I think my generation was the greatest time to be a kid. We had skating parties, malls were still solvent, arcades were plentiful, toys were cool, we ran around like loons, and we had the best cartoons.
I loved my cartoons as a kid. And if you were an 80s kid like me, you know that we had our own special genre of cartoons. We had G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats and many other toy inspired series. A lot of experts called these shows glorified 30 minute commercials, but I never saw it that way. I actually enjoyed the stories and the wall to wall action of the shows. I still have a lot of fond memories of hanging out with friends after school and during the summer where we would watch our afternoon fix of cartoons before going back outside to run amok as only children can.
With the extreme popularity of these series, some of the companies took things one step farther and made animated feature films out of their hit TV shows. And that’s when things got interesting. The TV series were clearly geared more towards the kids. Some cynics may argue that this was done so we kids could pester our parents for the toys once they hit the market. But the movies were a completely different story. I think a combination of having a bit more leeway through the medium of film and having to maintain the interest of the adults bringing their children to see said films inspired or compelled the companies to insert a bit more seriousness, emotion, and even more mature themes into the theatrical films.
This article is going to focus on the adult/mature themes added to what I consider to be the three biggest animated films of this genre: He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword, G.I. Joe: The Movie, and Transformers: The Movie.
He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword
“Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, ‘By the power of Grayskull!’”—Prince Adam
If you’re of my generation, the preceding quotation is probably pretty familiar to you. For those of you not in the know, the premise of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was, as all of these series were, a tale of the battle between good and evil. Evil, in this case, was represented by the wicked sorcerer, Skeletor, a blue skinned being whose face was literally a skull, as he plotted to conquer the planet of Eternia under the rule of King Randor. Fighting him all the way was He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe, and the alter-ego of Prince Adam.
The movie and associated TV series were created by Filmation under the auspices of Lou Scheimer who made several successful animated shows during the 1980s. Scheimer was also known for working on a shoestring budget. To save costs, he often used the same cels repeatedly and used a tiny cast of voice actors. He knew how to stretch a dollar because a little went a mighty long way in his shows.
The Secret of the Sword served two purposes. The first was to say good-bye to He-Man as this movie essentially brought an end to his TV series, though it would continue to air for another six months on TV. The second was to introduce the character of She-Ra: Princess of Power. As toy powerhouse, Mattel, was now going to focus on this toyline, Scheimer had to follow suit and focus on a new TV series.
Thanks to the power of YouTube, I was able to rewatch this film for this article and was surprised at the maturity (some realized and some unrealized) and darkness that was put into this script.
The movie holds up fairly well, though the final half hour feels like padding. The plot is that the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull has a dream about a child being kidnapped and then a sword that looks remarkably like Adam’s except for a jewel in its center begins to hover and glow before opening a portal doorway. The Sorceress sends Adam through the portal to find the person destined to hold the sword.
Adam and his cowardly talking tiger, Cringer (who becomes the courageous Battle Cat when zapped by the magic of the Sword of Power) go through the doorway and find themselves in Etheria, a planet ruled by the despot Hordak, a shapeshifting warrior, and his Evil Horde. Immediately, Adam/He-Man finds himself aiding the Great Rebellion to overthrow Hordak and comes face to face with Hordak’s Force Captain, Adora, who just happens to be the person destined to hold the Sword of Protection.
He-Man learns that Adora genuinely believes the Horde to be the rightful, benevolent rulers of Etheria due to a combination of seclusion inside the Fright Zone and the spells of Hordak’s witch, Shadow Weaver, which make her compliant to Hordak. However, the presence of the Sword of Protection and her seeing the cruelty of the Horde with her own eyes begin to weaken Hordak’s hold over her.
Ultimately, the Sorceress, through the Sword of Protection, tells Adora that He-Man is her brother and that she has a special destiny “for the honor of Grayskull”. Once Adora holds up her sword and utters that phrase, she becomes She-Ra, forever breaking Hordak’s grip on her.
From there, the movie follows the standard formula. The two heroes learn that they are twin siblings. When they were babies, Hordak attempted to conquer Eternia, but was driven away by King Randor and his troops. To harm the royal family, Hordak attempted to kidnap the children of Randor and his queen, Marlena, though he only escaped with Adora. The Sorceress blocked the memory of that event from the minds of everyone except herself, Randor, Marlena, and Man-At-Arms (Randor’s chief scientist and head of the guards). From there, it’s the tearful reunion with the parents, She-Ra learning about her powers, and, finally, a bittersweet ending where She-Ra opts to stay in Etheria to overthrow Hordak instead of living in Eternia.
Unlike the next 2 films, there is not a lot of mature subject matter in this film, but it is there. Most importantly is the role of good and evil. On Eternia, good is the dominant force as the heroes manage to keep Skeletor and his goons in check and the world is ruled by a goodly king. But on Etheria, evil is the dominant force as the Horde rules the planet.
