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.

Tools of the Imagination — The Hobbit

The Hobbit
screenplay by Romeo Muller, directed and produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr

The Original Animated Masterpiece

Originally published in 1937, the Hobbit has been a classic of children’s literature for generations.  A funny little tale about a strange creature named Bilbo, who goes on a quest with dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, it’s enchanted fans for decades.  On it’s fortieth anniversary, animation underdog Rankin & Bass studios decided to bring the tale to life.

Rankin & Bass, much like Jay Ward Productions, is an oft-forgotten chapter in animation history.  Few people outside animation fandom know the name, but everybody knows their work.  Rankin & Bass studios were the ones responsible for just about every stop-motion Christmas movie you love (yes, including the Rudolf movies), many of the animated Christmas movies (including Frosty the Snowman), some of the most iconic fantasy cartoons of all time (namely The Last Unicorn and the Flight of Dragons), as well as perinnel 1980s classic, Thundercats.

But in the 1970s, Rankin & Bass was still primarily known for making holiday films.  Undertaking a non-holiday project was unexpected, and taking on a beloved classic such as the Hobbit was considered monumental.  To everyone’s amazement, they would knock it out of the park.

Story – 5 out of 5
Just about anyone who has ever read probably knows the story of the Hobbit, if for no other reason than the Peter Jackson incarnations currently appearing in theaters.  This critique then is more about the screenplay of the movie itself, which is expertly done.  Great pains were gone to in order to add nothing that wasn’t already in the source material, and very little was cut (Beorn and the Arkenstone being among the few things that got the axe).  The pacing is perfect, upbeat and constantly moving but still giving the impression of a long and winding adventure.  Purists of the Hobbit may likely enjoy this outing more than the Jacksonian films for the efforts to change as little as possible.

Art – 5 out of 5
Simply put; gorgeous.  Arthur Rackham’s art is rich and textured but not unwieldy.  The subdued earth tones of the dwarves and the hobbits are countered with the celestial imagery of the elves and the monstrous depictions of the goblins.  Everything looks appropriately fantastic and the image of Smaug is quite simply the definitive dragon for an entire generation of fantasy fans.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is quite good, but not overwhelming.  There’s a lot of adventure in the movie, but few ‘action’ scenes.  Violence is handled very tastefully, meant to shock and scare little kids without outright traumatizing them (see the Death of the Goblin King).  Overall, it supports the beautiful artwork masterfully.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There’s really only one ‘character’ in this depiction of the Hobbit and that’s Bilbo.  Thorin, Gandalf, and others aren’t given much of the way of motivations or personality.  The other dwarves, especially, are little more than just there.  Bilbo, standing front and center, however, vividly but subtly shows the transformation the quest puts him through.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Orson Bean’s depiction of Bilbo Baggins is excellent.  He brings the character beautifully to life, but without overpowering the narrative itself.  Hans Conreid and John Huston are perfect as the gruff Thorin and the mysterious Gandalf respectively.  Otto Preminger adds a very unique but distinctive touch to the unnamed elf king.  Cyril Ritchard as Elrond is appropriately warm yet haunting, while Brother Theodore is perfect as the creepy Gollum.  But the crowning achievement is Richard Boone as Smaug in one of the greatest voice acting performances of all time.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This is one of those legendary films that somehow manages to fall to the wayside for no really identifiable reason.  Only Disney was making anything even remotely comparable to a film of this majesty (it would be almost a decade before Don Bluth films would release An American Tale).  This is visually gorgeous and would be the definitive animated fantasy movie for ages.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Rankin & Bass’ Hobbit is the greatest animated movie of all time, but I would assert that it has a strong case to be in the Top Ten.

Tools of the Imagination — Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc
Produced by Warner Bros, released 2010, available on DVD

Cartoon Royalty reclaims its throne

 
Scooby-Doo is one of the greatest cartoons of all time.

Normally, I might qualify that statement or give some context, but in this case, none is needed.  The Scooby-Doo franchise is one of the oldest and most beloved series of all time and for good reason.  It was innovative, trend-setting, and narratively unique.  It’s one of the only successful stories in all of human history where the principle protagonists are complete, total, unabashed cowards.

