Tools of the Imagination – Transformers the Movie

Transformers the Movie
directed by Nelson Shin, written by Ron Friedman, released by De Laurentiis Entertainment in August 1986

The Unsung Masterpiece

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(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

With the domination of the box office by Transformers Age of Extinction – as well as the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Transformers toy line – it seemed a good time to go back to the beginning. Last week, we looked at the first two seasons of the Transformers original animated series. This week, we’ll be looking at where the franchise just might have peaked.

Background
Based off the Diaclone and Microman toy lines, Transformers ran into a problem pretty quickly, namely that they needed to add new toys to the toy line and take old toys out, thus keeping dedicated fans buying new characters. New characters meant old characters needed to be retired. T this was the 1980s, so why do anything halfway? Why retire a character when you can kill them?

Transformers the Movie opens with the millennia-old battle between the Autobots and Decepticons coming to a climactic head, only for them both to face extinction against a planet-devouring monster known as Unicron. The film was conceived as a sending-off of the old characters while introducing a whole batch of new characters. Megatron and Optimus Prime would get their climactic battle and then bow out to make room for the new leaders, Galvatron and Ultra Magnus Rodimus Prime. It would be a fun romp and, in the end, there’d be a whole new batch of toys to shill. What could go wrong?

Turns out, a lot.

While the myths about a young fan locking himself in his bedroom for 2 weeks (or his bathroom for 3 weeks, or…or…or…), there’s no question that the fan backlash was tremendous. The third generation of the show, which focused on the movie characters in a more sci-fi setting, was not nearly as possible. This prompted the show’s creative team to bring back classic characters, resurrecting Optimus Prime and turning Starscream immortal. Reissues and remakes of the toys of classic characters would begin almost immediately.

Story – 4 out of 5
You don’t find too many war stories in the kids’ movie section, but this is one of them, and it’s one of the most visceral. The Battle for Autobot City which is the first big action piece is the single most decisive battle in the entire story (not of the movie; all of Gen-1) and it’s played up as such. This is the battle to end all battles and it feels like it. Worse is that the good guys survive but they don’t really win. Optimus is, more or less, defeated by Megatron and while the Decepticons lost the battle, the cost of victory was so high for the Autobots, the Decepticons have effectively won the war.
The second act, of the fractured Autobot forces trying to rally behind a new leader and against a new foe unlike anything they’ve ever known, is a compelling and frantic rush of missteps and pitfalls.
Likewise, we have something of a coming-of-age story for young Hot Rod, who wants to be great but ends up costing Optimus his life. Like the fractured Autobots, he tries to find some way to make it through the trials.

Art – 5 out of 5
In a word, simply gorgeous. The art of the series holds up, even to this day. The colors are vibrant and rich and the character designs are all at their best. From the opening shot of Unicron flying between two suns to the closing devastation wrought by the finale battle, every second of the movie is gorgeous.

Animation – 4 out of 5
While the art is gorgeous, the animation is a little weaker. Most animation sequences are gorgeous. Some, like the Transformation of Megatron into Galvatron, are the stuff of legends. But for every Devouring of Lithone, there’s a continuity error, like seeing Bombshell on The Planet of Junk. And Grimlock gets bigger just about every scene. He starts the size of the other Autobots and ends up the size of a skyscraper.

Characters – 5 out of 5
New characters and old are given some great scenes. Optimus Prime’s resolution to finally kill Megatron is a profound moment (That’s what he means when he says “One shall stand, one shall fall”, ‘this is to the death’). The intense joy on Galvatron’s face when he finally does what Megatron never did (kill Starscream) is palpable.
The new characters excel as well. Ultra Magnus is clearly an effective warrior and field leader but he just doesn’t have TRUE command in him. Springer is so amazing, he makes it look easy. Kupp and Hot Rod are almost two sides of the same coin.
The characters are four colors, sure, but they’re rich and gorgeous colors.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Leonard Nimoy, who plays Galvatron, might turn in the best performance of his career, and that’s saying something for an actor who originated one of the most iconic and influential television characters of all time. The same is true of Robert Stack, who is so good as Ultra Magnus, every performance of the character since would be informed by his portrayal.
Lionel Stander is fantastic as Kupp and Judd Nelson as Hot Rod is a career highlight. The TV cast is great as well. Peter Cullen and Frank Welker lead their team to some of the best performances of the entire franchise.

Overall – 5 out of 5
The movie’s not perfect. It’s got some continuity errors and, again, Grimlock just doesn’t stop growing. But the action and animation have held up to the test of time. The music, which might seem schlocky at first, is a wonderful (and underrated) example of what it meant to be an 80s classic. Coming out of a time and a place, this is a great example of the era. And as a whole, while I don’t think anyone would argue Transformers the Movie is the best animated film of all time, it most definitely has a strong case to be made for being in the Top Ten.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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