So over the last 2 days I’ve trudged through the enjoyable yet flawed Transformers live action movie and it’s sequel Revenge Of The Fallen, a film by which all bad films are now judged against. Today we’re going back in time like Marty McFly to 1986 with the animated Transformers The Movie. If you were born in the early 80s chances are you’ve watched this film some 200 times over. Chances are if you have kids you’ve made them watch it. Why? Because it’s fecking awesome that’s why!
Now I’ll admit I’m probably not the most objective person to review this film. Pretty much my entire childhood was built around Transformers and this movie. I rented the hell out of this from the local video store as a child and I own 5 different copies of this across VHS and DVD, no Blu Ray version unfortunately. Watching it this evening was like playing back an extremely vivid memory of a good time past. Every line of dialogue, every musical cue and every single frame of animation is burned into my mind. If ever technology exists to enable us to project our thoughts I will be able to play this movie from start to finish. It is probably my most watched film of all time, up there with favorites like Ghostbusters and Robocop as pieces of cinema I will likely never tire of. That sad, I will try my best to be objective here.
One of the major issues with the Micheal Bay films is that they zip along with little direction, with little sense of pacing and the majority of the films audio is spent with characters saying stuff that doesn’t matter. To add to that there’s the worlds unfunniest humour and some of the most borderline offensive racial stereotyping to be seen in a modern film. Usually, barring the racial stereotypes, these are the sort of criticisms you could heap on a lot of the bad children’s animated films that plague all our childhoods. The straight to video sequels (Care Bears 2 and Ferngully 2 spring to mind), the films made purely to sell toys and the lazy copycat non-Disney features that would crop up all the time during the 80s. Transformers The Movie is cut from a different silk. Yes it is there to sell the kids new toys, a fact made all the more obvious by how quickly the old toy lines are killed off during the first act, but there’s an actual plot and a pacing that never lets up for a second.
Within the first 25 minutes we have seen a planet get eaten by another planet, around 20 Autobots and Decepticons killed, some quite violently, a final confrontation between Optimus Prime and Megatron and we’ve heard at least 3 awesome rock songs that will never leave our heads. This film does not waste time with pot brownie eating parents, dogs humping, dads moaning about their lawn or anything that will remotely slow down the story from moving along. The film starts with a bang and from then on it’s a series of action pack explosions of awesome leading up to one extremely large scale finale.
The plot goes like this. There’s a planet sized Transformer out there called Unicron (Orson Welles I shit you not) that is a literal devourer of worlds, The Decepticons have made their big strike against the Autobots that has resulted in many casualties on both sides. Amongst them Optimus Prime has died from injuries sustained in a battle with Megatron and has passed on the Matrix Of Leadership (A device housed in his chest of immense power said to one day “Light their darkest hour” to Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack). Megatron meanwhile, along with a few other Decepticons, has been dumped into space by the treacherous Starscream. Megatron is soon picked up by Unicron and given a new body in the form of Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy) and a new army. Under orders to kill Ultra Magnus and destroy the Matrix Galvatron sets out to kick some Autobot arse. It’s pretty simple stuff and the film makes little attempt to get bogged down with too many subplots. Literally every 5-10 minutes there is an action scene, each different enough from the last to avoid any boredom.
The Autobots get split into two groups one of which ends on the planet Junkion where they are tracked down by not only the Decepticons but the planets inhabitants, the tv quote talking Junkions themselves. Meanwhile Hot Rod, a headstrong young Autobot who’s the true hero character of the film, Kup and the Dinobots end up on Quintesson. A planet inhabited by ravenous shark and crocodile transforming robots ruled by a communist parallel in the form of, unsurprisingly, The Quintessons. They’re actually a pretty interesting villain at this point of the film. Robotic creatures with four faces and multiple tentacles they sit on high as judges holding deadly show trials on anyone that stumbles onto the planet. Anyone who finds their way into these trials are guilty until proven innocent and even then they are guilty. The punishment being a swift drop into a pool of Sharkticons to be eaten alive. Pretty harsh.
