Just a quickie guide before we get into this, the “feature-length” origin adventure of She-Ra, barbarian princess of tie-in toys. Mattel passed up the opportunity to produce the Star Wars tie-in toys, a decision they never came to regret despite the series’ immense and lucrative popularity. Oh, ha hah, I kid. How I kid. The Mattel muckity-mucks spent the next few years sacrificing Barbie dolls to Ba’al in exchange for another shot at the Lucasian stupid-money.
Then, in the very early ‘80s, Mattel’s lead designer slapped some clay muscles onto a doll made of knocked-together parts from some random line and Mattel declared his creation “good.” Then he named it He-Man, generic enough to be marketed really easily, and the Mattel called it “very good.” And thus, in 1982, was He-Man brought into the world. It was a world obsessed with swords n’ sorcery, delighted by all things barbarian, and right then, totally digging on Conan (the Schwarzenegger film was one of 1982’s major hits).
The toy line sold well, but Mattel wanted more. So they created a tie-in animated series and BOOM. Lucasian stupid-money achieved.
Despite the fact that they were eating caviar-infused larks’ tongues off golden plates in their houses built of albino peacock feathers, the folks at Mattel remained unsatisfied. “It’s as though we’re only appealing to about half our potential market,” they whispered to each other across ruby-encrusted conference tables. “If only we could bring the money-spending dreams of little girls true,“ they wept, as they mindlessly carved dollar signs into their flesh with their antique Damascus steel letter-openers. “…If only. If only.”
And Mattel caused a deep sleep to fall upon He-Man, and he slept: and Mattel took one of his ribs and caused the plastic flesh to close up thereof. And the rib, which Mattel had taken from He-Man, they made a woman, and brought her unto He-Man. And He-Man said: this is now plastic of my plastic, and articulated joints of my articulated joints: she shall be called She-Ra, because she was taken out of He-Man. And they were both super-ripped, He-Man and She-Ra, and they were not ashamed.
So finally there was a He-Man for girls, She-Ra, and there were toys and costumes and t-shirts and a Saturday morning cartoon, of course, and it was wildly fucking successful and I was obsessed with She-Ra for about two years, despite only having ever seen a handful of videotaped episodes from our local rental place. So I was delighted to stumble across She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword on DVD recently; finally I could relive my childhood dreams of being a barbarian princess with a magic sword and a winged unicorn steed. For a hundred minutes, anyway.
A hundred minutes.
“For the honor of love, I have the power. The truth of love will always guide us. Forever more we'll be together. For the honor of love.” This is the show’s theme song. It is, as you can see, so much nonsense.
Oh, shit, this is some awful animation. The film opens on a lady in a hawk-hat, having a nightmare while she sleeps in her... hawk bed? In her nightmare, a bald dude steals a baby. Hawk-lady wakes up to find a glowing sword floating around her room. Hawk-lady follows it to a glowing door. And scene.
It’s He-Man! In his non-superhero/barbarian identity as Prince Adam. He-Man's cooking for his pet tiger, (Cringer), who is barf-green and whiny. Cringer, in that squeaky 1980s animation staple the "dumb" voice, wonders why Adam is cooking. Adam, comfortable in his pink vest, bowl-cut, and sexuality, assures Cringer that cooking is actually a wonderful way to relax and pass the time. I quite agree with him. Then he gets a vision of the Hawk-Lady, and shushes the tiger, explaining that "the Sorceress is speaking to me by telepathy!"
Let's pause a moment to admire Adam’s outfit. Adam is wearing :
- a pink vest over a
- a tight white peasant blouse, which is tucked into
- a furry, dark purple loin-cloth, over
- lavender tights which are tucked into
- furry, dark purple boots.
There was some discussion in the comments for Flash Gordon that that film’s over-the-top campiness (particularly the asexual male characters and their tight, revealing outfits) was a way of making homosexuality acceptable to the mainstream. It’s a good thought, and there’s likely some real truth to it. But I don’t buy it entirely, because so much high fantasy in the early ‘80s was depicted that way. Like Flash Gordon. Like He-Man. And I would be incredibly hard-pressed to argue that He-Man is actually all about subverting the heteronormative paradigm. This is how people imagined fantasy characters. Look at the way Frank Frazetta and Brom were painting fantasy characters during this period – not to mention the way comic book illustrators were depicting their superheroes. These images may scream homoeroticism to us now, but they were mainstream depictions of wannabe icons, by straight-identified artists for straight-identified audiences.
