, Sharon Tate appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a starry-eyed optimist and maybe just a bit of a ditz, but a lovable ditz. When people look at her and talk about her at Hollywood parties, it isn’t hard to see why; she has an infectious, magical aura about her, and she seems to be possibility itself in the form of a beautiful, blonde bombshell. Take a scene where she watches the audience of a theater laugh as they enjoy her performance in the film Wrecking Crew: the joy she feels in being a fly on the wall, watching her own movie with the audience, makes her instantly relatable, and simultaneously makes us dread her eventual fate.

This is by design. Tarantino wants us to feel this encroaching sense of dread as he unfolds this tale of old Hollywood, and that’s why scenes of actors and stuntmen waxing nostalgic and hobnobbing with the stars are punctuated with chilling little snippets of the Manson family. Each scene of this kind seems to burn and broil with a pungent malice that, though palpable, never quite boils over into outright violence and bloodshed. It makes us dread the coming murders we are expecting all the more.

However, things take a sudden turn when the Manson family finds themselves accosted by one very drunk Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they prowl the streets of Hollywood for the Polanski/Tate residence. This chance encounter sparks a creative notion in one of the Manson members: Dalton, a star of many violent TV shows and films, ought to be their first victim. The poetry of it, they decide, will be in enacting the violence of entertainment on those who peddle it. So, their target changes from 10500 Cielo Drive to the house next door. This is where the fun comes in.


For much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sort of ‘Chekhov’s acid-soaked cigarette’ floats around the film. We see it time and time again, being bought, stored, and considered by Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Dalton and Booth prepare to end their partnership for good, Booth decides to smoke the acid cigarette at last and see where the night takes him. A short time later, the Mansons burst into the home and Booth, fueled by his acid cigarette, positively ruins them. There are vicious dog attacks, genital traumas, egregious face-smashings, and even a fiery finale courtesy of Rick’s flamethrower.

The violence of this sequence cannot be overstated. It’s nasty, brutal stuff. In a juxtaposition that calls to mind the historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds — where we spend the majority of the movie thinking the assassination attempt on Hitler couldn’t possibly succeed, and when it does we are overjoyed — we actually relish the horror of the Manson family’s fate. Not because we suddenly believe that reality has changed, but because the power of film — and storytelling in general — has allowed us to live in a better world for a few moments.

This is precisely the appeal of the surprise climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’d love to live in a world where a charismatic psychopath who carved a swastika into his forehead is allowed to dwindle away forgotten, and a rising star is allowed to continue her ascension unhampered. We love seeing the Manson family dispatched with such terrifying ease by the charming Booth and the troubled Dalton, because it’s the opposite of the unseemly fate we had been dreading over the films near three-hour runtime.


Tarantino, of course, expects us to feel this way, which is why he indulges us in the scene for so long. If Booth had just quickly taken out the Mansons with a few swift moves, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their punishment. If there’s even a shred of doubt of QT’s intent, the appearance of the flamethrower (conveniently stored in Rick’s shed) puts all of that to rest in a fiery finale that’s too funny to be properly grim.

In the end, this is the secret power of storytelling, and it’s one that is rarely used — the power to right the wrongs of history, to indulge the audience in their fantasy of a better reality, and to allow us the brief privilege of residing there. The final moments, as Dalton is being invited into the Tate residence, is when we, the audience, must leave this reality. It’s bittersweet, as we must return to a world where Sharon and her friends were violently murdered 50 years ago, but there is still the beauty of being able to share a world where the horrors of the Manson family were halted in their tracks, before they could descend into their infamous depravity.

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

Toys We Love Spotlight

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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
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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 Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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