Because evil rules the land you have a much more compelling villain in Hordak. Skeletor was depicted as powerful and cunning, but usually incompetent as his plans never succeeded. Hordak is clearly far more capable as he rules Etheria with an iron fist.
Another mature theme and one I think the movie could have developed to much greater detail is the relationship between the hero and the villain. On Eternia, He-Man is Skeletor’s greatest nemesis. But on Etheria, while Hordak clearly hates She-Ra, his personal war is with Adora.
Hordak considers Adora a traitor and for a reason far more powerful than her turning on him and joining the Rebellion. Early in the movie, when Hordak’s control over Adora weakens, Shadow Weaver attempts to strengthen the spell and is threatened by Adora. Weaver calmly tells Adora, “Surely you would not harm me, Adora. Am I not like a mother to you?” And that is a telling moment.
Shadow Weaver and Hordak raised Adora. A great deal of who she is is the result of their upbringing. Hordak doesn’t consider Adora a traitorous soldier. He considers her a traitorous daughter which is a very compelling motive for hatred and one which deserved much deeper exploration.
The next mature theme is the depiction of the real identities of the two heroes. In order to preserve his secret, Adam often pretends to be lazy and a goof (a burden which I may write about another day). Adora has the advantage of not having to play a role to protect her secret. Yes, she keeps her identity under wraps so it cannot be used against her or her friends, but Adora has instant credibility as Hordak’s former Force Captain, so she is immediately accepted as a capable and courageous soldier.
The last adult theme is the ending. This film has a very sad ending. After finding his sister, He-Man essentially loses her again as she decides she must remain on Etheria until the Horde has been defeated. After they bid their farewells, He-Man turns to face the viewer and a single tear rolls down his cheek. That is the moment I always remembered and it is still pretty powerful.
I actually enjoyed watching this movie a lot more than I thought I would. It awoke a bit of the kid in me and the adult in me really appreciated the little things the film tried to do to be palatable to the grown-ups. I must also admit that the movie’s theme is still pretty catchy.
G.I. Joe: The Movie
That simple battle cry opened up every single episode of the TV series, G.I. Joe and the movie’s plot followed that of the series. G.I. Joe is a covert military organization dedicated to stopping the terrorist group, COBRA, from conquering the world.
I was never a huge fan of the series, though I did watch a fair number of episodes and I also thoroughly enjoyed the movie as a lad. The film not only has its own great theme, but it was considerably darker than anything ever tackled in the TV series. Originally, this film was set to be a theatrical release, but delays in production plus the subsequent financial failure of Transformers: The Movie caused Sunbow and Hasbro to release this film direct to video. The film was also bolstered by some star power of its day as Don Johnson voiced Lt. Falcon and the legendary Burgess Meredith voiced Golobulus, the founder of COBRA and ruler of Cobra-La.
The dominant theme of the film was broken families and the dysfunction and healing thereof. This theme was actually mirrored on both sides of the conflict. On the side of G.I. Joe, the broken family theme was reflected in Lt. Falcon and Duke, G.I. Joe’s second in command and field leader. The two were half-brothers, but had an icy relationship. Duke promised their mother he would watch out for Falcon, but Falcon was hard-headed and a loner and didn’t care much for Duke’s dedication to duty.
On COBRA’s side, the broken family motif was exemplified by Cobra Commander, the one time leader and current second in command of COBRA, and Golobulus. Cobra Commander had been a favored son of Cobra-La and a top scientist. After an experiment with mutating spores disfigured him (thus explaining why he always wore a hood or faceplate), he was sent into the outside world to lead COBRA to world domination. His numerous failures caused him to lose favor with Golobulus and his punishment was to be fully mutated by the spores.
In Falcon’s case, he committed dereliction of duty and Duke pleaded for leniency. Falcon’s punishment was to be sent to the Slaughterhouse (headed and voiced by Sgt Slaughter) to be re-educated.
As Cobra Commander slowly devolved, he would end up turning on COBRA and helping G.I. Joe in the final assault on Cobra-La. Falcon would learn what it meant to be part of a team, though it would come at a high cost.
The plot that bound all of this together was G.I. Joe attempting to stop Golobulus from devolving the planet with his mutating spores.
As I previously stated, this film was considerably darker than any episode of the TV series, not only because of the broken families theme, but because of the fate of some of the characters.
Really, the most tragic fate befell Cobra Commander. As he loses his humanity to the spores, he finally begins to show a spark of it. We finally get to see his true face in both a flashback, as it shows him before the accident which gave him multiple eyes, and after his faceplate falls off after his punishment as he slowly devolves into a cobra. There is something truly sad about watching his humanity slip away with his final words being, “Was a man. Was a man.” And, yet, he even gets a bit of redemption when, as a full cobra, he finally gets one up on Serpentor, COBRA’s leader, when he prevents him from killing a Joe member.
