❉ For a big cartoon advert to sell toys, ‘Transformers: The Movie’ gets something crucially wrong – it makes it bloody amazing.
Optimus Prime’s death in ‘Transformers: The Movie’ (which may well be subtitled More Than Meets The Eye, or may not) is big. Really big. I mean, you might think the death of Bambi’s mother or Mufasa in ‘The Lion King’ was sad, but you hadn’t loved those characters over two series worth of episodic television first. They also didn’t perish in an epic on-screen fight with literally bits punched out of them, and get stabbed by a lightsaber. It’s so brutal, they legendarily changed lines in ‘GI Joe: The Movie’ (as in Action Force, UK side) to retcon a death in there after audience feedback (ie, wails and tears filling the theatre throughout the entire hour or so after that scene and long after that.) It’s so brutal, you can see the writers and the animators chickening out of Ultra Magnus’s death later in the film before any of that. Here was a likeable children’s cartoon character – albeit a robot – originally meant to be hung, drawn and quartered. Prime, when dying, passes the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus, promising it to his old friend. And old friend we have, of course, never seen before.
Yes, ‘Transformers: The Movie’ is designed to make kids stop caring about their 1985 toys and get excited about a whole new range. It’s a toy commercial. Kids get bored of toys. Kids want new toys. And that’s fine. But ‘Transformers: The Movie’ gets something crucially wrong about a cynical ninety minute advert. It makes it bloody amazing. It goes without saying that seeing Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle and Orson bloody Welles in the cast is enough to wow – what’s more, what needs to be said, is that they do a damn good job. Welles, at the time the size of a planet-munching super robot planet himself, and on his very last professional engagement, oozes evil, low, rumbling, a little pitch-shifted, thoroughly committed. Nimoy no doubt relished being a baddy, as Megatron’s reincarnation, Galvatron, after much Spocking of late. Judd Nelson and Lionel Stander as Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime, and Kup, make a wonderful buddy-cop double act. Yes, it’s about giant Transforming robots, and you are expected to know all the characters (including half a dozen you’ve never seen before, like Springer – “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die!”) so concessions for a new audience are a little sparse, but then… it works. It’s not an origin story. If you don’t understand something, work it out! Find out! We seem to have lost that today, ironically in an era where finding something out is as easy as it could possibly be… most of the time.
Welles, at the time the size of a planet-munching super robot planet himself, and on his very last professional engagement, oozes evil, low, rumbling, a little pitch-shifted, thoroughly committed.
Maybe it’s symptomatic of the times, but whereas the Transformers movies Michael Bay makes seem to be for idiots, this one never talks down to the audience, is thoroughly brutal, and has a surprising amount of wit, referencing ‘Of Mice and Men’ (“Tell Grimlock about Petro-Rabbits again!”) and Klaatu Barada Niktu becomes Baa Weep Grahna Weep Ninny Bong. They were funny in their own right when I was six. They still make me laugh now I get the references. That’s how you do layered writing that works for children and adults, take note. Not smearing the screen with Megan Fox’s arse one moment, a wanking joke, and then a racist hip hop racist robot the next, Michael Bay.
Accepting the usual conventions of science fiction where you draw the line over what makes sense and what doesn’t, this has an internal consistency, a beginning, a middle and an end, characters that have journeys, emotional resonance to crisis and death, and lots of other great things.
Yeah, there’s only one girl in the Movie (Female Autobots in Japan are called “Woman Cybertrons” by the way). This is a shame, and she’s very womanly-shaped and pink and white, despite the Man Robots never being especially anatomical, and sometimes she needs help shifting things, all of which you could do more with now. But they’re trying, which seems the important thing. Susan Blu seemed to love playing her, and believes more opportunities were opened up as a result. By the conventions of her fit in an adventure pitting good against evil, with a number of trials to logical conclusion (as opposed to a bunch of identical ugly shapes simply bashing each other with ugly camera work), she’s a welcome addition.
Even the awful Starscream shines – and then is destroyed thoroughly in that sort of Game of Thrones way that rewards you for putting up relentless punishment to your heroes by letting you really enjoy a baddie getting just desserts. Starscream was our Joffrey, and his death is still sweet today.
RC’s also a mother figure. Transformers has precisely two actual human characters, one a boy, one his dad – and his dad is offscreen for quite a while. Daniel is sympathetic, rounded and every bit as well acted as the rest of the cast; his dad, Spike (a teenager in the original series) able to do very little amongst the carnage, but between them, they’re still oodles better as human interest than the roll call of embarrassments Bay throws us. This film doesn’t need much in the way of human characters because the Transformers themselves are witty, emotional, clever, worth investing a bit of time and hope in. Even the awful Starscream, who most will remember from the animated series but is perfectly set up in the movie as a hugely irritating secondary villain, shines – and then is destroyed thoroughly in that sort of Game of Thrones way that rewards you for putting up relentless punishment to your heroes by letting you really enjoy a baddie getting just desserts. Starscream was our Joffrey, and his death is still sweet today.
And there’s the gorgeous Manga-y Japanese/US animation, full of detailed visual effects, light and shade, far beyond the standard cartoon series, from Unicron’s innards to the underwater sequence with the Quintessons (another childhood horror – sick five-headed tentacle judges in a kangaroo court). There’s Star Wars sound effects, and a truly magnificent score. Rock out to Instruments of Destruction as your favourite toys die. Transform and roll out, knowing you’re going to certain death, while You’ve Got The Touch in all its majesty blasts around you. Indeed, keeping an mp3 of You’ve Got The Touch on your smartphone, for difficult confrontations, might be how we solve anyone’s confidence issues.
Do you know what? For a big cartoon advert to sell toys, there’s nothing better. Now, you might be thinking, “Your bargaining posture is highly dubious.” So put something like that in a kid’s show today. Do it. Instead of saying “Kids don’t know what that sentence means,” put it in. And if the rest of what you’ve done is good enough, they’ll go looking. That’s why this cartoon advert is good.
The Blu Ray
It’s not cheap, and it comes in a lovely steelbook with cardboard backing. There are two discs; one with the widescreen feature, one 4:3. Showing the blu ray restoration in split screen with an old version does appear misleading – the DVD really isn’t anywhere near that bad upscaled, of course. The picture quality is largely excellent, with rich colours, although I was disappointed to see that in eliminating many picture faults (there’s a great restoration feature, which shows a lot of care, admittedly) there’s a fair amount of small dirt/sparkle dots, and the odd instance of faint scratches left unrepaired. Most won’t care, but it’s odd they were left.
I do miss the text crawl from my original VHS, which was present somewhere on the 20th anniversary DVD, but on neither version presented here. There’s the line “Shit, what are we gonna do now?” which was absent on the UK/text crawl version, which makes it even more adult, cool and exciting, of course. Featurettes include a new talking heads-dominated retrospective, the creation of the artwork for the cover, storyboards and trailers. There’s also a commentary with Nelson Shin, Flint Dille and Susan Blu, although the disc misses the fan commentary from the DVD, so ultimately you’re not going to want to get rid of the DVD if you’re a completist.
All in all that makes £23 for a companion piece to a DVD you might already have a little steep, and for a strong but not quite perfect restoration; but at the end of the day, I’d still recommend it, albeit look for the best price you can.
❉ FEATURE: 5 Darkest Hours of 5
❉ BLU RAY FEATURES: 3.5 Petro Rabbits
❉ ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray was released in the UK on 12 December 2016 by Manga Entertainment, RRP £22.99