Anyway. He-Man is happy in his pink and purple and, by golly, so am I. I’m actually a little charmed by his introduction. He’s wearing a ridiculous outfit, he’s talking to his pet tiger, and he’s cooking something. And he’s totally cool with all that, even in the face of his stupid tiger’s cynicism. Rock on, Prince Adam.
So Adam and Cringer head over to Castle Greyskull, where Hawk-lady awaits. Hawk-lady (“the Sorceress,” but who cares) tells Adam that he’s got to go through the portal. "I'd totally do it myself,” she demurs, “but, uh, my powers only work inside this castle." (I’m paraphrasing.) She gives him the glowing sword and sends him on his merry way.
The portal dumps Adam and Cringer out in a Suessian landscape, complete with truffula trees and lots of purple shrubby things. They wander around for a bit while the tiger complains about being hungry, then head into the Laughing Swan Inn - because it seems like a "happy place." Everyone stares at them. A guy in a cloak (hood up) with some sort of rainbow owl-bat on his shoulder wonders whether Mr. Purple-pants is a spy.
Some guys in armor with a bat insignia on their chests (Horde troopers) clomp into the pub and start to beat up on the locals. Adam takes issue with their bad manners and throws down. Hooded Dude drops his cloak (which only covers his head and shoulders, mind you) and reveals his amazing outfit: gold boots, blue leggings, no shirt, an armor-y collar thing with a heart on it, and a cape. He and Adam fight the bad guys together. Hooded guy reveals that he’s actually a rebel, and his name is "Bow" Or Beau. Or Bo. Something. See, he uses a bow and arrow, and I suspect he's eventually going to be our heroine's love-interest. (Unconfirmed.)
More troopers arrive. B(eau)o(w) (IMDB sez "Bow") introduces himself as part of the “Great Rebellion” and suggests that Adam run away. "Where am I to go? What am I to do?" Adam wonders. "The Whispering Woods!" Bow shouts, as though the answer is both obvious and really exciting.
The scene switches to an enormous black metal castle sticking out of a hole in the ground. Isengard! No, this is called the Fright Zone. A bunch of villains – we know they’re villains because they’re mostly women and all have stupid ‘80s cartoon “evil” voices, either screechy or sexy - give the run-down on Adam’s activities to a blue guy wearing a skull-like helmet. This is Hordak. Hordak decides to teach Adam that it's not nice to cause trouble for the Evil Horde (his army of screechy/sexy ladies and troopers). His arm lights up and turns into a cannon. Scene change….
The Whispering Woods. Robin Hood's Great Rebellion camp is about five tents and a lot of dudes sitting around sharpening their spears. The leader is a pink-haired lady called Glimmer with the body of a B-movie starlet and the voice of an adult pretending to be a 13-year-old girl. She’s incredibly offputting. There’s also a little purple witch-person with an even more off-putting voice, sort of a raspy middle-aged Yiddish-inflected Brooklyn accent. This is Madame Razz. She rides a lazy, male-voiced, talking broom. If this makes you think anything like what it made me think, then we’re all terrible people.
Back in the village, the troopers are forcing the villagers stand in line to be sucked into some sort of machine. The Great Rebellion to the rescue! One of the villains is a green bat-faced frog monster that slams its sucker-hands together as it talks. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. And here comes Force-Captain Adora, the woman in charge of this mischief. She’s tall, slender, blonde, and wearing a red romper over a white shirt. And no pants. She’s also She-Ra, but no one knows that yet.
Anyway. The Great Rebellion attacks the magic-casting, technology-wielding villains with, uh, picks and spears. Hand-slamming bat/frog monster slams its hands over Glimmer's ears. Oh no, now she can’t hear! A cat-lady and a scorpion-lady easily disarm Bow, and Adam has no choice but to turn into He-Man. You know the He-Man schtick, yeah? He holds his sword aloft, intones a bit, shimmers, and then, boom! He’s He-Man, a tanner and nakeder version of himself. He-Man wears nothing but boots, a furry loincloth (brown, now) and a chest-plate. Also, his voice is deeper and his dumb tiger has a saddle and a helmet, and is called Battle Cat. Yes, the whiny green tiger also has a secret superhero identity. Whatever. He-Man menaces Adora with his magical new basso profundo. Adora, WHO IS CARRYING A GUN, shoots him.
