As we march inexorably closer to another mind-numbing installment of Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers series, I thought it would be a good time to take a breath and reflect on the only good Transformers film ever made: 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.
Beware, there be spoilers up ahead for those who haven’t seen the film.
In the great Toy Robot War of 1984, I sided with the victors. I mean, what was I going to do, play with Go-Bots? When the Transformers came onto the scene, they were seemingly everywhere at once. G.I. Joe, the Transformers’ label-mate at Hasbro Toys, took a longer road to massive popularity, but robots that turned into cars, jets, and guns were pretty much going to be a home run right out of the gate.
The first Transformer I ever purchased was with birthday money from my grandmother. I chose Wheeljack. If I recall correctly, I received Megatron shortly thereafter. Of course, neither Wheeljack nor Megatron were my favorite Transformer. That honor was held, as it was for the majority of kids, by Optimus Prime. I had other favorites from the cartoon, like Ironhide and Soundwave, but Optimus was king of the hill. I had to wait for Santa to deliver him before I had my own Prime figure to go adventuring with the other Autobots.
Though I was partial to G.I. Joe, I enjoyed the Transformers cartoon, and remember a time when there was just one Transformers cartoon—don’t come at me with that Beast Wars hooey. In looking back, though, the cartoons weren’t that great story wise. The multi-part episodes were usually better, but there were quite a few stinkers over the show’s run. However, what can you expect from a show that was little more than a thinly veiled toy commercial?
I remember being more intrigued by the darker stories in the Marvel comic books—the initial limited series ended with Shockwave blowing everybody away! But, even though that was the case, I still loved the cartoon as a kid. It was easily one of my favorites—it certainly had one of the coolest theme songs. That’s why it was all the more exciting when I started seeing commercials for a full-length animated feature in 1986.
Unfortunately, I never did see the film in theaters, but I had heard stories. Prime dies! Transformers swear! I wanted to see it, but the timing never panned out. Only being nine years old at the time, I couldn’t exactly drive myself to the theater and something told me that Mom and Dad weren’t going to be keen on taking me to the movie where robots kill each other. No, I had to wait until the movie hit TV and a giant, computer-animated Optimus Prime told some kid the story about how he died, (awkward….). I recorded it and watched the hell out of that thing. To this day, I can pretty much quote the film line for line. It just struck a chord with me and was chock full of great scenes. One of my favorites is when Starscream finally gets one over on Megatron and dumps him out into space. He gets his comeuppance shortly thereafter, but it was fun seeing him be such a jerk.
Let’s be honest, the story wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was still pretty cool. The Autobots have to deal with both the Decepticons, who have conquered the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron, as well as graduate of the Galactus School of Villainy, Unicron (Orson Welles!). Yes, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) dies—can robots die?—from injuries sustained in an epic final battle with Megatron (Frank Welker)—you know, the one that took place almost entirely off-screen in Michael Bay’s first Transformers debacle. The movie is really a heroic coming of age story starring Hot Rod (Judd Nelson), who later becomes Rodimus Prime thanks to his inheriting the Matrix of Leadership by way of Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack). The Matrix is the only thing that can stop Unicron and his slave, Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy), the reconstituted Megatron. So, the film morphs into a chase film as our heroes are scattered and the Decepticons pursue them in search of the Matrix. The ending is a little abrupt, though, almost as if the production ran out of money and had to quickly wrap up the final scenes. The events of the film led directly into the third season of the cartoon, where Galvatron would return to make the Autobots lives miserable and the Quintessons, who show up briefly in the film, would play a much larger role in the story.
The real story behind the movie, though, is that Hasbro wanted to wipe the slate clean and get all brand new Transformers into the cartoon and toy shops. This was why the majority of the cast of characters was unfamiliar to fans of the show. However, all the new Autobots had distinct personalities and were all likable characters. I liked Hot Rod, which made me buy into his journey. Pairing him with the older Kup (Lionel Stander) was a brilliant move by the writers. I was also happy with how the world of the Transformers was greatly expanded by visiting several different worlds. However, I found it funny how each world had some kind of robot/Transformer life on it instead of organics. It was like Earth was the only non-robot planet in the galaxy. The biggest question I had on a recent viewing was, “What happened to Blaster?” One minute, he’s there helping repair the base and then the others leave without him. Also, the total disrespect for the regular voice cast of the cartoon in the opening credits of the film is disgusting. The credits focus solely on the “name” actors added just for the movie and leave out legends like Cullen and Welker, which was made even more egregious when Welker took over the voice duties for Galvatron in the third season of the series. Optimus Prime would eventually be resurrected—y’know, so he could tell that kid the story—but Transformers: The Movie took a great risk at completely alienating its audience by killing off its most popular character. Prime’s death is also the main reason why the film has endured so long in pop culture.
Aside from the new characters and darker story elements, the film differed from the cartoon series by adding an eighties pop metal soundtrack along with composer Vince DiCola’s moody and atmospheric electronic score. Rock group Lion contributed a rock version of the “Transformers Theme,” while Stan Bush contributed two songs to the soundtrack, “Dare” and the iconic “The Touch,” which was unofficially Optimus Prime’s theme song until it was stolen by Dirk Diggler. Weird Al Yankovic also added his song “Dare To Be Stupid” to the meeting with Wreck-Gar (Eric Idle) and the Junkions. I’m not a huge metal fan, but the pure nostalgia for the film puts the soundtrack on a high pedestal for me as far as film soundtracks go.
I have never been impressed with Michael Bay’s Transformers films. The robot designs are too busy and Bay’s idea of characterization is offensive. The way Bay shoots the action makes it hard to follow what’s going on. It doesn’t help that aside from Prime and Bumblebee, all the robots look practically the same. About the only think Bay got right was recruiting Peter Cullen to voice Prime. So for me, 1986’s Transformers: The Movie is the best Transformers film out there and not just because of nostalgia. It gave depth to characters that were designed solely to sell toys. It also raised the stakes for those characters and reset their world to tell new and interesting stories. The film was also an upgrade from the TV show both visually and in scope. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s more than what critics have dismissed it as in the past. If you like mindless action, Bay’s films might be your thing, but if you care about the Transformers, then there can only be one film for you.
For more Transformers fun, including an alternate take on Optimus Prime’s resurrection, check out Dr. Smoov’s YouTube page, but beware, his videos are NSFW. I also suggest “S.O.S. Wheeljack” and “Shockwave’s Burden.”
Until next time, Bah-Weep-Graaaghnah Wheep Ni-Ni Bong!
Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter
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