Monday, August 8, 2016

Second Look - The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

In 1986, the popularity of the Transformers brand was at a peak (or so I gather), and so a movie had been in the works in order to not only capitalize on this popularity, but also to introduce new characters into the mix. Despite its initial reception, the movie has since gone on to be not only an icon to this property and its fanbase, but also to the '80s as a whole. In honor of its 30th Anniversary, we present another look at what came to be known as The Transformers: The Movie.

In the year 2005, a planet-sized being known as Unicron (Orson Welles) threatens the universe, swallowing any and every planet in its path. Meanwhile, on Cybertron, a group of Autobots prepare a shuttle to head back to Earth to restock on Energon, where Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) awaits. Unfortunately, the Decepticon Laserbeak (Frank Welker) has been spying on them and reports back to Soundwave (Frank Welker). Megatron (Frank Welker), upon seeing Laserbeak’s recording, prepares a sneak attack on the Autobot shuttle, with the intent of a surprise attack on Autobot City on Earth.

The looming threat of Unicron (Orson Welles).

Over the years, the story has become a classic amongst the Transformers fandom, and on its own is enjoyable and has some funny moments, however there does notably exist a major continuity error when taking the first 2 Seasons of the 1984 Transformers cartoon into account. Namely, Unicron as a major threat was never hinted at in the show, and the Matrix of Leadership did not previously exist as a concept (it has been noted that the Season 2 episode “A Prime Problem” features an x-ray view of Optimus Prime, but the chest cavity that houses the Matrix in the movie is empty). Apparently, the Season 2 episode “Cosmic Rust” was originally going to hint at the existence of the Matrix, but conflicts within the episode’s own continuity resulted in the reference being removed. The concepts of Unicron and the Matrix would be expanded upon in the following Season 3, but if you just roll with these concepts the first time they appear, you will have an easier viewing experience.

Aside from the infamous death of Optimus Prime, there’s also a lot of deaths of characters from the first two Seasons, some of which literally become new characters, which was done at the time to introduce new toys to the shelves, which can be at the least disheartening for those that grew attached to those characters. Fortunately, Optimus Prime would be literally resurrected in the Season 3 episode “Dark Awakening,” however he was essentially a zombie; the later two-part arc “The Return of Optimus Prime” from that same Season brings him back for real, though. The Decepticon Starscream is also killed off in spectacular fashion, though he would later return as a literal ghost in the Season 3 episodes “Starscream’s Ghost” and “Ghost in the Machine.” The promotional line “Conceived in the epic tradition of Star Wars…” isn’t exactly a lie, since one familiar with the original Star Wars can spot some similarities between it and The Transformers: The Movie, though fortunately the latter is not a carbon copy of Star Wars by any means.

As a movie by itself, it can be watched on its own, but without context from the 1986 cartoon, Optimus Prime’s death, not to mention the deaths of other characters, doesn’t have as much of an impact, which I had felt when seeing it for the first time on home video as a kid, my only true exposure to Transformers at that point being the 2001 Robots in Disguise cartoon. There are still some funny moments in it, as mentioned above, such as Starscream’s coronation ceremony and a number of scenes featuring the Dinobots. A particular character named Wheelie shows up to aid the Dinobots in one scene, but he otherwise doesn’t have much use in the plot other than to sell his toy and can otherwise come off as annoying to some because of his voice (though I’m personally more apathetic to the character). The soundtrack and animation can arguably still be enjoyed by fans of '80s music and animation, though it may not be enough for those who find fault in the story, since it features a plethora of characters at the beginning that a non-fan is expected to suddenly care about.

One thing’s for sure, the animation is very good, especially for a product of the '80s. Some animation errors are still present, however, and upon multiple viewings one can discover even more, though these errors are not enough to bog down the rest of the visuals. This being a movie, it has the best-looking animation among anything to come out of the original cartoon, however the quality is only seconded by the Season 3 episodes “Call of the Primitives” and, arguably, "The Dweller in the Depths." Particular highlights in the animation include the transformation sequences of Unicron and Autobot City, with the animations of Unicron’s insides and planet-munching a bonus.

Unicron's (Orson Welles) attack on Cybertron
is also well-animated.

Characters from the first 2 Seasons of the original cartoon that appear in this movie keep their voice actors, though it is Peter Cullen and Frank Welker that get the most screen time, followed closely by Chris Latta as Starscream. Peter Cullen playing Optimus Prime is always nice to hear, and even with only two years of experience with the character at the time, you can tell he’s giving it his all with whatever screen time the character has; he also voices Ironhide in the movie, though that character doesn’t get much time to shine. Frank Welker voices a good portion of the cast from the cartoon, most of whom manage to survive, but his performance as Megatron alone is amazing, with praise similar to Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime.