The original Scooby-Doo! Where Are You? first aired in 1969 and since then, the franchise has been running pretty much nonstop.  In fact, there have been only a handful of years during the entire 45-year run of the show that new episodes weren’t being made.  More than that, Scooby-Doo spun off a host of knockoffs and imitators.  The show has been praised by the likes of Carl Sagan and the characters of the show have becoming iconic the world over.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Scooby-Doo got away from formula, however.  In a dark era known to be inhabited by a midget monster known as Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Doo moved away from mystery-solving and turned into bizarre and very generic adventuring.  The 2000s saw a return to the classic format of the show, giving rise to the most recent series, Mystery Inc.

Mystery Inc sets the story in Crystal Cove, the purportedly most haunted place on earth.  The Scooby Gang are already established mystery solvers, despite all being in their high school years.  The town itself is replete with colorful characters, including the Gang’s own families, giving each character a very rich and much-welcome back story.  The narrative is likewise evolved, including a love story between Velma and Shaggy as well as romantic troubles between the capable Daphne and the somewhat incompetent Fred.  All of this creates an impressive texture to the story against which is set the mystery of each new episode.

Unlike the previous versions of the show, Mystery Inc is an animated series, with each episode building on the previous.  An entire mythos is developed involving a previous incarnation of the Mystery Inc, with hidden clues being given by a mystery figure named Mr. E (don’t give me that look; it’s a kid’s show!).  This slowly expands the world of the show, culminating into a complex internal history that’s truly impressive.  All of it leads to a series finale that masterfully weaves the outstanding show into the established Scooby-Doo canon.

Story – 4 out of 5
Mystery Inc is truly outstanding.  The internal logic in the show is more solid than many live-action dramas, which is uncharacteristic for any cartoon, but especially a show like Scooby-Doo.  A major outstanding element to the show’s story is the consistent quirkiness of every single character.  No one person stands out as particularly zany or particularly sane.  Everybody in the show is equally colorful and outlandish, making the story rich and vibrant.

The individual mysteries are a little more complex and far-fetched than previous versions of Scooby-Doo, with the explanations of how criminals got away with their crimes being even more outlandish.  But at the same time, each villain is given tremendously colorful motivations that (at least within the dubious logic of the series’ universe) make some sense.

A real treat for cartoon fans is the outstanding way the show works in tiny nods and subtle references to earlier Hanna-Barbera cartoons, including Scooby-Doo but also many other shows.  In just about every shot involving extra characters in the background, Don Knotts or Mama Cass can be seen somewhere.  Likewise are there references to the aforementioned knockoffs of Scooby-Doo and other Hanna-Barbera shows.  The ultimate in fan-service however is the episode ‘Heart of Evil’ which involves an elaborate story of revenge involving the Blue Falcon with Dyno-Mutt as well as Dr Quest and Race Bannon.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art in the show is really good, but not distracting.  The show looks and feels like what it is; a modern update of a 1970s classic.  As such, the show relies on heavy line work and limited details not seen in form or frame.  Each character is recreated very faithfully to the inspiration in the original series, while also helping to remake them with some modern flair.
The one complaint to the show is the way Velma has been recreated.  While Velma looks and dresses much like her previous forms, she’s noticeably more slim.  She doesn’t come across as being a young woman with a larger frame, which some fans may find undermines some of the character’s appeal.  Others, it may not bother.

Animation – 4 out of 5
While the art is unremarkably good, the animation is stellar.  Action sequences are smooth and impressive, the transition from traditional-style art to CG sequences are seamless, and the effects of lighting and shadow are amazing.  The series is beautifully brought to life and stands out as especially vivid, even compared to other modern shows.

Characters – 5 out of 5
Masterful.  This show beautifully recreates, expands, and evolves some of the most memorable characters in modern entertainment.  Not one single character in the show is found to be flat and uninspired.  Every character, from the leads to the bit-parts have all well-established motivations and inclinations.
The true gem, however, is how the five Scooby Gang members have been reworked.  These teens discover they’re larger role in the world of mystery-solving, while at the same time deal with their parents’ expectations, their own romantic relationships, and the uncertainty of the future.
Few shows achieve the richness of character that Mystery Inc accomplishes.

Acting – 5 out of 5
The voice acting is stellar and equally masterful.  The well-skilled cast delivers great performances.  Series veteran (and heir to the throne of King of the Voice Actors) Frank Welker reprises Fred and Scooby, while others from the original series (like Casey Kasem) return for supporting roles.  Likewise does Matthew Lillard, who played Shaggy Rogers in the live-action films (Linda Cardellini also returns, but not as Velma, sadly).  Other greats like Mark Hamill, Jeffrey Combs, Gary Cole, Patrick Warburton, and Maurice LaMarche help round out the cast.

