Monday, August 06, 2007

REVIEW: Rah Rah Rah for She-Ra's Second Boxset!

[Article written for Toon Zone News: 28.06.07]

Please cast your collective little memories back through the years of fictitious kick-ass girls that litter television history. Go back past Buffy the Vampire Slayer; ignore the hot lady from Dark Angel; don't linger around Xena: Warrior Princess too long—

Oh, now you've gone back too far, so stop dreaming about leggy Linda Carter in her Wonder Woman tights and move forward.

Concentrate on 1985; on action cartoons; on action cartoon spin-offs from successful syndicated fantasy toy tie-ins. With my little British fingers crossed, I am hoping you land on the fantastic She-Ra: Princess of Power. Yes, you should be conjuring up images of that blond action female heroine, the twin sister of Skeletor's muscle-brain foe, He-Man. I reviewed Volume One for Toon Zone last year, but for those with fingers too exhausted to click on the link, I'll summarize it here as a fantastic box set of the very good Filmation fantasy cartoon series. But for the bloody honor of Greyskull, is the second volume any good?

I discussed the show itself in that earlier review—I will yet get you to click on that link—and because the new box set follows the same parameters to the first volume (minus, thank God, the Barbie-pink spine), I'll run through the obligatory features first before moving on to the story content.

By Brightmoon, We Have Some Special Features!
The special features are Ink&Paint's usual wonderful affair. We have two image galleries, 50 detailed biographies, episode scripts, model sheets, collectible cards, an episodic storyboard comparison for "Huntara", and a documentary called "The Stories of She-Ra, Part 2". The documentary delves into selected episodes from the writer's perspective, and is well worth a watch.

As with most Ink&Paint box sets, there is also a commentary on one of the episode disks. As with volume 1, the speaker is He-Man/She-Ra writer J. M. Straczynski (also known for Babylon 5, a long run on Spider-Man, and the odd Murder, She Wrote).

He tackles the earlier episode, "Into the Dark Dimension," which proves a fascinating character study to chat about, particularly as the episode brings arch enemies She-Ra and Hordak together to hunt for a mutual goal. The commentary offers some insights into the ramifications of this character dynamic and a little background to the in-house writing protocol of Filmation itself.

The box packaging, as with volume one, is top notch: beautifully rendered picture disks enclosed in a great set of backdrops. DVD interactive features are well presented, with trivia facts for each episode.

A Whole Horde of Episodes!
So what about the episodes?

"A Talent for Trouble," which kicks off the second volume, is a fine example of some of the key attributes found in this side of season one's mid field. She-Ra: Princess of Power has a lot of humor, and this really works in its favor. The show itself was targeted at the young female audience, and as such, there are fewer fists and kicks than in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and more comedy and character scenes. "A Talent for Trouble" opens on the Sorceress and Orko (yes, this episode is one of She-Ra's many crossover stories), giving Castle Greyskull a damn good spring cleaning.

Now, before anyone groans or cries "jump the Land Shark!" let's be honest: it's the unusual scenes in generic 80's cartoons that make them fun to watch. After all, we're no longer children hungering to be sold new tie-in merchandise, and we certainly should be old enough to know the general moral outcome of a kid's cartoon two acts before we get to the epilogue. So it's the quirky scenes, the humorous payoffs, and the odd delve into established continuity that keep us watching past the initial flash of nostalgia. She-Ra has an abundance of these qualities, more than I'd say even its muscle-bound counterpart does.

But please, don't let me come across as anti-He-Man. His appearances in She-Ra never weaken the show, although be prepared to find his presence severely dumbed down in making him co-star rather than lead; there are few times where he gets to hog the spotlight or play the brains of the operation.

Back to Disk one, and we find another couple of great gems. First off is "Troll's Dream", an episode that offers one of the most blunt confrontations with the subject of racial hatred that I've seen in a kid's cartoon. In this scenario we have a whole group of often inoffensive heroic lead characters displaying an irrational—and violent—hatred of Trolls. It's quite a shocking little tale for the fluffy He-Man universe, and the on-disk trivia informs us that the script was even more violently explicit. This episode is a fantastic shift from the light opener of "A Talent for Trouble", and is referenced by writer Larry DiTillo as one of his favorites in the DVD bonus feature.

