Based on two shape changing toy lines from Takara Tomy of Diaclone and Microman from the land of the rising sun and sushi the Transformers became an 80’ phenomenon of things changing into things from other things, spawning multiple series’ of cartoon shows and sequelised spin-offs, and launching more toy-ranges than a whore has towelettes in her handbag for that between-punter freshness.
This generation of Rubik’s robot has seen three CGI cinematic releases and, with a fourth one in production and starring Marky Mark hanging tough with the transforming titans, I thought it time someone pointed out the best and only version of the film worth watching has already been made.
Fighting not just to stop a planet but retain control of The Matrix – the maguffin that serves as the Golden Fleece of the plot and justifies blowing seven shades of cyber-shit out of each other – The Transformers; The Movie filmic release in 1986 was before imagination was replaced by the term ‘re-boot’ and script writers knew why they should have at least a passing understanding of the subject matter they were about to spunk a fair wodge of Hollywood change into.
Set between the ending of the second series of television cartoons and the beginning of the third The Transformers; The Movie combined elements and plot derived from the cartoon show whilst adding whole new exposition to help form the groundwork for the third season whilst also creating a stand-alone screenplay you didn’t need to be a fan of the ‘Formers to follow.
But it isn’t just the simple bridging of the television and Hollywood by way of robbing the honey-pot of canon and charging more for the premium seats that makes the original The Transformers; The Movie better than any recent or future robot-related release.
1: Manga Inspired Over The Top Nonsense
The recent Michael Bay cash cow of toy selling CGI and Shia LaBeouf has divided fans and new-comers in equal measure; some dislike the over the top reliance on special effects and exploding scenery that clutters up the screen and makes it difficult to understand whose thumping what. Others cite the lack of plot beyond ‘basically ID4 but with robot-aliens’ as reason to brow-beat the Bay ‘Bots. Whilst others feel the Transformers have been turned into an advert for the awesomeness of the ‘Murican car industry.
Toei Animation’s 1986 animated film release The Transformers: The Movie stuck more rigidly to the styling and characteristics of the cartoon series, with Bumblebee still being a VW Beetle and the human protagonists screen time being kept to an absolute minimum in favour of showing the audience what they actually paid good money to see – ie; the god-damn robots in mother-fuckin’ disguise.
Whereas Hollywood relies on a Megan Fox to keep the grown-up element of the audience distracted from the good versus evil trope Toei’s release simply amped up the death and destruction and outright slaughter of mechanical men on screen instead, throwing in the occasional swear-word or two for when things really start to go tits-upwards.
Heavily influenced by its original Japanese style The Transformers; The Movie is more Fist Of The North Star than it is Finding Nemo, and with the current shift in animated kids television adopting a more Eastern approach to its themes and style it holds up considerably well when viewed today. Explosions are huge and the peril is large, and with a plot that involves defeating not just the regular main-stay of aggressors from the cartoon series but a whole slew of new Decepticon characters -as well as trying to stop the unceasing onslaught of a giant galaxy traversing planet eating robot-planet named Unicron – it certainly makes the modern day re-imaginings of a second-hand Indiana Jones treasure hunt seem quite limp and lacking indeed.
Because there’s only one thing kids love more than toys that do stuff and then become other things that do stuff, and that’s dinosaurs. Bugger your guns-n-guts grimacing of ‘Murican army men, Bay; it’s Grimlock we want and when his dumb-assery makes its appearance along with the other Dinobots it’s as if Toei is admitting to having actually took the time to understand who the audience for their film was. Like a celebration of all things children consider important the inclusion of the Dinobots cemented the film into the televisions canon and time-line, drew the two much closer together despite the plot being bat-shit insane and far from the usual family friendly fare shown on the Saturday morning cartoon shows, and made you realise just how big a fight the Autobots were facing if they were bringing out ‘the big guns’ almost straight away.
Only on-screen briefly and kept well in the background thereafter, the Dinobots appearance signal how in tune the script-writers were with the ‘Bots and the boys and girls who adored them, and also served as a subtle metaphor and important life-lesson for the wide-eyed dribble-chins; all the power in the known universe means nothing if ‘X’ is how you spell your name and your mono-syllabic rumblings probably are the reason your friends never invite you to join their pub-quiz team.
