Review: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a cartoon about Adventure and the Power of Friendship set around a war between magical princesses and a group literally called “The Horde” located in “The Fright Zone”. In the middle of all of this is a supposedly normal girl who gains the power to transform into a mythical hero named She-Ra. Sounds like a good, light thing to watch, right?

I haven’t seen the original She-Ra (or He-Man for that matter), so this isn’t a comparative review. Instead, I came into watching the new She-Ra as a cartoon that a number of friends enjoyed and that was made by ND Stevenson, which I had heard of from his webcomic Nimona. Of course, traces of the show’s history are evident in the character names, the setting, and occasional bits of 80s aesthetic…though there’s also a dash of 90s in that She-Ra is definitely a magical girl. (We all appreciate that the transformation sequence is abbreviated after the first few times.) It’s also got a modern thread of “normalized queerness” that I very much appreciate, with several gay relationships and eventually a non-binary character just taken as is.

I can’t help but watch any adventure-and-friendship cartoons without thinking of Steven Universe, which starts off fun and quirky and ends up being the best cartoon of the 2010s. Steven Universe is a coming-of-age story that explores emotional intelligence, trauma, and people trying to do the right thing, while still being fun and quirky all the way through. So both me and my girlfriend were hoping She-Ra would be something similar.

And it practice, it was similar…but perhaps a bit simpler as well. Slightly more of a kids’ show, as it were, though not something as straightforward as, say, the Pokémon anime. There were multiple times where we wished the show were just a bit more intelligent about the issues it was raising—what Steven Universe did in eleven-minute episodes, She-Ra only sketched in twenty-two. But this was a problem of hopes and expectations, not a problem of the show itself. If you take it as a kids’ show in terms of consequences and resolutions, then it’s still one of the most emotionally intelligent in its genre.

What She-Ra really focuses on beneath its adventuring is abuse, cycles of abuse, and asymmetrical friendships—something that’s made clear by most episodes spending roughly equal amounts of time on the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. By the end of the show, there are very few characters that can be considered “pure evil”, which I appreciated. But even setting all this aside, She-Ra was fun and entertaining pretty much the whole way through. (And I liked the music design as well.) So while it’s not the thing to watch if you’re looking for something smart, it’s a good choice for something fun and self-aware with the power of friendship on its side.

Miscellaneous spoilery throughts:

  • Why doesn’t Adora ever get new, non-Horde clothes?

  • What does “princess” mean? Sometimes it’s “those with connections to the runestones”; sometimes it’s “those with any sort of magic”; sometimes it’s “actually part of a royal family”. But Entrapta doesn’t exactly fit any of those. (And Glimmer became a queen but Frosta didn’t?)

  • Why is Glimmer the only princess whose name doesn’t end in “-a”?

  • Both my girlfriend and I wished there had been a little more attraction shown on Adora’s side before we got to the ending. Everything for her seemed like shades of friendship to me. (But it was obviously going to happen given Stevenson.)

  • One of the ways in which it wasn’t a “grown-up” show is that even with the themes of abuse, there wasn’t really any dealing with past wrongs (either being a bad boss/parental figure/friend, or fighting on opposite sides of a literal violent war). I wish more had been done with that as well.

  • The names from the 80s show are all goofy but “Castaspella”? Seriously?

  • On the other hand, I thought that Madam Razz would turn out to be Mara given the initials, and that did not happen.

  • Kyle should have had some actual redemption instead of just being comic relief. Actually, I really wanted that whole team to get a proper story arc and be relevant, but the one episode they were given didn’t go nearly as far as I wanted.

  • Scorpia’s song was great. (Sea Hawk’s songs less so.)

  • They could have been so much more explicit about Adora’s She-Ra being to save the people she cares about. We had Shadow Weaver pushing for her to be abstract and objective and focused, with it obvious to us as viewers that her transformation succeeded when she was trying to protect individuals. (It was always deus ex machina but that’s sort of the point, so I can’t complain too hard.) But we never explicitly got an acknowledgement of that, that “I have to save Etheria” wasn’t really what drove Adora and couldn’t drive her She-Ra.

  • THE ENDING WAS AN UTENA REFERENCE

  • The explanation for “Grayskull” doesn’t really make sense as a key phrase to activate She-Ra, or even the First Ones sword. What did Mara shout before Grayskull was a thing?

  • My girlfriend was very excited when She-Ra finally got pants.

  • EDIT: From the very first time they showed the transformation sequence I was waiting for there to be an episode where She-Ra got interrupted mid-transformation, and it never happened! At least Swift Wind got a transformation sequence…kinda.