After 'Angry Birds,' Watch These Shameless Toy-Based Movies From the 1980s


He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword. (Photo: YouTube)

In The Angry Birds Movie, based on the popular video game of the same name, a hot-tempered bird learns that it’s better to be part of a community than to be angry and alone. That is exactly the kind of constructive message that was missing from the toy-based movies of my own childhood, which had one purpose and one alone: to sell more toys. Much of those 1980s features were created in direct collaboration with the marketing departments of Hallmark or Hasbro, in a shameless attempt to shuttle young viewers directly from their Saturday morning TV sets and into the aisles of KB Toys.

Occasionally, these thinly veiled commercials took the form of movies, either shown on television or released theatrically. Since I have such fond memories of watching some of these on VHS, I decided to search the Internet and revisit the four that I viewed the most between the ages of 5 and 7: He-Man and She-Ra: Secret of the Sword, Rose Petal Place, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, and The Hugga Bunch Movie. If you were more of a Transformers or Care Bears type kid, well, you know how to find YouTube. And if you were born in the age of Pixar, prepare to be amazed by the low-budget animation, blatant product placement, and synthesizers. So many synthesizers!

‘He-Man and She-Ra: Secret of the Sword’ (1985)

My parents were very supportive of the He-Man and She-Ra obsession shared by my brother and me. So many of our toys were clearly divided along gender lines — a Lady Lovely Locks doll for me, M.U.S.C.L.E. men for him — the fact that we could happily share this particular toy universe was a big selling point in my house.

The best thing about He-Man and She-Ra is that it’s the complete opposite of contemporary entertainment aimed at 6-year-olds. Imagine if Dora the Explorer were a buxom warrior leading a rebellion against an evil interdimensional army — without any educational elements whatsoever. The only consistent message of He-Man and She-Ra is that nice is better than mean. The series took an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its fictional universe, like if Ryan Murphy were in charge of Saturday morning cartoons: There are medieval warriors, human-animal hybrids, aliens, cyborgs, imaginary animals, skeleton people, people with wings, a bumbling witch — basically, anything that would make a good toy. It’s kind of wonderful.

In the movie, which is essentially She-Ra’s origin story, Prince Adam of Eternia (aka He-Man) learns about his long-lost twin sister Adora, who shares his ability to become a superhero (She-Ra) when she holds a magic sword. As a baby, Adora was hustled off to another dimension, a Dr. Seuss-looking land called Etheria and raised by the evil empire called the Horde. Despite spending her whole life in a cave called the Fright Zone, Adora is oblivious to the fact that she’s working for the bad guys. So Adam travels to Etheria with the gift of her magic sword to try and open her eyes. Unintentional double-entendres abound. (Adora: “This sword you carried intrigues me, He-Man. It feels as if it were made just for me.”)

As a child, I remember being blown away by the fact that Adora was evil at the beginning of this movie and didn’t know it. Adora honestly thinks she’s fighting for Team Good Guy until — in a sequence weirdly reminiscent of Moses spying on the Egyptians in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments — she goes undercover to see firsthand how the Horde enslaves and oppresses innocent people. Then her evil arched eyebrows turn into normal eyebrows, and she devotes herself to fighting for the rebellion.

Despite its rudimentary Hanna-Barbera-style animation, Secret of the Sword is by far the most watchable of all the toy movies I revisited. It’s like Game of Thrones envisioned by a kindergarten class that just chugged a case of Pixy Stix. The Bonnie Tyler-ish rock theme song, “For the Honor of Love,” is so bad it’s great. And watching it makes me want all the toys, all over again.

‘Rose Petal Place’ (1984 TV movie)

Watching it with grown-up eyes, I have made three new realizations about the Rose Petal movie: 1) Rose Petal was voiced by Marie Osmond; 2) Rose Petal was a shameless knockoff of her predecessor, Strawberry Shortcake; and 3) at 21 minutes long, this doesn’t technically qualify as a movie. This last one is a particular surprise because in my memory, it was as epic as Lord of the Rings.

In Rose Petal Place, we’re introduced to Rose Petal, the leader of a small community of girl/flower hybrids and their animal sidekicks. The “they’re all flowers” concept is fitting with the template for most ’80s toy/cartoon characters, i.e., they’re all personified baked goods (Strawberry Shortcake); they’re all vehicles (Transformers); they’re all colors (Rainbow Brite); they’re all varieties of olives (I made that one up); and so forth. “They’re all gemstones” was the concept of my favorite toy line, which was canceled before the cartoon made it to air, Golden Girl and the Guardians of the Gemstones. (I did not make that one up.)

Back to Rose Petal. Her job, as explained by the film, is to “keep the garden beautiful,” which she accomplishes by being a good friend and singing, rather than a more logical education in agriculture or botany. Her nemesis is an evil spider, Nastina. (Hot tip: ’80s cartoon villain names can all double handily as ’80s metal band names.) In an attempt to destroy the garden, Nastina invites the oh-so-gullible Rose Petal to her home, where she poisons her and locks her in a dungeon with no light.