The animation in this film, for the time, is pretty stunning. There’s so many sequences that most animators would not approach without some form of CGI modeling these days and it’s impressive to see sequences of complex, for animation, camera movements all drawn out frame by frame. The design is also of note. Many of the newer Transformers are clearly heavily influenced by the art of French futurist artist Moebius featuring curved edges to their steel and and a slightly more human frame. Arcee especially looks like she’s been pulled from Jean Giraud’s mind. Obviously being animated by Studio Toho it’s also full of very Japanese elements too but that’s a given for Transformers. There’s also a nice little visual nod to Star Wars where Hot Rod is sword fighting with a training bot using a familiar looking laser sword. This is made at least a little bit cooler when you consider that the film is directed by Nelson Shin who is the guy that animated the lightsabres in the Star Wars movies.
There is the feeling that most of the all star cast of actors have no idea what they’re saying for most of the film but they get on with it and no-one phones it in. It’s a bit of a shame that all the G1 voice actors practically vanish after the first act but, as said before, the purpose is to sell new toys and hasbro wanted some big name voices for those toys. Apparently Orson Welles died before finishing his recordings for this film and rumour has it Leonard Nimoy finished his lines off. You can’t tell though. I’ve certainly never spotted a difference in Unicron’s voice at any point in the film. Another note when it comes to the dialogue is that there’s an endless stream of quotables. Head up to any Transformers fan and challenge them to a fight with the words “One shall stand, one shall fall” and they’ll probably just high five you.
Musically the film is amazing. it is pure 80s through and through. I complained last week at how one song managed to date Legend Of The Guardians. That was because a film about owls really shouldn’t be dated to a specific time. Here we have a sci-fi space action film about the quintessential 80s toy line. There is no way this couldn’t be a product of the 80s. Every piece of music is either a pounding synth track from the mind of the under-rated Vince DiCola or a rocking piece of classic rock or metal. Even the Transformers theme tune get’s a metal makeover by Lion, damn good version of the theme it is too. And, of course, there’s The Touch. A song by Stan Bush that’s nearly as famous as the actual toy line itself. It’s featured in various tv shows and movies over the years from Chuck to Boogie Nights and probably accounts for 90% of Stan Bush’s gross income.
possibly the greatest song ever to be called The Touch.
If there’s anything to really fault this film on it’s how little time is spent on the characters. Normally I’d call this a crime but this is a film about giant robots wrecking stuff. At least here all the main characters have clear personalities and some sort of role to play. they may not learn much in the way of life lessons but they all get a chance to do something, usually involving explosions. They also all get plenty of screen time and aren’t just there to roll around while human character run between their feet. Another fault is that there is no emotional investment for anyone who wasn’t already a fan of The Transformers, specifically the G1 range. I doubt any parent unfamiliar with the series would have been cut up by Optimus Primes death in the first 30 minutes. I was when I was 6 though. Taught me that your heroes can die that’s for sure.
Speaking of heroes dying… Is it me or is it a little odd that all the old Autobots get outright killed off but the Decepticons are, barring Starscream, just mangled up and reconstituted into new forms. maybe they’re saying that while heroes may come and go evil will, once defeated, just find a new cause to wage war under. I’m probably reading into that too much.
Overall I reckon I could watch this film at least 20 more times before I’m the slightest bit bored of it. It’s so fast paced, action packed and damn enjoyable that I think it should be considered an actual classic. Yeah it hasn’t got much in the way of subtlety or nuance but what giant robot film outside of anything related to Neon Genesis Evagelion is. Anyone not raised on Transformers might be lost but if they have any love of the 80s they’ll get some sort of enjoyment out of it. The film is so unashamedly honest about what it is but at the same time it makes sure you’re entertained and honestly, the idea of a giant planet that eats other planets may well be one of the most terrifying doomsday scenarios ever dreamed up. right, now I’m ready for Dark Of The Moon.