The Transformers: The Movie

Let’s see if I have this right.  The Decepticons, the villainous robots that can also pass for weapons, planes, audio equipment and insects, are settler-colonists who conquer their sworn enemies, the Autobots, the good robots who can also pass for cars, trucks, audio equipment and dinosaurs.

While the Decepticons occupy the Autobots on their home planet, secret plans for an eventual uprising take place on one of their two moons.  Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons who can also pass for a gun, sends a loyal surveillance spy (really a smaller, robotic bird that can transform into a tape recorder) to record their resistance plans.  This allows the Decepticons to sneak attack an Autobots shuttle in mid-flight in space and overtake it as it heads towards a secret base on a different planet as they hope to kill more Autobots.

In this scenario, the Decepticons are like Zionists, robot supremacists with a false sense of entitlement towards land that doesn’t belong to them, and the Autobots are like Palestinians, victims of an illegal occupation who resist being conquered and eliminated.

That’s a pretty provocative set-up for an animated kids movie.

But The Transformers: The Movie isn’t interested in politics.  All it cares about is action.  Lots of it.  Oh, and, because it’s an 80s movie, it has an unhealthy love for glam metal.  As two sets of transforming robots (I will always love that sound effect) attempt to obliterate each other on numerous planets, moons and in outer space for almost 90 minutes, there’s rarely a moment when some overwrought metal singer isn’t trying to hog the spotlight with “inspirational” lyrics.

Only one song really stands out.  The Touch, the cheesetastic anthem later improved upon by a surprisingly game Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. (How fitting that he ended up replacing Shia LaBeouf in the live-action Transformers series.)  It’s ridiculous but the original is also undeniably catchy, a true guilty pleasure.

Actually, there’s two, now that I think about it.  Because the Scotti Brothers were responsible for releasing the soundtrack, there’s “Weird” Al Yankovic, their most successful signing, paying homage to Devo in Dare To Be Stupid during a sequence set on a planet made entirely of spare robot parts.  Like some of the instrumental rock tracks here, it seems oddly out of place (it’s not exactly an ideal fight song), that is until an impromptu robot dance party breaks out.  Are the filmmakers admiting defeat?  Are they acknowledging they made a bad film?

Wait, I’m forgetting the title track, a revved-up metal pop version of the theme song from the original TV series (which began two years before this movie).  Performed by Lion (was Whitesnake unavailable?), we get a short version with minimum lyrics during the start of the opening titles and then a more fleshed out take during the end credits.  It’s so over the top (the singer is trying so hard to sell this shit) but the arrangement is unfortunately far from exciting.  The opening drum break is a little too similar to We’re Not Gonna Take It so it never gets off to a strong start.

Far from exciting is how I would also describe the animated action sequences that make up the bulk of The Transformers: The Movie (yes, that is its official title).  We just don’t care.  Although we can tell the difference between the two groups, there are too many characters to keep track of.  And because the film is dedicated to showcasing constant war at almost every turn, there’s very little time to develop their personalities in distinctly interesting ways, though admittedly there are modest, mostly unamusing efforts in that regard.  (Curiously, the live action Michael Bay films have the same problem even though the running times average a punishing two and a half hours.)

The Transformers: The Movie features some surprisingly famous voices.  A sometimes stiff Judd Nelson is Hot Rod, the Autobot who is close to a young boy, the son of a scientist who works with the occupied robots on one of their home planet moons.  (They’re the only human characters in the film.)  Robert Stack is fine as Ultra Magnus, another Autobot given an important responsibility.  Casey Kasem has a small, thankless role as an Autobot named Cliffjumper.  Ditto Scatman Crothers who voices Jazz, a robot Uhura.  Eric Idle is annoying as the awkwardly named Wreck-Gar, a Mexican-looking transformer that lives on that planet of junk and does nothing but quote TV, mostly commercial and newscast clichés.

In the film’s first scene, we meet Unicron.  (Nope, that’s not a typo.)  Believe it or not, this planet-sized transformer with an insatiable appetite (he’s a robot Death Star) is voiced by none other than Orson Welles which seems like a cruel joke.  (This was his last movie role.  He died before the film’s theatrical release.)  When Megatron loses a battle against the Autobots, the badly damaged Decepticon leader is summoned by Unicron who forces him to go on an inevitably doomed mission.  He wants him to retrieve this glowing ball of light known as the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a very misleading name as it turns out, and destroy it.

Too weak to continue on as Megatron (gotta love that name), Unicron transforms him into Galvatron who is suddenly voiced by…Leonard Nimoy?  (Not logical, Captain.)  When one of the Decepticons attempts to take over leadership duties in his absence, Galvatron swoops in during his swearing-in ceremony and, well, that’s the end of that attempted coup.

The Transformers: The Movie is probably best known for killing off a number of major characters including the most famous one from the original TV series.  It takes guts to knock off someone that important to your bottom line (remember, these were Hasbro toys originally) and it’s no wonder the decision was deeply unloved by fans.  (He was eventually resurrected Spock-like in the third and final season of the original TV show.)  Considering how he’s the best-voiced character in the film, it was clearly a mistake.  He’s irreplaceable.

Also surprising are the two curse words that pop up out of nowhere.  I never expected to hear “shit” from an Autobot.  And when Ultra Magnus tries to open the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, “damn” seems more than appropriate.  Funny how the Decepticons keep it clean.

Much has changed in the world of animation since the 1986 release of The Transformers: The Movie.  With the notable exception of anime, feature-length cartoons are now mostly three-dimensional computer-oriented ventures.  American studios, including Disney, have mostly abandoned 2D projects.

I have mixed feelings about this dramatic change.  Yes, the quality of the animation has greatly improved (more intricate details, more colourful), but the quality of the storytelling has greatly diminished.  The visuals of The Transformers: The Movie is by no means spectacular (it’s mostly average and unsuited for big screens) but the plot, while also not particularly good, at least has some ambition unlike recent dreck like The Secret Life Of Pets and Home.  There might not be much suspense (the film was meant as a bridge between the 2nd & 3rd seasons of the first TV series) but, gratuitous cartoon violence aside, at least it doesn’t pander.  The film isn’t stupid (well, except for that kangaroo robot court that bizarrely confuses “innocent” for “guilty”), just not interesting or deep.

If it had even more courage, better jokes and actual excitement, The Transformers: The Movie could’ve performed the ultimate transformation.  It could’ve been more than just an ad for Hasbro.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 16, 2017
3:33 p.m.

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Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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