Review by Jay Bowman
As a firm believer that you can make a captivating documentary about anything, I took a great interest in Power of Grayskull. It’s not so much about the toys or even the franchise as a whole (though I’ll admit I’m a fan) as it is getting the chance to hear from the men and women responsible for bringing something as complex as a toy brand to life. And while directors Randall Lobb and Robert McCallum managed to get an impressive list of actors, animators, illustrators, toy designers, and other assorted creative types to share their thoughts and experiences on being part of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the focus is so much on the franchise itself that the personalities of these people rarely get to shine through.
From its inception as an original IP at Mattel in the early 80s to its current existence as nostalgic collector bait, the history of He-Man is thorough, if a little uneven. The collapse of the original toy line and the failed sci-fi relaunch are glossed over fairly quickly. Likewise, a great deal of time is spent on the live-action film (including interviews with Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella, who I’m convinced are two of the sweetest men on the planet after watching this) without digging into why it was such a box-office bomb. Focus is largely on the good times without exploring the business decisions that led to the eventual downfall in any significant depth.
Weirdly enough, the most interesting part of the doc for me was the segments with Gwen Weltzer, Erika Scheimer, and Tom Sito. Weltzer and Scheimer were directors at Filmation and Sito an animator. While the whole history of He-Man could be a long sequence of people trying to cobble together parts to make something coherent, the folks at Filmation had the task of writing stories about a buff dude with a bowl cut fighting a skeleton over a skull castle, and did so with a surprising amount of care and love for the product. In explaining how the cartoon came to be, they were the ones who pulled back the curtain the most during the documentary itself.
Naturally, it ends on a positive note, focusing on modern-day collectors and how they have managed to keep He-Man alive (and indeed, fans provided funding for the documentary via Kickstarter). There’s some talk about people wanting heroes and how having the power is knowing one’s true self, and those closing thoughts are reflective of the overly serious tone of the film overall. Even the music cues have an air of menace about them, as though we were living in a world where the Merman menace is still at large. The thing that’s rarely touched upon is the subject of fun. If you’re the sort of person who wants to watch Power of Grayskull, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen the episode of The Toys That Made Us covering the franchise. Though it works from the same timeline and (mostly) covers the same subjects, it has a sense of humor about it that’s charming, and much of that humor is drawn from those being interviewed. Here, for whatever reason, most of those involved choose not to get personal.
If you have a passing interest in how brands are built (toys or otherwise), it’s worth watching Power of Grayskull. If you’re coming at this from the perspective of a He-Man fan, you’d be better severed watching it alongside The Toys That Made Us.