A cartoon? Seriously?
On first inspection, #32 might seem ridiculous, but when we’re talking about movies that had an impact on me (especially as a child), this one sits alongside any other, because in many ways, it truly is ‘More than Meets the Eye’.
#32. Transformers: The Movie (1986) Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Orson Welles. Directed by Nelson Shin.
“Optimus Prime is dead…
His eyes flickered out. His body turned grey.
Those were the thoughts running through my seven-year-old head as I sat watching Transformers: The Movie for the very first time.
They. Just. Killed. Optimus Prime.
I couldn’t believe it. It felt as though it were a dream or one of those old Star Trek reruns where Bones or Scotty would ‘die’, only to return unharmed at the end of the episode through some kind of formulaic ‘reset switch’.
But it was real.
Now, to properly understand my (over)reaction at seeing a cartoon robot snuffed out by his arch-nemesis, we need to back up a couple of years. The early eighties garnered a new age of children’s entertainment: the animated toy tie-in show. Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., Thundercats, My Little Pony and later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all of these now-classic shows came about due to their toy lines. Many people thought at the time, “Oh, they’ve made toys from that show?”
They made a show… to sell the toys.
Transformers as a franchise was (and probably still is) the best advocate of this marketing strategy. In 1984, a set of unique Japanese action figures now being marketed to America (and the rest of the Western world) was released alongside an exhilarating cartoon series that immediately captured the imagination of millions of kids, me included.
So of course, when the theatrically-released movie came out, I was as excited as any other fan to watch the characters I loved from the TV show turn up in their very first big screen adventure.
And they did. Sort of. More on that in a minute.
Firstly, from a technical standpoint, this film is beautiful to look at. The opening scene, in which we witness the destructive end of a planet inhabited by another race of sentient robots, is delivered with amazing detail and an eerie foreboding of what’s to come.
The animation is superb. A far cry from the often-sloppy, error-filled graphics of the TV show. The sharp images and incredible colours help highlight the film’s remarkable action, including a variety of complex transformations that seamlessly transition the characters between their various alt-modes.
What mostly went unnoticed as a kid isn’t lost on me these days, and as a standard 2-D film, I can’t think of many better when it comes to the straight-up quality of its animation.
This movie wasn’t afraid to raise its stakes, either, daring to do so several times. The filmmakers obviously rallied behind a mantra of ‘go big or go home’, jump-starting the film by leaping forward in time to the far-off year of 2005.
The Decepticons have upped their game since we last saw them, managing to conquer the Transformer home world of Cybertron, which in turn now sees the Autobots as a rebel faction of sorts. It’s the first of many obvious ‘homages’ to Star Wars that continue pretty much throughout the whole film.
It’s a terrific opening to a movie that instantly captured my young attention, causing me to eagerly anticipate what might happen next.
But nobody was prepared for what actually happened.
One by one, most of the TV show’s prominent characters, its prominent heroic characters, were taken out. And not just taken out, but killed.
All around me, parents went into crisis-mode:
“Don’t worry, it’ll be okay…”
“They’re the good guys. They’ll be fine…”
“Everything will be all right, you’ll see…”
And then this happened…
Many kids lost their minds. Some threw tantrums. Others just cried. Me? I just sat there, stunned…
You have to remember, we were used to the cartoon show. Yes, Megatron and his minions were always evil, but they were incompetent and sometimes, downright bumbling. They were never a serious threat. The good guys were never in any real peril, and certainly, no one ever died.
After all… they got shot all the time on the show, and they were back the following week, all patched up and ready for more.
Not this time. Now the threat was real. Megatron and his goons weren’t playing anymore. The concept that the Autobots and Decepticons were actually at war hit home. The stakes had been raised, everything immediately seemed so much more adult, and all of a sudden, no one was safe.
After the shock of that shuttle scene, the movie takes a quick beat to introduce a brand new character in Hot Rod, but before you can say, ‘child-psychiatrist appointment’ the heartbreak ramps up once again. A barrage of action promptly follows, again brilliantly presented with stunning images, giving the viewer little time to mourn for those lost.
Tension is not a word often associated with ‘kids’ movies, but Transformers employs it alongside the best of them. The hellacious battle of Autobot City goes from bad-to-worse for our heroes, some of whom perish off-screen. The fact that a fan-favourite and mainstay of the TV show like Wheeljack buys the farm without even a death scene, goes to show the callous nature of this conflict (or the toy executives – you be the judge).
Everything at this point had set the stage perfectly for the arrival of Optimus Prime, and for him to save the day by embarking on (what we soon learned would be) his last stand. No matter how many times I hear, “Megatron must be stopped. No matter the cost…” I still feel that little pang of anguish, knowing that Prime is charging into battle for the last time.
In a bittersweet scene, we get to see exactly why both Prime and Megatron are held in a class of their own. Considering this was the last time the long-term rivals would ever face off, it’s nice to see the filmmakers made their final battle their very best.
Unfortunately, just as everything looked like it was going to be okay, tragedy struck.
No, not even Optimus Prime, every child’s greatest hero, was safe from the onslaught; quickly falling in battle and dying in a deathbed scene that made sure you understood he was really dead.
The villains weren’t spared from this personnel overhaul, either. Which, okay… side note: the movie does have this odd little lesson ingrained within its story. It seems as though if you’re good and true and willing to fight to protect all those you love, you end up a charcoal corpse like Optimus Prime. But, if you make a Faustian deal with the robotic Devil, you might not only survive, but end up even more powerful than ever!
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, as I’ve alluded to, Megatron and a bunch of his battered brethren were upgraded (or transformed, if you will) into a variety of new action figures… whoops, sorry… characters, and in conjunction with a host of equally-as-new Autobot faces, the story moved on faster than a small child could wipe away his tears.
