Toon Review - Transformers: The Movie
You know, it’s hard to write about a movie you’ve seen about a hundred times. That should be an exaggeration, but if I had the wherewithal to be able to count, I’d wager that I’m actually low-balling this figure.
So, what’s it gonna be? A film from the original Star Wars Trilogy? Blade Runner? Alien? Superman: The Movie? [You’ve already done that one…idiot. – Ed.] No…thanks to the fine folks at Shout Factory [Seriously, for as much as you talk them up, how is it exactly that we’re NOT sponsored by them? Hell, they’d pay a lot better than…wait…we’re not getting paid…and only very rarely do we get free movies. Like…once. Sigh…I’ll shut up now. – Ed.] we’ll be taking a look at the 30th anniversary edition of Transformers: The Movie.
And right off the bat, we’ve got to issue a ‘mea culpa’…as we left this animated film out of our analysis of the Transformers film franchise. Granted, that was probably for the best. No reason to tarnish this film with Michael Bay’s work.
Now, I can’t say I was there opening day or night or whenever…the business of movies and their release was a little bit different back then…but I can guarantee you that I was definitely in a theater in August of 1986 to see it. [The official North American release date was August 8th of that year. – Ed.] Soon afterward, whenever my family would rent a VCR, that was always the movie I would choose to go with it…like clockwork (so this likely accounts for viewings 2-10…at least). But that wasn’t enough. Nope, thanks to the 90 minute running time of the film…it fit just perfectly on an old-school Memorex cassette tape. So, one time when we rented it…I grabbed a hand-held tape recorder and held it up to the TV speaker for the entirety of the film. And I wore that damn cassette out…so while these don’t strictly count as viewings…maybe…what half? I was getting the audio, dammit, I’d say it counts for half! When we finally could afford a VCR and got one, what was the first tape I bought? You goddamn better believe it…the original FHE release that I’d been renting all this time. The interesting thing about this first release was the fact that it was edited. In the scene where Unicron (giant planet-eating planet that serves as the film’s antagonist) is eating the booby-trapped Moonbase-2, a grown up Spike exclaims ‘Oh shit! What are we gonna do now?’ that FHE felt it necessary to remove. This brings us to the next phase of my history with the movie…the 1995 MaloFilm VHS release. By this point, my friends and I were in high school and my old VHS tape was starting to show its age and wear…bad. Making my way through a videotape outlet store, I stumbled upon a display featuring not only this little gem but several episode compilation tapes that MaloFilm also released around this time. Needless to say, I bought myself a copy. Upon watching the film and seeing the restored swearing scene, my friends soon appointed me as distributor of this new (to us) cut…they gave me money and I went back to that store and got them their tapes. From here…the releases came faster and faster…Rhino Home Video in 1999, then again in 2000 for the first time on DVD, Sony’s 20th anniversary edition in 2006 which allowed the film to be viewed in widescreen for the first time and now Shout Factory in 2016.
Yeah, I’ve bought this movie six times. Let’s talk about why.
First, let’s talk context. [Really? After having to endure you’re personal history with the film? Am I being punished for something? – Ed.] The Transformers cartoon took off like gangbusters after the first season and given such a response, right off the bat Hasbro and Sunbow/Marvel productions felt an animated movie would be a good idea. Disney had yet to have its resurgence that it would in the 90s and thus animated films in theaters seemed to be a void that needed filling. Of course, the problem with this being that the majority of movie going audiences, as I talked about in the Marvel vs DC article, were still subject to earlier Disney indoctrination…so, as the box office showed, the film wasn’t exactly destined to be a success. With the movie starting production at the same time as season 2 of the animated series, well, this will account for many characters missing from the film. There are no other combiners aside from Devastator, for example. This also explains the varying quality of the animation in season 2. As the best talent from Toei Doga, the Japanese animators of the first season, were working on the movie, the not-so-best talent at the studio…and talent from other studios as the episodes were farmed out…were working on season 2. And it showed. Badly. The main reason for bringing up context and the animated show that this film springs forth from is that, as much as I love the film, if you look at it as a stand-alone feature…I really hate to type this…it doesn’t work. I won’t say you need to see every episode of seasons one and two before watching this film…but you do need a working familiarity and attachment to the characters contained therein to get the most out of the movie. Now, granted, the film serves as an introduction to the characters who take the lead in season 3 of the show, so the film isn’t completely reliant on a knowledge of Transformers lore and characters up to this point…and the epic nature of the final battle of the film stands alone as possibly one of the best 2D animation set pieces ever put to film. But to get the full impact of how dark this hour and a half truly is for the characters, to be fully invested in the first half hour, you need to have a fair amount of knowledge and attachment to at least the first season of the series.
