How to tell it's Mattel

Making movies to move inventory

Published: Jul 18 2015, 01:01:am

Monday, August 24, 1987.
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. Written by David Odell and Stephen Tolkin. Music by Bill Conti. Directed by Gary Goddard. Running time: 105 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence, occasional coarse language.
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a Toymaker. A corporate entity rather than a flesh-and-blood person, it existed to generate profits for its shareholders who maintained diversified portfolios, and were more interested in bottom lines than product lines.
    One day, the Toymaker approached a Publisher with an idea. Like the Toymaker, the Publisher was a corporate entity, one that existed as a division of a larger conglomerate. It, too, understood profit margins and the maximizing of earning potential.
    The Toymaker said that it was interested in marketing a line of articulated "action figures'' — dolls designed for sale to boys —based on characters featured in the Publisher's comic books.
     The Publisher set out its schedule of licensing fees. The Toymaker considered them exorbitant, and  went away without making a deal.
    Instead, the Toymaker produced its own generic hero and villain dolls. Marketed successfully in the late 1960s, the Captain Action and Dr. Evil characters were later licensed to the Publisher for use in a short-lived comic book.
    The economic lesson was not lost upon the Toymaker. Fantasy could be a product, not of imagination, but of plastic moulds. It could be packaged and sold in job lots like any other manufactured commodity.
    "Masters of the Universe,'' announces the Cannon Films publicity department, "is the first live-action film created from a toy line."
    After having spun off as a Saturday morning television cartoon 
series, and an animated feature film — 1985's The Secret of the Sword — Mattel's own one-size-fits-all mythology now
 comes to life on the big theatre screen.
    No. "Comes to life'' is too strong.
    Screenwriters David Odell and Stephen Tolkin have contrived a series of situations rather than characters. They deposit their toy figures in elaborately decorated, emotionally empty landscapes to go pow! pow! pow! at one another.
    Generic villain Skeletor (Frank Langella in a skull mask), aided by generic villainess Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster in dark lipstick) and their henchthings Blade (Anthony De Longis), Saurod (Pons Maar), Karg (Robert Towers) and Beastman (Tony Carroll), has taken control of Greyskull Castle, and its resident generic Sorceress (Christina Pickles).
    Generic hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren in a black leather jock strap), backed by his generic loyal companions Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher), Teela (Chelsea Field) and Gwildar (Billy Barty), is pledged to liberate it. His quest involves a side trip to Earth and lots of Star Wars-like pow! pow! pow! special effects.
    So, who are these guys? What do they feel? Why do they do the things they do?
    Don't ask. It's supposed to be enough that the bad guys are ugly, arrogant and shambling, while the good guys are attractive, arrogant and upright.
     Their only reason for being is pow! pow! pow!
    Under the direction of Gary Goddard, a graduate of the Disney-endowed California Institute of the Arts and the Universal City Studios Tour, the results are about as entertaining as a corporate spread sheet. Crass, cynical and deadly dull, the picture plays like an extended television commercial.
    A movie that is neither art nor entertainment, Masters of the Universe was created for the sole purpose of moving the Toymaker's current inventory.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1987. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In a 2012 interview posted on the IFC website, actor Frank Langella called Masters of the Universe villain Skeletor "one of my very favourite parts." From a man renowned for playing such archetypal villains as Dracula (1979) and Richard Nixon (in 2008's Frost/Nixon), this was an unexpected endorsement for the critically reviled feature. It suggests that Langella enjoyed a congenial working relationship with Gary Goddard, the former Disney "imagineer" for whom the $22-million toy story would be his first and last feature-film directing assignment. Though he had the screenplay to 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man to his credit, Goddard's major show business background was in entertainment design, creating concepts for the Disney and Universal theme parks. Following Masters of the Universe, he added television to his resume, with creator credits for the animated series Captain Power (1987-88), Skeleton Warriors (1993-94) and Mega Babies (1999-2001). For the most part, though, he's concentrated on what's known as "themed-entertainment media," creating interactive "experiences" for the patrons of amusement parks, resorts, casinos and retail malls. The chairman and CEO of The Goddard Group, he celebrates his 60th birthday today (July 18).