Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stubs – The Transformers: The Movie (1986) (Second Opinion)

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) Starring: Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Lionel Stander, Orson Welles, John Moschita, Jr., Peter Cullen and Frank Welker. Narrated by Victor Carroll. Directed by Nelson Shin. Screenplay by Ron Friedman, based on Transformers by Hasbro. Music by Vince DiCola. Produced by Joe Bascal and Tom Griffith. Run Time: 84 minutes. U.S. Animated, Sci Fi, Fantasy.

Today being the 26th anniversary of the release of The Transformers: The Movie is excuse enough to watch this animated feature again. While I’m old enough to have seen this movie when it was first released, I did not see it in initial release. And while I have seen this in a repertoire theater, my review is based on watching this on DVD this morning.

My experience with Transformers has been mostly limited to the three Michael Bay films, the first season of the original series and the current and excellent Prime and Rescue Bots incarnations on television. And I will admit that I have enjoyed most of my exposure to the Transformers universe. And I have come to this film wanting to like it.

To begin with, there is a lot of interesting stunt voice casting; none bigger than Orson Welles as the planet-sized villain Unicron (insert your own joke here). While I’m sure this was considered quite a coup at the time, it is somewhat sad to know that this was Welles’s last role. The boy genius who had arrived in Hollywood four decades earlier had burned through all his goodwill and talent by this point in his career and this is a rather sad way for him to go out. Even then, his voice is somewhat over synthesized to the point that it’s almost unrecognizable.

The stunt casting doesn’t stop with Welles. Eric Idle, of Monty Python and Rutles fame, plays Wreck-Gar and Leonard Nimoy, best known at this point in his career as Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek series, plays Galvatron, the leader of the Decepticons after Megatron (Frank Welker) is neutralized by Unicron. Robert Stack, from The Untouchables TV series and Airplane!, plays Ultra Magnus, the leader of the Autobots after Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is killed.

Let me say that if you’re not aware, Optimus Prime is killed in The Transformers: The Movie. And that’s sort of like killing off Groucho Marx in a Marx Brothers movie. That would be the last thing you’d want to do; kill off your best known character. But in its desire to sell new toys, Hasbro made the decision that Optimus Prime’s time had come and gone. After two seasons of the TV series that predated this movie, Optimus wasn’t to return until late in Season 3, which followed it, and then as a zombie.

Fast forward to the recent films and TV series (not to mention toy store shelves) and you can see that Hasbro has since come around and considers Optimus Prime (and Peter Cullen’s voice) are essential to the Transformers experience. The main struggle in the Transformers universe needs to be between Optimus (and the Autobots) and Megatron (and the Decepticons); Cullen and Welker. Optimus Prime is more than just a toy to many Transformers devotees.

Produced quickly and with a small budget, especially by today’s standards, The Transformers looks like a cross between Yellow Submarine and Heavy Metal. The coloring choices are interesting and daring, but sometimes off putting. Some of the new characters Hasbro was trying to introduce for its new toy line, like the Quintesson and the Sharkticons, don’t look like they would really work as toys, especially Transformers toys.

Any movie with this much killing in it would need some moments of levity to break the tension, but the sequence played against “Weird Al” Yankovic seems to almost be too much for this movie, almost like a beach party breaking out in the middle of a World War II film. It’s cute, but maybe too much.

And like the Michael Bay films, the humans, specifically anyone with the last name Witwicky, are the weak link and their presence seem to weigh the movie down. While they were holdovers from the TV series, they are not needed to tell the story and serve only to give us a human to root for.

On its own, The Transformers: The Movie is an interesting, but ultimately unfulfilling ride. Too many characters synonymous with the franchise are limited or dumped all together from the movie. And judging from the fact that the movie did not recoup its budget when first released, that feeling must have been shared at the time. However, if you like the Transformers universe, this first full length adventure is a necessary stop.

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