And that first half hour is a fucking doozy…especially if you were 8 at the time. You see, there are two perspectives on this film: that of the audience member/fan and that of Hasbro. As writer/’script consultant’ Flint Dille is very quick to state in any interview on the topic, for the writers and for Hasbro, this film was nothing more that wiping out the ’84 and ’85 product lines to make room for the expanded, more galactic/futuristic oriented ’86 line. So, the film opens with exactly that…an astonishing death toll of characters that kids, including myself, had grown attached to over the past two years. And it all culminates in the big one: the fight to the death between Optimus Prime and Megatron. To Hasbro, again, this was all about removing the old leaders and replacing them with new ones that would rise to their rank by the end of the film. To the audience and fans, of which I was most certainly one, this was traumatic. Take Prime’s death…not only do we see him fall to Megatron (thanks to the fucking interference of Hot Rod) but we actually get to watch him as he dies in the medical bay surrounded by friends and life support. Goddamn that hits hard. Look, I’m not gonna lie, I cried in the theater. Sure, I didn’t lock myself in a closet or anything (as the story goes about some kid in Michigan) [Why is it always “Some kid in Michigan”? – Ed.]…but I was 8…and you just killed one of the two fictional characters I’d built my young life around? Yeah, I was fine by the end of the movie (I just latched on to Ultra Magnus and concentrated my hatred on fucking Hot Rod and/or Rodimus)…but…just…damn. Looking at it objectively though, no matter how well Prime’s death was handled by the story, it DOES require you to have prior attachment to the character to feel the full impact.
I’m sure by now you’ve noticed how I keep going back to the plot. No, I’m not going to sum it up or anything like that. Instead, what I thought I’d do here is tackle some of the criticisms that have been laid at the feet of this film since its release. The biggest one that springs to mind is the claim that the film is a Star Wars rip-off. OF COURSE it is! Look, in the post-Star Wars 80s, nearly any and every science fiction film (granted there are exceptions, Blade Runner is the first to come to mind) was aiming to be the next Star Wars. Even if that wasn’t a filmmaker’s intent, it sure as shit was the intent of every major studio…they wanted something that could pull down the same, seemingly perpetual, merchandising dollars that Star Wars could. This brings up an interesting thing regarding the film…but that’ll wait for a bit. But yeah, sure, you could draw Star Wars parallels: Hot Rod being young Luke, Optimus in a sort-of Obi-Wan role, Springer is very Han Solo-ish, it doesn’t take much to see the twin-danish Leia hairdo in Arcee, the recruitment of the Junkions very much echoing the Rebellion’s recruitment of the Ewoks (though it is hard to tell which of the two is more annoying. I’ll stick with Ewoks, as at least Junkions can transform into something) and lastly…Unicron as the Death Star. That last bit, in my opinion, completely merits the making of the film right there. Think of what it took to be the guy to voice that question “What if the Death Star turned into a giant killer robot?” Yeah, they’d do it again with the Star Wars Transformers crossover line…but the less we speak of that, the better. I won’t say that once that premise arises that the story writes itself…but come on, that’s one HELL of a starting point.
I’ve already covered the matter of context to some degree. Let’s face it, any movie reviewer coming into the film, unless they or their children are fans of the material and have at least some knowledge of the subject matter prior to going into the film will be varying degrees of lost…and may not recover from that. [Critics aren’t exactly known for their resilience, malleability or flexibility…present company included. – Ed.] Countering that, though, once you get past the first half-hour, it does fit into the hero’s journey…if you consider Hot Rod a hero…which given his role in Optimus’ death…I don’t.