They fight. She disarms him so he grabs his other sword (the glowing one from earlier, I guess. Which was magically sticking invisibly to his back all this time?) and fights her with that, disarming her. Then he points it at her. "The fight is over, young lady!" he announces. The sword starts glowing. This is very confusing to He-Man. Then Adora’s face appears in the jewel on the sword’s pommel, and he realizes that this is Probably Important. He realizes this too late to do anything about it, however, and a trooper shoots him down. Adora nabs the sword.
Back in the Whispering Woods, the rebellion is in tatters. The horrific witch-thing, Madame Razz, mumbles some weird Yiddish-y gibberish into the ground. Turns out, this is "magic." And the magic reveals that He-Man is being held at Beast Island.
Yes. Beast Island.
You there, in the back. Stop sniggering.
He-Man and Adora argue a bit about whether the world here is ruled by good guys or bad guys. He-Man, very reasonably, parries her “I’m the good guy” thrust by wondering if she’s ever actually seen the way the Horde treat the locals. Honest to god, she responds that she’s been away at training camp lately, so no, she hasn’t actually paid much attention to how the troopers treat the peasants. He-Man chides her fairly gently and suggests that she go check things out. She… does.
She-Ra: Secret of the Sword Moral the First: Always take the advice of the moralizing lunatic chained to your table.
Uh, meanwhile, the Glorious Revolution has a flying boat, in which they are flying off to save He-Man. He-Man, remember, whom they don’t know. Despite the fact that the person they do know, Adam, has disappeared. But He-Man fought by their side, so they must rescue him. Or something.
The villains attack the flying fucking boat with an airplane. An airplane equipped with jet-rockets and laser guns. Somehow the good guys survive and crash-land on Beast Island. While they’re busy battling a giant sentient rock with “hilariously” miscast spells, Adora is heading off on her white horse to see whether He-Man spoke the truth about that thing about how she’s a bad-guy. Oh, honey. You’re in a Saturday morning cartoon. If your friends have screechy voices, or names like Scorpia and Entrapa, or skulls for heads, you’re on the wrong side.
As Adora learns, while watching troopers beat the shit out of some peasants.
Meanwhile, the Glorious Revolution has infiltrated the Beast Island citadel, which is essentially a moldy Death Star made of skulls, and discovered He-Man. The villains, however, find and disarm our lackluster band of heroes with ease. Probably because,I dunno, they have CCTV and an intercom system. “Take the rebels to a cell. An uncomfortable one!” someone bellows. (Hah!)
Oh, God, rainbow-owl-bat thing (remember that?) is the only good guy left to free He-Man. It does. He rescues the others. They escape, because lack of planning and brute force always win out over technology and a professional militia. And then, in what is far and away the best part of this entire miserable movie, He-Man punches a tank. HE PUNCHES A TANK. Then he pushes a really big rock over to collapse the Beast Island citadel, and the Glorious Revolution steals a plane and escapes.
Adora returns to the Fright Zone and yells at her surrogate parents, Hordak and Shadow Weaver, about how gosh-darn mean they are. Shadow Weaver, who has HUGE boobs, casts a spell to make Adora fall asleep and steals the magic sword Adora stole from He-Man. Hordak takes Adora’s dissention pretty hard, but Shadow Weaver reminds him to "remember who she really is." OH MY GOODNESS A CLUE THAT ALL IS NOT RIGHT IN MOOMINLAND!
In the Whispering Woods, He-Man turns back into Adam and bolts, leaving his tiger behind. In the Fright Zone, Hordak creates a piece of technology he calls “the magna-beam transporter.” It, like, magna-transports stuff to "The Valley of the Lost." He's going to transport the entire truffula tree forest to the Valley of the Lost, ending the Great Rebellion forever! Evil laughter! What a bad guy. Anyway, the magna-beam transporter runs on will-power, and the will-power-draining box is in Hordak’s Booty Room. Oh, giggles. Hordak dumps a bald slave into the box and drains his will, but it’s not enough to run the machine. Where will they ever find someone with a strong enough will to power the machine?
