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Transformers: The Movie

September 4, 2009

The recent post on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen proved a trickier rant to shape and sculpt than expected. However, when hammering it out it suddenly occurred to me why, as a grown man, I’m still a fan of a toy franchise from my youth. I was into a lot of toys and characters when I was young but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a fan of He-Man anymore. I also stopped being a Star Wars fan after I saw The Phantom Menace and read an elucidating essay by J.G. Ballard that tore the first film (A New Hope) apart. Unlike quite a few geeks out there I do not collect action figures and have never purchased one as teenager/adult, although I admit to having once seen a figure of Kaneda from Akira on his futuristic motorcycle and being very tempted, because it was cool as fuck. It seems that the sole reason I still have an enthusiastic interest in Transformers is the first Transformers movie. I’m not talking about the Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg film from 2007; I mean the sublime, feature-length animated movie from 1986.

Transformers: The Movie was seared into my six-year-old imagination due to its unusually dark and violent tone. Well-known characters, the vast majority of them “good guys”, were properly killed onscreen, including the extremely popular Optimus Prime. For a child, this was akin to watching The Smurfs and seeing Gargamel finally snatching some of those little blue bastards up and biting their heads off like Goya’s Cronos devouring his children. It was heavy, challenging and ultimately thrilling stuff for a young boy. This seemingly subversive move was actually little more than a business driven ploy by Hasbro to wipe out their first toy line onscreen and clear the decks in order to introduce a whole new range of characters for the kids to buy. There was also an important loophole that could be exploited, the characters were robots and not human so their deaths could be graphically depicted in a cartoon without causing any problems with the rating. The creators of Transformers: The Movie therefore managed to deliver scenes like the Decepticons massacring the Autobots onboard a space shuttle, Megatron and Optimus Prime practically beating each other to death in a prolonged fight, robot characters screaming in agony as they are fed to robot sharks or dropped “alive” into vats of acid and an entire planet of men, women and children (who are nonetheless robots) being “eaten” and destroyed by another robot monster-planet.

"I'm here to kick ass and chew bubblegum....and I'm all out of bubblegum."

The scope of the animated movie was greatly expanded from the original TV series to encompass a larger universe of different worlds, various alien races and the aforementioned mechanical monster planet as the central antagonist. Transformers: The Movie postulated a universe in which most of the sentient beings were mechanoids with the ability to transform who lived on metal planets that looked like giant spherical machines. The titular Transformers encountered various other robot races who also happened to transform but who were hitherto unknown to them. The (two) humans in the story were thus highly conspicuous as the only sentient beings composed of organic material (well, there were the seemingly cybernetic Quintessons but I’ll try to keep this simple) and Earth itself stood out as the only traditionally formed planet featured in the story. At the climax of the movie, the monster planet, Unicron, managed to inexplicably transform into a massive robot that kind of flew around in space with little discernible use for limbs that were thousands of kilometres long. In addition there was a recurrent, bizarre depiction of shifts in size and scale. Although more apparent in the movie, this had always been a feature of The Transformers. Megatron, a robot standing some 20ft tall, would suddenly transform into a handgun that could fit either human or larger robot hands as the situation demanded. In the animated movie one character (Astrotrain), shown to be of average Transformer size in robot form, transformed into a space shuttle the interior of which was capable of comfortably transporting an entire army of his Decepticon comrades back to their home world. Unicron, the monster planet, and the mechanical planets and moons it devoured, were shown as being roughly the size of a few large cities rolled into balls. Not nearly as large as conventional planets, and surely lacking sufficient mass to exert the required gravitational force to keep things from falling/floating off their surface, yet they served as seemingly adequate worlds inhabited by robot people.

Ive got better things to do tonight than die.

"I've got better things to do tonight than die."