Let’s move on to something I brushed briefly against just a bit ago. With Transformers already being an established toy brand…a wildly successful one at that…it comes as a surprise that not a single major motion picture studio ponied up to distribute it. Instead, it fell to DEG…The De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Sigh. [Longtime readers will know that as a sigh of disappointment and disdain as we’ve got beefs with that particular clan noted here and here. – Ed.] This likely plays into how the film was distributed, marketed and how many screens it opened on. In fact, I have friends that maintain that they never knew it was in theaters…their first exposure to the film being on home video or TV. In recent years, since I mentioned marketing, there’s something I’ve found…interesting. You see, the tagline for the movie was “Beyond Good. Beyond Evil. Beyond your wildest imagination!” This sounded familiar to me…and sure enough, the tagline for the De Laurentiis production of Dune was “A world beyond your experience, beyond your imagination.” Kinda makes you think that Dino De Laurentiis’ imagination was pretty damn limited, doesn’t it? Well, either that or he had a pretty low opinion of the audience’s imagination. If DEG doesn’t sound terribly familiar to you, well, it probably shouldn’t. They weren’t around for very long…launching in 1986 and going bankrupt by 87. Films continued to be released under the DEG banner through about 1992 but they were always distributed by other, usually larger, studios.
Let’s talk about the voices really quick. We’ve already covered the death toll regarding ‘bots in the film, but Transformers: The Movie has its own human death toll as well. This would be the final performances of both Orson Welles (Unicron) and Scatman Crothers (Jazz). Yes, others have died since, most notably Chris Latta (Starscream), Leonard Nimoy (Galvatron) and Robert Stack (Ultra Magnus)…but I’m calling statute of limitations on those. The voice acting for the movie, like the series it spawned from, was top notch and thanks to voice director Wally Burr, the stars brought in (Nimoy, Stack, Lionel Stander, Judd Nelson, Eric Idle and so forth) integrated extremely well with the long-standing cast and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay to those actors. No one sounds like they were the subject of ‘stunt casting’…meaning putting a Hollywood star in a voice-only role simply because their name will fill seats. More often than not, those stars are serviceable…but very clearly not well versed in the differences between regular acting and voice acting (of course, there are exceptions…we’ll be reviewing a fine example of this soon).
Lastly, there is what I think makes Transformers: The Movie a unique experience…even today…the music. Both the score and the songs are soooooo 80s, with the score being complete synth by Vince DiCola and songs coming from the Scotti Bros. catalogue of hair metal/arena rock bands…and Weird Al Yankovic. [The only rationale I can think of is simply that of all the bands in their catalogue, the only one anyone can remember is Weird Al. – Ed.] And when I say songs, I don’t mean it in the classic Disney sense in that in the middle of a scene our ‘bots drop what they’re doing and burst out into song…no no no no. This is like when and action sequence starts up and the guitar riffs kick in. [So…it’s either an action scene or a “HELLO CLEVELAND!!!”? – Ed.] Look, it’s very simple to gauge the staying power of this soundtrack…the bands and artists might be forgotten [except Weird Al – Ed.] but if you grab this cd and play it in a room…you’ll be able to tell very quickly who the children of the 80s are…ESPECIALLY when either ‘Dare’ or ‘The Touch’ come on. Hell, those two songs alone are why Stan Bush still (vaguely) has a career and hasn’t switched over to being an accountant or going into real estate. And I’ll confess, I’m certainly one…as the second I hear any of the songs from the movie, I start grinning like an idiot. Sure, it’s not great music (or even good by some people’s standards)…but if you were the product of the right time and the right place…it’s still EPIC nonetheless.
So, yeah, for me to actually write a review of Transformers: The Movie is just a little unfair to both me, the writer, and you, the reader…[Anything you write is unfair to the reader. It violates their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. – Ed.]…because I was part of that moment in time and I was EXACLTY who they marketed the movie toward. And for that niche market…it worked amazingly and is forever a part of us. For those on the outside, though, I can admit that the film isn’t all that. It’s primarily a violent toy commercial whose plot takes several cues from Star Wars. Any emotional attachment to the characters needs to be pre-existing, built up over the two seasons that take place prior to this…and your average viewer isn’t going to be that invested. Still, I will say this. There have been other TV series that have made the jump to movie screens with varying degrees of success. Yeah, there was Serenity, the Firefly movie…but really the only people you hear talk about that are the Browncoats that seem to dominate most sci-fi/nerd websites or, at the very least, seem to be an EXTREMELY vocal minority. And I can’t think of the last time I’ve heard any one bring up either of the X-Files movies. Sure, I’m willing to concede that it might simply be that I’m more in touch with the Transformers fandom…but at the same time, like I said above, just play the first few notes of ‘The Touch’ in a room…and then see how many people come up to you. That’s staying power…and, whether it’s a good film or a bad film, that staying power…there’s a label for movies that have it: Classic.