Outside, Adam turns into He-Man and disguises himself as a trooper. He’s awful at subterfuge, however. He fails to tuck his hair up under his helmet because he hasn’t yet realized that, in Saturday morning cartoons, male villains are bald. So the villains, who (I'd like to point out again) have CCTV and technology that allows them to communicate over great distances, spot him and his bloody hair. Not that it matters; he’s got that helmet off after about 33 seconds anyway. He finds Adora and tries to talk her into joining the Glorious Revolution. She captures him instead. And then shoots him in the back. Hordak is delighted, and has He-Man dumped into the magna-beam charger-box-thingie. Shadow Boobs steals his sword, too.
Later, Adora has a nightmare about He-Man in the will-power sucker. Frightened and confused, she goes to check on him. Because Shadow Boobs isn’t very clever, she’s just left the two magical swords in the Booty Room. As Adora enters the room, one begins to glow. Adora suffers a vision of Hawk-Lady, and suddenly it’s Exposition Time! Adora is He-Man’s twin sister. Hordak stole her when she was a baby! She’s magical!
Adora picks up her sword and turns into She-Ra. You know the drill – glowy, shimmery, “by the power of yadda yadda” etc.
Let's take a moment to talk about She-Ra's outfit. Her hair is twice as long as when she's Adora. And she's wearing a choker (which seems a questionable decision for a barbarian) with a strapless white armored mini-dress and red cape. She has a kind of winged crown-thing framing her face, and sports gold gauntlets and boots. Like He-Man, her She-Ra voice is deeper, more “affect-free middle-aged woman” than “not-so-bright pantsless princess.”
She frees He-Man. They get really, uncomfortably close to talk about their situation. Unfortunately, he was in the box a little too long, and now the magna-beam is fully charged! They have a conversation that boils down to:
He: what’s a magna-beam?
She: a really bad thing!
He: I’ll stop it; you go warn the villagers.
And with that, any claim this show could make about its positive, gender-friendly attitudes and portrayals is magna-beam sucked into the Fright Zone for all Eternia.
She-Ra gets on her horse, who turns ZOMG into a rainbow-winged unicorn named Swift Wind! They flap away. He-Man destroys the magna-beam.
Fighty fight fight. Hordak busts out a freeze-gun, to stop He-Man with freeze-rays! She-Ra rescues him with her magical flying unicorn and tells him, mid-flight, she's his sister. He-Man goggles. She-Ra explains that "the woman in the sword told me so, so I knew it must be true." Well that there’s some convincing logic.
She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword Moral the Second: talking swords always tell the truth.
They go back to the Whispering Wood and He-Man introduces her to the Glorious Revolution as his sister. Being uncomplicated folk, they accept this without question.
OH GOD, THIS IS STILL HAPPENING? Origin story over but run-time left to fill, we start on another adventure, to rescue Glimmer's mother. Who is held captive by yet another example of this show's progressive take on women: Hunga the Harpy, who has yet another variation of the “evil” shrill voice, and horns growing out of her head. She’s holding a slender blonde with angel wings (Queen Angella) prisoner. But she’s no match for the Glorious Revolution! Day is saved!
STILL GOING. Adora and Adam want to return to Eternia, He-Man’s home world. (Remember, this is the planet Etheria, and He-Man’s from Eternia.) Hordak and Shadow Boobs get upset about this. So Hordak turns himself into a rocket. And flies the fuck after them.
It’s at this point I realized that She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword was written by a committee of seven-year-olds.
Back in He-Man land, Adora is reunited with her parents, who look nothing like her. Hordak seeks out He-Man villain Skeletor, a body-building, blue-skinned dude with a skull for a head. Skeletor’s hardness is pretty seriously undercut by his in no way intimidating squeaky soprano voice. And, because I’ve mentioned all the good outfits up to now, it’d be a shame to skip Skeletor’s: he's wearing: a breastplate, a loincloth, and a cape that covers his head and shoulders. That’s pretty much it. Hordak and Skeletor fight for a really long time before they remember that they’re both villains and could probably team up.
Skeletor disguised as a chef, sneaks a huge cake into the castle. The cake, of course, is Hordak in disguise. Of course. Hordak kidnaps Adora and runs away.