Beyond such subtleties, though, there is also the small matter that…
3: You Can Actually Understand What’s Happening On-Screen
As pretty and cutting edge as the Bay blockbusters undoubtedly are the fight scenes on-screen are of a-nothing compared to the fight off-screen in the struggle between my eyes and brain to understand what the hell is actually going on. Meccano falls like shiny piles of Jenga blocks in what I’m assured is the battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, and I’m not entirely convinced the scene wasn’t Hollywood’s first foray into Magic-Eye Cinema that has since been discontinued and sold to the Russians as an ecological food supplement.
CGI and computer animation has been pushed to the point where we are now so deep in the Uncanny Valley we’re looking at adverts for Soylent Green and rubbing our tummies in hungry anticipation, but much like the tub of many coloured plasticine you stumble upon when clearing out the detritus of your toy-cupboard it and all the bits have been mushed together to form a homogenized lump of impenetrable brownness, the promise of what could have been compared to the reality of what is turns out to be a disappointing and confusing mess of shiny pixels and exploding backdrops that merge seamlessly and inseparably together.
The traditional animation of the original release still holds the trump card in clarity and simple understanding of what’s breaking who or what happened to Megatron, and even though there are nods to some state-of-the-art-back-in-the-day futuristic Tron-like computer made moments they are only ever used to piece one bit to the next rather than make up an entire scene. Speed lines and over-the-top expressions and reactions gild the lily far more than another handful of one’s and zeroes’ strung together and bedecking the bits of the film Megan Fox isn’t bending over in; the action is easy to follow and understand as it belts along at a billion miles an hour, and there is absolutely no sign of faux screen wobble when a jet zips by and is tracked by the camera’s eye.
4: They Kill Optimus Prime 25 Minutes Into The Film!
So you’re less than half an hour in with popcorn in your lap, your jaw hanging loose and exposing the half masticated yellow puffs of corn rammed in there during the original films opening credits, and right out of nowhere ‘BOOM!’ they kill off Optimus.
The significance of this is one scene to a generation of kids is comparable to the shooting of Kennedy to another, the birthing of Jar-Jar into the ‘Wars universe to yet more. But unlike Jar-Jar nobody was actively hoping to see Prime bite the big one and stop getting drawn by the animators, and certainly not so soon into the film.
Up until this point in the film Unicron had hoovered up a planet of other, less transformer-y robots during the film’s opening, Megatron had put a laser bullet between the eyes of an Autobot at point blank range, and the human element in the film had done the decent thing by keeping its number down to two and having one of them kidnapped after about five minutes of being introduced. So to witness the leader and unspoken King of the Autobots rip open his half-dead chest and effectively perform the removal part of his own heart transplant in a bizarre version of Pass The Parcel as a child and fan of the series like the act of sacrificing a virgin over a stack of Bibles with Horst-Wessel-Lied blasting out a jail-broken iPhone. And to then have the balls to kill off his (somewhat weaker written, more ‘80’s cool’ and arguably unlikeable) successor Rodimus Prime later on would be like putting the death of Obi-Wan and the chopping off of Luke’s hand into the one film.
And whilst the death of Jazz in the 2007 Bay butchering certainly underlined the classic trope that ‘anything can and probably will now happen’ – coming, as it does, towards the films close wherein all the stakes are raised for the climactic end and everybody’s wearing a Megan Fox ‘aim it here’ expression on their face- the mark it left with some was more to do with the latent racism they found it to represent more so than an iconic character being killed off .
5: Stan Bush’s song “The Touch”
Originally written for the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra The Transformers; The Movie theme song is everything you could want in an iconic and classic piece of musical scoring. The lift, the drop, the synth and swells; you can almost smell the mullet of power-rock and dry ice as The Touch pans in across the audio whenever the sound effects aren’t making with the bang-bang noises. Thirty years have seen tastes change within what passes muster musically, but for better or worse power ballads and eighties excess have been making a resurgence like a tsunami of hair-spray and split-ends, so at least there’s a chance for the ears of todays youth to become enchanted by the uplifting empowerment of a classic crotch-rocker.
The 2007 Transformers soundtrack uses themes rather than songs, the Autobots and Decepticons having motifs attributed to them instead; the good guys get wisdom and compassion sounding scores, the bad guys some fairly typical chanty electronic NiN’s-alike. Composed by Steve Jablonsky and his mentor Hans Zimmer, the soundtrack is right up there for quality and overall enjoyment of the sound coming out the speakers, and you can’t fault it for creating the right mood and atmosphere with what’s happening on screen. But once it’s heard it’s immediately forgotten and for all the good things about the soundtrack there’s nothing on there as memorable or timeless or perfectly fitting as The Touch.
Go on; treat yourself to a second viewing…