To my inner 6-year-old, the single most mind-blowing thing about Rose Petal Place is that in the middle of the cartoon, a random tree literally stops the action to narrate a live-action backstory about a little girl (Future Baywatch star Nicole Eggert) who says a tearful goodbye to her garden before her family moves away. Her tear on the rose brings it to life, and — in a detail I’d forgotten — another tear shed on a toy car brings that to life, so that Rose Petal has her own vehicle (sold separately). This part of the movie is so vivid in my memory that I sometimes forget it didn’t actually happen to me, because I didn’t live in a Victorian house with a rose garden that came to life. I did, however, have a Rose Petal bike.

‘Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer’ (1985)

Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer was released theatrically, which is pretty amazing to me because it makes no attempt whatsoever at a coherent story. But what it lacks in character development, it makes up for in its sheer number of characters. First and foremost, there’s Rainbow Brite, a magical child with the power to shoot rainbows from her fingers, which fill the world with color. By extension, she is responsible for making sure spring comes, like some Moonboot-wearing fertility goddess. She lives in Rainbowland with half a dozen magic children who have no discernible personality traits, except the girls each wear a different color (collect them all!) and the boys lift weights.

Living among them are little furry creatures called sprites, as well as talking horses and assorted woodland creatures. Then there’s Brian, apparently the only human on earth who can see Rainbow Brite, although this ability does not actually give him the power to do anything in this movie. Also on the good guys’ side, there’s a magical boy with a robot horse who’s fond of saying things like “I’m braver than any girl!” and “How dumb can a girl get?” Rainbow Brite decides to be his friend anyway, and somehow, by 1980s logic, I’m pretty sure this was supposed to be a feminist statement.

And we haven’t even gotten to the villains! First there’s a greedy princess who dresses like Cyndi Lauper and wants to steal a jewel that lights the entire world. An entirely unrelated villain named Murky, who resembles a seasick Super Mario, spends the whole movie spitting insults like “hopscotch brain” and “alfalfa breath” at his furry henchman Lurky while also plotting … something bad.

In the process of the princess’s trying to steal all the light, the earth turns gray and dismal. We see a newscast where the reporter dissolves into existential despair, delivering the news that the birthrate is down before wailing, “Why am I even here? Why should I be the only one who hasn’t given up?” Of course, friendship and rainbows and singing triumph, and Rainbow Brite vows to “keep the universe bright and beautiful forever.” Forever is, coincidentally, how long the opening song “Every Morning Is a Brand New Day” will be stuck in my head.

‘The Hugga Bunch’ (1985 TV movie)

As a child, I used to sleep with a Hugga Bunch doll (Tickles, to be precise) and was totally obsessed with this live-action TV movie. As an adult, I can confirm that it is completely bats***. The Hugga Bunch dolls (a line of supersoft Cabbage Patch Kid imitators from 1985) are played by startled-looking puppets who are constantly throwing their arms around each other, but because they have no necks and tiny bodies, their hugs look a lot like mutual strangulation. They live together in Huggaland, a magical world that resembles the dumpster at Joanne Fabrics. It’s so low-budget that I longed for Sid and Marty Krofft to come and gentrify it. Huggaland, so we are told, exists on the other side of every mirror because “Mirrors open up when folks hug!” Yeah, think about that when you’re trying to go to sleep tonight.

The tragic heroine of the movie is Bridget, a 7-year-old girl who desperately wants to be hugged, except her 10-year-old brother is too busy with “electronic stuff” to care. Bridget’s grandmother is happy to hug her, but the rest of the family is trying to send Gram to a home. So Bridget follows the Hugga Bunch character Huggins through the mirror in search of magical “youngberries,” which will de-age her grandmother so they can live together forever. It’s dark stuff. Darker still is the general vibe of Huggaland, which seems less like a land of magical creatures than a cult that doesn’t believe in personal space. “We don’t shake hands here, we hug!” one of the Hugga Bunch shouts before tackling Bridget.

In her quest to find youngberries, Bridget encounters a fire-breathing elephant and a wicked queen who is very obviously wearing a Snow White Halloween costume. When Bridget takes the berries away, the queen literally grows old and dies on the spot. That horrifying moment is the only decent special effect in the film, others of which include a “sideways sidewalk” created by turning the camera sideways and a “Bridget turns into a statue” moment achieved by the actress’s standing still. In the end, Bridget loses the youngberries but convinces her brother to hug her grandmother, and their parents are so moved by his display of affection that they let Gram stay. Because Bridget’s opinion means nothing in this family, apparently. Meanwhile, the Huggabunch are still behind the mirror. Waiting.