Transformers: The Movie boasted a cast of voice actors that was equal parts impressive and unusual. The regular voice actors from the TV cartoon were joined by the talents of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, Scatman Crothers, Casey Kasem, “America’s favourite fast-talker” John Moschitta Jr. and Orson Welles. Yes, the Orson Welles voicing the monster planet, Unicron. Widely recognised as one of the greatest film directors of all time, one of the last things Welles did was, as he put it, “the voice of a toy”* as he recorded his part a mere five days before succumbing to a fatal heart attack. Although a somewhat bathetic curtain call for a man of Welles stature, his performance imbued Transformers: The Movie with a perverse gravitas. The rumbling timbre of his sonorous voice lent a credible, ominous air to Unicron and succeeded in conveying a befitting and memorable villain.

Orson Welles as the, uh, monster robot planet on the left.

Orson Welles as the, uh, monster robot planet on the left.

As recognised by critics then and now, the soundtrack was (for a kid’s animated movie) simply outstanding. The main score was composed by Vince Dicola who had made his name scoring Staying Alive and Rocky IV. Probably the best of his haunting synthesizer compositions, “Unicron’s theme”, opens the animated movie to great effect. In addition to DiCola’s score, the original soundtrack itself was a badass collection of mid-80s glam metal anthems. The standout track was Stan Bush’s “The Touch” (later performed briefly by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights), the music video of which gave me my first glimpse of footage from Transformers: The Movie one Saturday afternoon. There was also a revamped, glam metal version of the Transformers theme by a group called Lion, two fairly heavy songs, “Instruments of Destruction” by N.R.G. and “Hunger” by Spectre General and Weird Al Yankovic’s Devo-parody, “Dare to Be Stupid”. Like the unusually hard-hitting elements of the story, the soundtrack was ambitious and (relatively) more mature than one would expect from a mere cartoon.

The quality of the movie was far beyond the original TV series that spawned it. In terms of the scope of the storytelling, the execution of the ideas and even the animation itself, it certainly transcended its roots from quite a typical piece of children’s television. The dark tone and the violence were thought to be responsible for the poor performance of Transformers: The Movie at the box office but as a child watching it you felt like you were being trusted to cope with the challenges of the story. The dramatic death of Optimus Prime was jaw-dropping to a young audience enraptured by the characters and it made for an unforgettable cinema experience. By contrast, the TV series was exactly as limited and pedestrian as one would expect and offers little reward for the nostalgic adult who chooses to revisit it (as I found when researching the Transformers recently). At the time of the movie’s release however, Marvel comics began running a Transformers title in both the USA and UK. It was as dark and challenging as the animated movie and also managed to be fairly sophisticated in its characterization and expansion of the Transformers universe. Minor characters who served as comic relief in the TV series were present in the comics with complex back stories, Machiavellian motives and often dramatic, tragic arcs. This should be unsurprising to initiates who know just how awesome comic books are and I mention it here only to indicate that it probably played as much of a role as the animated movie in keeping Transformers alive in the minds of fans for decades.

This superb animated film serves as a trick card offered up here as an excuse to explain one’s continued fascination and enthusiasm for a bunch of characters that came from toys. I will still happily sit through that movie to this very day, quoting the lines and singing/stomping along to the soundtrack (if nobody else is around) and I know for a fact that I’m not alone with this sentiment. This is not zealous nostalgia however, it has its limits. Transformers: The Movie wasn’t the greatest animated movie ever made, probably not even the best made in 1986, but for a young audience it delivered powerful and bold entertainment that marked a high watermark in quality for the franchise and which arguably left a legacy that led to the mega-budget Hollywood ventures we see today.

*(strictly speaking, Welles was incorrect, as they never released a Unicron toy until 2003, but I digress)

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2 comments

  1. Fucking Transformers the movie!
    Will always be up there in my Top 10. Watching it as a kid chilled me to the bone just like Watership Down.
    Still to this day i can watch it with friends and be blown away!
    “Megatron!?! Is that you?”
    “Here’s a hint” BANG!!!!


  2. I was tempted to allude to the last time we watched it together but I realized that there was a lot of stupid shit involved that I shouldn’t candidly discuss here.



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