The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

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"I'll rip out your optics!"
“I’ll rip out your optics!”

Twitter Plot Summary: The Transformers encounter their biggest threat ever – Unicron, a giant planet-eating Transformer. And he’s heading for Cybertron…

Genre: Animation/Action/Adventure/Family/Sci-Fi

Director: Nelson Shin

Key Cast: Norman Alden, Jack Angel, Michael Bell, Gregg Berger, Susan Blu, Arthur Burghardt, Corey Burton, Roger C Carmel, Victor Caroli, Regis Cordic, Scatman Crothers, Peter Cullen, Bud Davis, Paul Eiding, Ed Gilbert, Dan Gilvezan, Eric Idle, Buster Jones, Stan Jones, Casey Kasem, Chris Latta, David Mendenhall, Don Messick, John Moschitta Jr, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Hal Rayle, Clive Revill, Neil Ross, Robert Stack. Lionel Stander, Frank Welker, Orson Welles.

Five Point Summary:

1. Attack on the shuttle and Autobot City, lots of old toys bumped off there…
2. The final battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron. Goosebumps mode: enabled.
3. Prime turns grey and dies. Sad moment for all fans. At the time anyway.
4. The Quintessons and Wheelie are introduced. That’s Season 3’s narrative set up then.
5. Unicron attacks Cybertron, Hot Rod realises his potential. The narrative circle is complete.

I’m already biased from the start as far as this movie is concerned, as it’s one of my all time favourite films. It’s no masterpiece of cinema to be sure, but I was a massive Transformers fan when I was younger and I watched my VHS copy over and over again, to the point where the tape doesn’t work particularly well any more and the cover is horribly ripped. Just to give some indication as to how much I treasure this film, I own it on every format except for Blu-Ray (yes, I even have the UMD version for the Sony PSP), and the only reason I don’t have the Blu-Ray yet is because it’s been deleted. One day though. One day…

Transformers The Movie spun out from the 1984 cartoon about shape-changing robots from an alien planet that, in the midst of an ongoing civil war, go searching for new energy sources and end up crashing on Earth millions of years in our past. They’re awoken in the mid-80s and assume that vehicles are the dominant life on the planet. Thus, they scan a number of said vehicles and use them as their alternate modes in order to blend in with the local populace. The cartoon then established two seasons of episodic adventures as the warring factions of the Autobots and Decepticons continued their mission of seizing energy to support their fight. Whilst some humans are happy to align themselves with one side or the other, the majority are scared of these alien invaders and the show was as much about the Autobots proving they weren’t there to enslave humanity as it was about big transforming robots fighting each other. The movie takes place after Season 2 of the show and jumps forward 20 years to the year 2005. By 2005 the Autobots have managed to get the Decepticons away from Earth and have established a base there, cunningly named Autobot City. Meanwhile the Decepticons have reclaimed Cybertron and the Autobots maintain bases on two of Cybertron’s moons.

That's another season 1 toy for the scrapheap.
That’s another season 1 toy for the scrapheap.

Into this mix we get Unicron, a gas giant-sized Transformer who eats other planets. He just so happens to be heading towards Cybertron and this epic sized threat goes some way to make the film stand out from its TV cartoon origins. Within this epically sized epic story is the journey of Hot Rod, a “turbo revvin’ young punk” who goes on a journey of responsibility. It also marks a tonal change for the TV series as Season 3 kicks off shortly after the end of the movie and becomes a full-blown space opera. Narratively the series also moved away from episodic storytelling and into a continuous story. The episodic narrative was still there to an extent, but more effort was taken to depict characterisation and their development over time. In fact this movie acts as a starting point for many of the storylines featured in Season 3 – the Quintessons and their bid to retake control of Cybertron, the ongoing efforts of Unicron to take over the galaxy, Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime struggling with the responsibilities of power, and the resurrection of Optimus Prime.

Yes, that whole chestnut. Again related to the need to sell more toys, Hasbro decided to kill off many of the older characters and introduced a number of new ones. And by “kill off” I do actually mean that, literally. It’s not that graphic, after all they’re transforming robots, but a number of characters (many of them fan favourites) are indiscriminately bumped off including the previous central pairing of Optimus Prime and Megatron. Thankfully unlike some other characters (sorry, Wheeljack) Prime and Megatron get a final showdown that does the characters justice. Despite being a few months shy of hitting my 30s at the time of writing, Prime’s assault on the near-victorious Decepticons in Autobot City still gives me goosebumps to this day.

On the subject of Prime’s death, as audiences reacted so badly to it they re-wrote a similar scene in GI Joe The Movie which originally saw Duke being killed. The animation remains the same however the dialogue was changed to him being in a coma. Much less emotionally engaging than the originally planned death, but it at least meant the fans didn’t burst into tears over it. Unfortunately because TFTM didn’t perform too well at the cinema Hasbro pulled GI Joe The Movie from a cinema run and released it direct to video.

Because production on the movie was occurring at the same time as production of Season 2, a lot of new characters introduced in the TV show at that time don’t appear in the film. Imagine the possibilities – in the movie we get Devastator, a gestalt giant robot made up from 5/6 individuals, in this case the Constructicons. Several other gestalts were introduced in Season 2 which would have had potential to set up some excellent alternate stories for the movie, or even possible sequel films which obviously never happened. As a cynical ploy to sell more toys, the film does its job admirably. A mixture of old and new characters are presented, yet it doesn’t feel like the new characters are there arbitrarily. It’s assumed that the audience watching the film will know who the original series characters are, and gives just enough time to establish the new bunch. Depending on which version of the film you have, you may also have an extra bit of exposition at the start as a Star Wars-esque scroll fills in the history and why Unicron is such a menace.

Let this be a lesson: don't mess with the Transformers!
Let this be a lesson: don’t mess with the Transformers!

It’s also amazing how the producers managed to get so many high profile voice actors to play a part – other than the regular cartoon voice actors who all return, there’s also the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Judd Nelson, Eric Idle and Orson Welles. Transformers isn’t exactly Shakespeare is it? Sadly the celebrity voices didn’t return for Season 3 of the cartoon, but then that shouldn’t have been expected back in 1986. Today it might be a different story.

Unfortunately the movie is responsible for giving us Wheelie, the most irritating Transformers character ever created. Talking in rhyme and serving no real purpose, Wheelie is a bane of the Transformers universe and somehow he went on to be a regular character in not only Season 3 of the cartoon but also the first season of Headmasters in Japan. If there is one change I would make, it’s to get rid of him. Thankfully I can forget about Wheelie when I listen to the soundtrack – it’s one of my favourites that I can listen to separately to the movie, a mixture of hair metal, Stan Bush and Vince DiCola’s synth keyboard score.

So there are animation flubs all over the place (keep an eye on the number of Dinobots in a few scenes), the story has been done before and it borrows a lot of tropes from other, larger science fiction properties, but it’s a cult classic and a testament of how you adapt a cartoon for the big screen. It has been a favourite of mine since a young age and despite its many flaws it will always have a special place in my film collection.

Favourite scene: Optimus Prime taking out all of the Decepticons attacking Autobot City. Single handed. Now that’s leadership.

Quote: “Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost.” and “For a time I considered sparing your wretched little planet of Cybertron. But now you must witness… it’s DISMEMBERMENT!”

Silly Moment: The Dinobots attacking Unicron and Grimlock, attacking the buttock area of Unicron, says “Me Grimlock kick butt.”

Score: 3/5

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