 

Overall – 5 out of 5
What Scooby-Doo is to animation and cartoons, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc is to the Scooby-Doo franchise.  This is a beautiful series that was masterfully done from top to bottom.  Fans of cartoons, animation, anime, Scooby-Doo, modern re-imaginings of classic series, or just flat-out good shows should make it a point to watch this show from start to finish.  It’s funny, innovative, at times poignant, and extremely well-done.
Good cartoons and series come and go, but we get truly great cartoons only so often.  This is one of those cartoons.  See this series.

Tools of the Imagination — Alec DeLeon

Exosquad Alec DeLeon
by Playmate Toys, released 1993

Exosquad: Mecha’s Unsung Hero

In a genre overrun with the newest Transformers, Robotech, and Gundam series, it’s easy to overlook some of the less-successful franchises that still managed to deliver beautiful work.  One such example is the Exosquad series which delivered some truly fantastic toys to go along with their excellent – though sadly oft-forgotten – animated series.
The Exosquad Franchise has generally been little more than a footnote in the annals of animation and mecha history.  The story is about a war between planets and between humans and their artificially-created offshoot, the Neosapiens.  The story is set in the future when Venus and Mars have been colonized with the help of powered suits called E-Frames.

The story of ExoSquad drew heavily from classic sci-fi, including the works Issac Asmov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.  While it certainly had its stylistic and near-superheroic qualities, this series was far more rooted in real and believable science than many of its sci-fi brethren on TV in the early to mid-1990s.  Sadly, Exosquad didn’t survive past one season and has more or less disappeared from the collective consciousness.  All that remains, aside from a few VHS tapes on eBay, are some very fine toys that managed to do a whole lot right.  For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be talking about the series’ Alec DeLeon.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
The E-Frames and the figures they came packaged with were pretty standard fare for toys of the day, though the figures were slightly smaller.  The 3” figures were about as mobile as the ubiquitous 3.5” GI Joe figures they were clearly patterned after and equally detailed, though a bit on the stylized side (read: cartoony).  The E-Frames themselves were colorful and had some noteworthy detail.

Construction – 2 out of 5
Unlike their appearance, the E-Frames and their figures were just on this side of cheaply made.  The plastic looks sturdier than it turns out to be once you’ve got the packaging open and the figures’ paintjobs often left something to be desired (paint that should stop at the joint would continue across it; etc).  Bolts, screws, and seams were quite visible on most of the toys.
It’s worth noting that the E-Frames had handles that were absent from the show (as the vehicles were completely enclosed in the show).  Getting the character to hold these handles is quite a chore and is one of the major drawbacks of these toys.

Movement – 5 out of 5
While the human characters were fairly mobile and flexible, the E-Frames were a little on the stiff side.  This would be more of a problem except that the figures can easily fit into the E-Frames and its mobility is completely unaffected.  The E-Frames, rather than have strictly linear joints for the shoulders, actually have ball joints, allowing them a great amount of arm mobility.  The leg joints are limited but with hip, knee, and ankle joints to the legs, the limited range is hardly a big deal.  As such, it is this trait that makes this combination toy really stand out against many of its peers.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The Exosquad toys really are remarkable because of what they came with.  Rather than just a figure or a vehicle, you got both, as well as two weapons for the figure (a pistol-sized weapon and a rifle-sized weapon), along with the assorted missiles for the E-frame.  This really was a fantastic deal because you were for all intents and purposes getting an entire playset with each figure.  On top of that, most of the E-frames had one or more little features (the Alec DeLeon model had a rotating communication disc, a detachable data terminal, and ammo belt).  All these little extras added up quickly to make these some engaging toys.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
The packaging for the ExoSquad toys were unique to each figure (making finding in the toy store which figures were available all the easier), with not only the individual’s face and E-Frame on the front, but also a character bio and mecha statistics on the back along with an overview of the story.  Inside, you had a bio card, stickers, and a guide to the toy.  The package itself was also a solid rectangle with a lifting flap that revealed the figure inside.  This really was some of the best toy packaging that’s been produced.

