“Masters of the Universe” (citywide) is a misfiring, underdone epic that takes its inspiration not from life or literature, but from a toy line and the cartoon series it inspired.

Unfortunately, the film might have worked better with the cartoon characters in the leads. Or even the toys. You couldn’t get a more polyethylene performance than Dolph Lundgren gives. As He-Man, his muscles ripple splendidly in barbarian dishabille, but his voice, with its growly bass Swedish accent, becomes nearly inaudible when he screams.

The other toy-characters include Evil-Lyn, Man-at-Arms, Beastman and Karg, with Frank Langella as Skeletor--demonic, space tyrant of the planet Eternia.


You can see right away what’s wrong with the movie. Where, in “Star Wars,” the original characters were turned into toys--and everything else possible--here the writers reverse the process. And since these toys are superstars, the script tries to remain “faithful” to some curious vision of them.

“Masters” begins in the throne room of Castle Greyskull, where Skeletor is throwing stentorian conniption fits, eventually driving He-Man and three buddies to escape, via a synthesizer called The Key, through some handy time-space warp into Colby, Calif. There, they naturally run into two helpful teen-agers and a comically blustering cop; before long, half of Eternia has followed them.

Of the two settings, Colby is the more amazing. Most of the town seems to have been plunged into some weird hibernation. The commando squads of Eternia descend and nobody takes a peek. The school burns down, a small war breaks out in the stereo shop, yet the same kind of languid disinterest reigns. At the end--with holocausts of Richard Edlund effects erupting, Langella screaming his head off, UFOs floating overhead, laser rays exploding every which way and a small army of Darth Vaders tromping down Main Street--not one person in this bizarre town even bothers to come out and gape.

Director Gary Goddard gets a raw, pulpy vigor into some of this, but mostly he’s directing hopeless material shamelessly. Billy Barty, though, gives you a reason to watch this movie--along with Langella who, even though he’s chewing the scenery through what seems to be a Halloween skeleton mask, chews it with relish.

Barty’s Gwildor is a rambunctious little kvetch of a gnome, a wizened Hobbit who needs a panatela--and he’s about the only thing here you’d like to take home for the kids to play with.