The other tragedy befell Duke. During a fight, Falcon is at the mercy of Serpentor before Duke leaps into the fray and engages in a brief, but furious struggle with the Cobra emperor. In the melee, Serpentor tries to launch a snake spear into Falcon, but Duke dives in the way and takes the spear. Duke slips into a coma and the team mourns him. Later it ends happily as we’re told he’s come out of the coma, but it was not originally meant to be this way.
As I earlier stated, this was originally set to be a theatrical release, but delays caused it to be beaten to the punch by Transformers: The Movie. In the original script, Duke was actually supposed to die. Woah!! Now that was serious subject matter for a kid’s flick. However, when a pivotal character in the Transformers film died, the resulting backlash caused Hasbro to pull the plug on Duke’s death. They did not reanimate the scenes. In fact, if you watch the scene where we’re told Duke wakes up from the coma, the reactions of the characters and the music don’t seem to sync up with the good news. They were actually told he had just died. A funeral scene was set to take place before the final battle, but it was edited out. Though I must admit the idea of Falcon and Duke bonding at his death would have packed a better emotional punch.
Aside from the dark fates of the two characters and the broken family motif, this movie was also a bit rougher than the series. The fights were a little more brutal. Blood was drawn. There is even a scene where Falcon pokes out one of Golobulus’ eyes with a wand. Granted, you don’t see the poke, just its aftermath. Still this movie did show, that a film could be made that appealed to the kids and could keep the interest of adults.
Transformers: The Movie
“It’s over, Prime.”—Megatron
This was probably the most ominous sentence ever heard by a kid from my era as it signaled the death of one of the greatest heroes of 80s cartoons.
I was quite surprised to learn that this movie was a box office failure because it has emerged as a cult classic. This film got everything right from its awesome theme to its almost dystopian flavor to the bud of hope at the end.
The premise of Transformers was simple: a race of sentient, alien robots are engaged in a civil war and both sides have the ability to transform into vehicles or weapons. The plot of the film is that the universe is endangered by Unicron, a planet sized Transformer who eats planets. Desperately the Autobots search for a way to stop this ultimate foe while still fending off the attacks of the evil Decepticons.
The filmmakers didn’t pull any punches with this film. It took a budget of $6 million (almost six times the cost of a single 30 minute episode) and a period of two years to create this classic. This film also packed a powerhouse cast including Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Casey Kasem, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Lionel Stander, and the final performances of Scatman Crothers and Orson Welles who voiced Unicron. Despite having his voice electronically altered and boosted due to his failing health, Welles still had that incredible presence which was essential for a living planet.
The movie wastes no time establishing its maturity as one of the first scenes shows the Decepticons slaughtering a group of Autobots. And slaughtering is indeed the proper word. As you can see from this clip, the deaths were quite violent.
The movie was notable for two things: the dropping of the S word by Spike Witwicky after he and Bumblebee failed to destroy Unicron (another mature item) and the death of Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots.
I cannot stress just how big of an event Prime’s death was. I remember trailers of the film asking, “Does Optimus Prime die?” Nobody thought he would die. Optimus Prime was the man. He was one of the coolest characters on TV, a true and noble leader, and the Autobots’ best warrior. One of the best moments of the film is when he single-handedly and systematically dismantles the Decepticons to stop their invasion of Autobot City. Then he finally has the full blown battle with Megatron which leads to them killing each other.
When Prime actually died on the operating table, you could hear a pin drop in the movie theater. That’s how serious we kids took it.
Hasbro was unprepared for the backlash resulting from Prime’s death. The reason all of these Transformers were killed was that Hasbro was planning on releasing a new line of them and they were making room for them which would include a new Autobot leader. They severely underestimated the love kids had for Optimus Prime. They were flooded with angry calls and letters from parents and fans. So severe was the backlash that Hasbro was forced to eventually resurrect Prime in the TV series.
After Prime’s death, the movie focuses on a combo coming of age/redemption story. The character of Hot Rod felt incredibly guilty for being indirectly responsible for Prime’s death and sought to expiate that guilt. He redeems himself by stepping up in the war and in battling Unicron and completes his story arc by being selected by the Matrix of Leadership and with the blessing of Optimus to become the Autobots’ new leader: Rodimus Prime.
I actually own this movie and it is still as good now as it was back then and is a shining example that animation can be used to not only tell a powerful story, but one that can be enjoyed by kids and adults.
In the end I think the adulting of these cartoons actually serve as a metaphor for life. When we were children, we enjoyed the things of children. As we grew up, our tastes evolved and changed as did our experiences of the world and these movies represent that evolution with the heavier thematic material. And ultimately we say good-bye (well, mostly) to the things of our youth just like the good-byes made in these films. Still it is nice that with these movies, we can go back in time, reclaim a bit of our childhood, and see it with a new understanding granted by life and experience.
[…] years ago I wrote an article on the use of mature themes in theatrical versions of 80s cartoon series. In that article, I […]