Overall – 5 out of 5
A superb toy that has sadly been somewhat forgotten by the industry, the Exosquad toys were really stellar and some of the best toys made in the 1990s.  These toys were really fantastic and they set a great bar for future toys to live up to (which few did).  So until the action-figure-packaged-with-a-mech industry picks up the clues, we’ll have to just remember fondly of the days when these toys graced the shelves.

Tools of the Imagination — Jetfire (Classics)

Jetfire
Produced by Hasbro, released 2007 as part of the Wave 2 of the Transformers Classics

Quite Possibly The Perfect Toy

We’re finally going to get away from the anime/cartoon reviews and begin to explore some of the OTHER tools of the imagination.  Next to playgrounds themselves, toys are probably key.  And so, we venture to the kings of toys, action figures.
To celebrate Habro’s 20th anniversary, the company began their Transformers Classics toy line as a way to connect the original line of toys with modern audiences.  This meant that all the classic characters were going to receive facelifts and even a few full-scale overhauls.  The Transformers had already gone through several incarnations since the close of the original toy line (colloquially referred to as Generation One, or G-1), but the Classics line was meant as both a re-imagining of – and tribute to – the original series.

Jetfire has been a fan favorite in the Transformers since the first incarnation in 1984.  Redrawn and named Skyfire in the animated series (allegedly due to unconfirmed legal issues stemming from use of a Valkryie toy mold from Robotech – a rival cartoon at that time), Jetfire’s tale is one that usually brings a little bit more reality to the story of transforming alien robots.  In the original series, he was saved by an old friend and Decepticon named Starscream.  Jetfire would join the evil Decepticons out of loyalty to his friend but he’d quickly find his beliefs conflicted with their goals of conquest.  By the end of the episode, he defects to the Autobots, an action that nearly costs him his life.  This tale of defection in order to preserve one’s morals is echoed in later incarnations, even up to his most recent incarnations in the 2009 live-action film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
This toy is simply beautiful.  It does a fantastic job of hearkening back to the original 1984 toy, while at the same time being its own original work.  It’s so detailed that even rubbing your fingers over its surface reveals every crevice and jut, but not in a manner that is visually distracting.  What’s especially noteworthy is just how fantastic this toy looks and feels like the original Jetfire toy.  It even transforms in a fashion similar to the original toy – evoking a sense of tactile nostalgia – but at the same, the transformation is different enough to preserve its sense of uniqueness.

Construction – 4 out of 5
Habro has a deserved reputation for making quality toys and Jetfire is no exception.  The plastic used feels solid and sturdy, but not overly heavy.  The joints don’t feel taxed under the weight of the limbs, but there is still some heft to this toy.  All the detachable pieces come off with ease, but don’t fall off and when a limb is moved in any direction, it stays there.

Movement – 5 out of 5
The original Transformers, for all their accolades, were not the best toys ever.  Many of the figures couldn’t actually move beyond the transformation from vehicle to robot and back.  Anything above the ability to rotate the arms was actually pretty remarkable.  The correction of this problem in the Classics toy line is easily one of the biggest selling points.  Jetfire is incredibly easy to pose in a wide variety of positions.  Each joint is very flexible and easy to move, yet still sturdy so that the toy doesn’t fall under its own weight.  The body moves very easily and it can flow from jet mode to robot mode without any trouble.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The toy comes with a detachable backpack, two detachable arm rockets, a laser weapon (that separates into two for dual-wielding), and even a detachable helmet (allowing the toy to resemble both the character from the animated series AND the original toy at the same time).  The arm rockets fire missiles (with about two or three feet range, making them strong enough to fly nicely but not strong enough to put out somebody’s eye) and the backpack has spring-mounted gunpods that can be angled in the robot mode.  This means the already fun-to-play-with jet has a plethora of additions that provides a whole new level of playability.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
The packaging that Jetfire comes in is pretty average.  There’re no built-in diorama, though the packaging graphics are pretty nice.  There’s a brief character bio that includes the usual Transformers statistics (ranking things like speed, power, and rank, on a scale of one through ten), but there’s little else of note.  Inside, you’re treated to a rather frustrating maze of twisty-ties that keep the toy securely in place, and instructions on transformation.  In other words, the usual fare.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This really is an excellent toy; one of the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s well-made and sturdy, it’s easy to play with and comes with a lot of little extras, it’s very detailed, and it invokes the memory of its earlier incarnations while still being unique in its own right.  Classics Jetfire is probably one of the best toys Hasbro has ever made, and that is really saying something.