Disk two suffers from another of volume one's dull as dishwater characters—yes, it's the return of Sea Hawk. This episode ends up being marginally more interesting than previous encounters. An unfortunate toy tie-in encounter with "The Rock People" really does rank disk two as the weakest disk of the set. The only really above average affair on this disk is "Huntara", which has some nice little sparring sequences, some fresh VA work and a well realized enemy.

Disk three has some great scenes. "For Want of a Horse" has some classic Horde moments, with Hordak in desperate need of a birthday present for megalomaniac galaxy leader, Horde Prime—the ending for this story is most certainly, priceless.

"My Friend, My Enemy" is a brilliant little story with the return of the great—and very evil—Skeletor. This episode, alongside the previously mentioned "Into the Dark Dimension," provide vital development for the character of She-Ra. As we know in real life, one person's rebellion is another person's terrorist. This becomes a contentious issue when one tries to validate either side of the coin, and clearly a problem for She-Ra's "Great Rebellion": how do you establish that She-Ra's fight is righteous when they are performing acts associated as much with terrorists as freedom fighters?

The show manages to strike the difference by making She-Ra's actions as pure as her ideals. In "Into the Dark Dimension", She-Ra would rather risk being trapped in a dark dimension than leave her enemy Hordak there enslaved. In "My Friend, My Enemy", She-Ra is genuinely sad that no one is willing to cure Hordak of Skeletor's poison, and she has no qualms about saving and protecting her enemy as she would her dearest friend. As much as the Horde are made to be nasty, lying cowards, She-Ra is virtuous to the extreme, not just in action, but in soul. While Adora never really manages to escape She-Ra's shadow quite as significantly as Prince Adam does of He-Man's, She-Ra remains a very powerful lead character and female role model.

Disk four has a couple more little diamonds. The best episode of the disk (and for me, the season) is "Horde Prime takes a Holiday", another Straczynski classic in which Hordak is left in charge of Horde Prime's very best warship with strict instructions not to use it in any respect. Hordak, of course, ignores this order and as he battles He-Man and She-Ra for Etheria using the vessel, he finds himself at odds with his old student Skeletor. You can guess how the episode resolves, and it's all done with a great amount of wit and humor. There is no doubt that Hordak is as perfect a comic foil for She-Ra as Skeletor is for He-Man.

Another great scene from the episode is He-Man's dramatic "rescue" of the falling She-Ra. The tone and pacing of the scene leads the audience to believe that He-Man will save the day, only to pull the rug out by having She-Ra rescue herself. It's great to see the writers never forget this is She-Ra's show, and that this is one lady that never becomes the damsel in distress.

Other classic episodes include another He-Man crossover in "Of Shadows and Skulls" that offers even more Hordak/Skeletor rivalry, and the surprisingly enjoyable "Loo-Kee Lends a Hand", in which the show's external moralizer finds himself pitted in a tale of time alongside He-Man and She-Ra.

Disk 5 inherits an ongoing ailment from disk 4: a Sea Hawk two-parter. However, this dull affair can be excused thanks to a great little Stracynzski tale based in Eternia history called "Darksmoke and Fire". There is a misfired pilot story called "Magicats" that serves as a nice little spotlight for Catra, and the bizarre "Flowers for Hordak" in which Hordak's hostage plan backfires, leaving the Fright Zone flower infested. The disk finishes with a dull slice of Orko and his world, Trolla - a tale with a bulldozered message about love which left me head over toilet bowl.

So: A Crystal Castle or a Fright Zone?
Overall, yes, this is a girl's world; the punch outs are kept to a minimum and the male heroes are very effeminate; even tough sea dog Sea Hawk is readily castrated by the presence of She-Ra, but this is all part of the show's charm. Sure, Bow's exclamation of "Oh my aching bowstring!" will hardly get him into the Hell's Angels, but it will raise a smile from the audience.

The Straczynski episodes are the best, for he tends to explore the show's mythology and toy with the characters a little more than some of the other writers, but the majority of the tales on this box set are a lot of fun. Sure, they may not all be show stoppers, but there's such a range of characters and rich settings to explore, that with such a strong story premise you can't help but find something to enjoy.

Like its predecessor, volume two maintains a high standard of stories and features. She-Ra's first season is a consistent piece of proto-Girl Power that is full of humor, touching characters, cool crossovers and occasionally well structured moral messages.

In my experience of 80s box sets, you need a little "something" to hold the audience's attention once nostalgia wears off, and She-Ra: Princess of Power Season One Volume Two's great mix of intelligent writing and 80's charm keeps one entertained and both the honor and the power of Greyskull well intact.

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