I’d never seen anything like it. Wile E. Coyote never ate the Roadrunner, Inspector Gadget always escaped Dr. Claw’s death traps, and Skeletor never killed anyone, least of all, He-Man. How could this happen?
Looking back as an adult, I realise the whole idea behind replacing old characters with new ones was as straight forward as clearing out an old product line to make way for new toys. But Transformers took this company mandate and turned it into a clever storytelling device.
And even as a child, despite everything, I loved it.
Even now, as I approach 40, I still hold Transformers: The Movie close to my heart. Sure, it’s due to a combination of nostalgia and pleasant childhood memories (no, really), but on its merits as a movie, this film holds up.
I spoke before of how the movie lifts its game and goes to another level, and the soundtrack is no different. Littered with hard-rock anthems, the music of Transformers is fantastic. In this world, there are a handful of songs I’d go to war to, and two of them are in this film. Dare and the movie’s signature theme, The Touch, remain awe-inspiring to this very day. As we said on our podcast, Stan Bush really is our spirit animal.
As the movie continues, we’re treated to outlandish scene after outlandish scene. Meeting the crazed Junkions, the absurd Quintesson trials, and my favourite – the Universal Greeting.
Although, make no mistake, Transformers saves its biggest ‘set piece’ for the finale, as evil-incarnate, Unicron, reveals he too is a Transformer of sorts in a sequence that blew my mind as a kid.
More terrific action and wonderful character moments combine (even better than Devastator) in a rip-roaring climax. Everything culminates with the aforementioned Hot Rod, opening the Matrix of Leadership, vanquishing Galvatron and Unicron to light the Autobots’ darkest hour and ascend to his new role of Rodimus Prime.
Now, I understand that the character of Hot Rod is perhaps the most divisive one in all of Transformers canon. Many blame him for Prime’s death. Others see him as a non-worthy successor to the Autobot throne, while many, many more just weren’t comfortable seeing a new Prime (a space Winnebago at that) issuing that famous line, “Autobots, roll out…”
Sorry, but I’m not one of them. I love Hot Rod. His rise through the ranks came as a complete shock to me as a seven-year-old, and him claiming the Matrix when others had failed just made everything we’d endured in the last heartbreaking hour, worthwhile.
Is Rodimus as wonderful as Optimus? Of course not. But as a self-contained character in really his only true appearance, Hot Rod’s tale still makes me smile. Especially his ‘Obi-Wan’ moment, as he’s seemingly ordained by the spirit of Optimus, himself.
The rest of the voice cast is also outstanding. Nowadays, in the reign of Pixar and its animated legacy, having well-known actors playing animated characters is nothing new. But in 1986, Transformers: The Movie went all out on its voice talent to join the already-legendary skills of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, whose immeasurable impact on Transformers lore will never be equalled.
The authoritative voice of Robert Stack gives life to the new (for a time) Autobot leader in Ultra Magnus, Monty Python’s Eric Idle fills the harebrained, TV-addled Wreck-Gar with the perfect amount of insane lunacy, Lionel Stander makes us feel as though we’ve known war-veteran, Kup, for years, and who else do you get to play a monstrous, insatiably-hungry planet other than Orson Welles?
Think about that. Orson Welles, the man behind Citizen Kane, appeared in Transformers: The Movie.
However, the most incredible voice performance belongs to Leonard Nimoy, who effortlessly sheds his Mr. Spock persona to play Megatron’s new form of Galvatron with the perfect mix of danger, intellect and vindictiveness.
This movie stands out to me for a multitude of reasons, but one of them is that it finally gave its young fans several moments that were only ever teased on the TV show. Two of these revolve around everyone’s favourite weasel, Starscream.
On the show, Starscream was forever plotting and scheming to wrestle power away from Megatron. Well, in Transformers: The Movie, he finally does just that. Starscream pulls the trigger and jettisons his leader into space, literally taking the crown (and leadership of the Decepticons) for himself.
For about eleven seconds.
Megatron’s return as the infinitely more powerful Galvatron gives us another often-teased Transformers moment, in which the rightful Decepticon leader finally has enough and dispatches his would-be usurper.
Again, like Prime’s death, watching Starscream finally get what was always coming to him in yet another beautifully animated sequence only reinforces my love of this film, no matter how much I mourn my favourite grey-and-red F-15.
In a final summary, all I can say is, I love this movie. It does what its modern-day, big-budget, Michael Bay-directed cousins could not, and gave its fans what is often considered to be the true highlight of the entire franchise.
Unlike Bay’s messy films, this one remembers that the Transformers are indeed the stars, and aren’t just there to support the human characters, a lot of whom are mostly worthless.
It’s a shame there was never a sequel. Season Three of the TV show came soon after this movie, yet that’s where the wheels began to fall off. Without many of the original characters that made Transformers popular in the first place, the show’s following began to wane. The fans just didn’t gravitate to the new characters as well as the originals, and after a feverish letter campaign by many upset and no doubt beleaguered parents, Optimus Prime was eventually brought back. The backlash from Prime’s death even forced a change in the original ending of the G.I. Joe movie a year later.
These days, I still watch this movie several times a year, and will continue to do so for many years to come. With wonderful characters, a great voice cast, mesmerising action, gorgeous animation and a killer soundtrack, Transformers: The Movie will remain a favourite for a long, long time.
Or… ‘till all are one…
Rating: 4 out of 5 angry letters.
Favourite Moment: Prime’s last stand.
Honourable Mention: “Here’s a hint…”
Next week: #31 – “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K…”