Everyone (except the queen, who is weeping, because that’s what women do) is standing around trying to figure out how to get her back. The captain of the guards, He-Man regular Man-at-Arms, argues that a small group has a better chance of getting her back than, oh, say, an army. (I’d be snarky about this, but it was that exact strategy that the SAS employed to bring an end to the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980.)
Skeletor tricks Hordak into going back to Etheria without Adora, whom he drops into a dungeon. Adora tricks a monkey-man who has a crush on her, gets her sword back, and turns into She-Ra. The rescue team shows up, but Adora don't need no rescuing. "A female He-Man! This is the worst day of my life," Skeletor moans.
Rescue over, Adora decides to go back to Etheria, because she’s needed there. But Hawk-Lady can always bring her back! There’s a tender leave-taking between She-Ra and He-Man, and the show’s finally over.
OF COURSE IT’S NOT OVER YET. He-Man tagged along as a surprise to help She-Ra foment rebellion. They change into their super-thingers The soundtrack screams "SHE-RA! SHEEEEE-RAH!" They reunite with the Glorious Revolution. She-Ra learns she can communicate telepathically with animals. Hordak sends both tanks and planes to fight the spear- and pitchfork-armed rebels. She-Ra fights the planes with her magical horse. He-Man punches more tanks. Guess which side wins?
She-Ra’s horse gets shot during the fight. Fortunately, however, She-Ra can magically heal it! The good guys win. Hordak turns into a rocket and flies away. Shadow Boobs turns into fire and vanishes. He-Man and She-Ra say goodbye for about the seventieth time. He cries a single, manly tear. She flies away.
THE FUCKING END.
In essence, The Secret of the Sword is a movie made up of five individual tv-show-length episodes. The writers, however, chose to front-load the film, sticking all the revelations and most of the plot at the very beginning and padding out the last hour – hour – of the show with increasingly irrelevant, time-wasting crap. Once we know who Adora is, the story – and, indeed, what little interest I had in the plot or characters – crumbles away almost entirely. The last sixty minutes of Sword is spent not developing characters or revealing motivations or doing any sort of world-building at all, but instead having the main characters trot back and forth from one magical land to another. Fighty fight fight; go somewhere new; fighty fight fight; go back to the first place; fighty fight fight. That’s it. That’s two-thirds of this shit-ass movie.
Now I realize that this is not only a kid's show, but it's a Saturday morning cartoon from the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons: long on lame effects and short on plot, characterization, and decent animation. I accept these things. But sweet cinnamon Jesus, The Secret of the Sword is so shatteringly boring. Lull in the action? Reiterate the plot point by point! Still got some time left? Describe your motivation! Oops, still got a few minutes? Go somewhere. Hooray, you found a baddie! Now fight! Rinse! Repeat!
It’s exhausting, thinking about the way women are represented in this film. So let me sum it up: what messages of empowerment and agency are to be found in She-Ra are represented in its self-congratulatory grunt of a name: just as boisterous and just as meaningless. Listen carefully and you can hear the sound that the spin-off of a marketing tool meant to sell toys makes as it blows through your child’s consciousness.
Monsters: Loads of ‘em. None of them memorable.
Mullets: He-Man has the classic ‘80s bowl-cut. And Bow has a mustache! The real heroes of this show, however, are the amaaaaazing costumes. Loincloths and breastplates and six-packs, oh my!
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: No hookers, but every female character is a victim at some point, and usually a doormatty one. There’s not a single scene with a female character where her breasts are not also present, illustrated in prominent and slavering detail.
Doesn’t Anyone Think This Shit Through? Yes, the group of seven-year-olds Mattel hired to write this show worked pretty darned hard at it. I mean, really. He-Man punches tanks! There’s a guy who turns into a rocket! Twice!
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: In this case, I ruined my own childhood. I took my hazy, affectionate memories of She-Ra and polluted them with the cold, hard reality of my critical facilities. Everyone loses.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: The worst sin, perhaps the only sin, a fantasy film can commit is to be boring. Therefore I partner She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword with its live-action twin, the time-sucking Dragonslayer, and leave them to fight their boring battles together, way down there at the bottom of the scale.
Anne places the blame for her adolescent obsession with chokers entirely on She-Ra's shoulders.