Of the new cast, it has probably been said before that it’s simply amazing who they managed to get to voice some of the characters, most of whom would be recast later for Season 3 of the original cartoon. Such names include Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, Eric Idle as Wreck-Gar, Judd Nelson as Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime, Robert Stack as Ultra Magnus and, of course, Orson Welles as Unicron. These actors put their skills to good use in this movie, though it’s interesting how Eric Idle was cast for a character whose dialogue consists largely of TV commercial quotes. John Moschitta, known for commercials for Micro Machines toys among other things, puts his talents as the world’s fastest-talking man to great use as the character Blurr, whom he would continue to voice in the original cartoon; he, along with Judd Nelson, would eventually return to the Transformers franchise to reprise their respective characters in the 2008 Transformers Animated cartoon.

Rodimus Prime (Judd Nelson) isn't in Transformers Animated for very long,
but it's interesting to hear nonetheless.

This movie being Orson Welles’ last has been very well-documented, however, Leonard Nimoy has since passed away recently. He would return to Transformers once again as the voice of Sentinel Prime in the 2011 movie, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, though his better-known legacy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek was given a proper tribute in the recently-released Star Trek Beyond.

The soundtrack is very definitely '80s, especially “The Transformers (Theme)” by Lion, which is not a knock against it since the music fits with the action on-screen. Stan Bush’s “The Touch” is most likely what he’s best known for, especially amongst Transformers fans, but its usage in the movie works for it (apparently it was originally meant for the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra, also from 1986, which would have been very different indeed). This song has also seen use in other Transformers products in the form of remixes, and even made an appearance in the game Saints Row IV, which should serve as a testament to its popularity. The score by Vince DiCola is great to listen to, even on its own, which is likely one reason he was brought back to do the music for the Angry Birds Transformers app game; his track for Optimus Prime’s death scene alone is enough to get to me, after having seen the original cartoon, which should say something about his music’s listenability out of context. In relation to the other songs by N.R.G. and Spectre General (aka Kick Axe), “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Devo parody “Dare To Be Stupid” can seem a little out-of-place, however its usage works for the scenes in which it was used.

One thing that cannot be denied is that this movie has had an enduring legacy within the Transformers fandom and the franchise as a whole. Within a number of subsequent media, the movie has been quoted to hell and back, and a handful of adaptations exist, not to forget the number of scenes that have also been directly lifted from it to varying degrees. Interestingly, in one issue of the Transformers Collectors’ Club Magazine from Fun Publications, as part of a lead-in to a comic story, a deleted scene was adapted for a flashback sequence (by essentially finishing storyboard frames for that scene); in addition, a special one-shot comic from IDW Publishing was released recently that explores a possible alternate timeline in which the iconic death of Optimus Prime in the movie never happened.

A notable homage to the movie is an episode of the Transformers Animated cartoon from 2008 (Season 2’s “Garbage In, Garbage Out”), which introduced the character Wreck-Gar to that continuity; though he wasn’t voiced by Eric Idle, he was instead voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic, in homage to his song “Dare To Be Stupid” being used during scenes on the Planet of Junk, and at one point in the episode, Wreck-Gar says “I dare to be stupid”.

On an official level, as of this writing, efforts have been made to celebrate the movie’s legacy this year. In the Transformers: Generations toyline, which leans more towards the use of '80s characters, the line has recently begun the Titans Return branding, which properly re-introduces the Headmaster gimmick as the Titan Master gimmick (though a new name, the gimmick is functionally the same as its '80s counterpart). Since the timing of Titans Return coincides with the 30th anniversary of this movie, the toyline is set to feature a number of characters introduced in the film. Shout! Factory also has plans to release the movie later this year on Blu-ray for the first time, with new cover art by Transformers artist Livio Ramondelli, an experience I look forward to witnessing.

The cover art to the upcoming Blu-ray.

The Transformers: The Movie, while not exactly a masterpiece of cinema, is definitely a must-see for Transformers fans. Despite flaws in the storytelling and some animation errors (some of which are more noticeable than others), there’s something about the movie that has allowed it to stand the test of time within the fandom, which might have to do with the number of concepts introduced in it that continue to be pivotal to the franchise to this day. A non-fan is less likely to find full enjoyment in the movie, though it does serve as a good time capsule of the '80s in its animation and music and is good for fans of the '80s and '80s memorabilia. Someone getting into Transformers for the first time should look into seeing this movie, as it is the origin of many aspects of the franchise and subject to countless references in Transformers fiction, though other points to consider would be the Transformers Animated cartoon and the combined Transformers: Prime and Robots in Disguise (2015) cartoons. In any case, though it underperformed at the box office when it first released 30 years ago, there’s a reason this movie continues to be celebrated, and I hope it continues in the years to come.

'Til all are one.

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