The following contains spoilers for Transformers: The Movie. Just thought we should mention it.
The shadow of death hung like a black curtain over Transformers: The Movie. Thanks to an edict handed down by the powers that be at Hasbro, pretty much every toy in the original Transformers 1984 line was wiped out in the course of the film’s events; and by the time the noble Autobot leader Optimus Prime died at the hands of Megatron towards the end of the first act, a generation of youngsters were scarred for life.
In retrospect, Hasbro’s cold business decision – to wipe out one generation of toys in order to replace them with new ones – resulted in a far more effective movie. As well as a feature-length toy commercial, Transformers: The Movie wound up being a story about death, transfiguration, guilt and redemption. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young and reckless Autobot – Hot Rod, voiced by ’80s rising star Judd Nelson – growing into the role of a heroic leader. Transformers: The Movie is also completely bonkers.
The plot’s catalyst is Unicron: a colossal, globular machine Welles which is capable of devouring entire planets. As the constant war between Autobots and Decepticons reaches what appears to be its final chapter, Unicron (voiced by Orson ) floats towards Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet. Far from uniting the two factions against a common enemy, Unicron’s arrival hastens a new struggle: control of the Autobots’ Matrix of Leadership, the sole object capable of destroying the planet-eating machine. Megatron, damaged and magically transformed into Galvatron, resolves to seize the Matrix and use it to control his new master, Unicron; meanwhile, the Autobots, under the uncertain leadership of Ultra Magnus following the death of Prime, are set on using the Matrix to save Cybertron from destruction.
That’s the plot in skeletal outline, anyway. What it leaves out are the odd story and art touches that Transformers: The Movie‘s writers and animators place around the main narrative; it’s as though Hasbro, once it was satisfied that the film would involve killing lots of Transformers and introduce new ones, simply left the filmmakers to their own devices.
Take the opening sequence, for example: we see Unicron’s outline, floating ominously through space. It’s a cool design, like the Death Star crossed with some kind of rotund insect. But then we’re taken inside Unicron and shown its inner workings, which aren’t so much mechanical as something from an acid flashback: there are glowing orbs, pulsing synapses and flowing rivers of lava-like ooze. We’re then given a demonstration of Unicron’s planet-guzzling power, as it munches through a mechanical world that is essentially identical to Cybertron, except this place isn’t populated by expensive and fragile toys.
In apocalyptic detail, we see the world’s population of anonymous robots sucked, screaming into Unicron’s maw, its energy tearing apart buildings, its giant teeth tearing everything apart. That’s already strong stuff for a children’s film, but then we’re taken back inside Unicron again, where we’re shown in equally graphic terms how the machine grinds matter down – including sentient robots – and converts it into energy. Much later in the movie, we’ll be shown that there’s a part of Unicron devoted to melting robots in a giant vat of acid. The inside of Unicron is like a futuristic rendering of Dante’s Inferno.
Although aimed primarily at an American audience, Transformers: The Movie was, like the TV series which began in 1984, largely animated by Toei in Japan. Director Nelson Shin led a team of hundreds of artists on the feature-length production, hurriedly turning out some 61,000 cels while the studio carried on making the TV series at the same time. This means there are certain individual shots in Transformers: The Movie where the quality of the rendering takes a bit of a stumble: flat, two-dimensional shots of an Autobot here, a sparsely-painted background there. But there are lots of other sequences where Toei’s artists have let their imaginations run riot: the surreal interior of Unicron we’ve just been banging on about; a stolen (presumably Quintesson) ship that looks like a giant corkscrew; a background painting of Junk Planet, which looks like something rendered by German artist Max Ernst.
Now remastered in a new 4K transfer in time for its 30th anniversary, the vibrancy of the original hand-drawn artwork shimmers more brightly than ever; lines are sharper, colors pop, background details lost to decades of murky prints or VHS editions are finally visible. Years before Japanese anime got a proper cult following in the west, Transformers: The Movie provided an early taste of the country’s technical verve.
That Transformers: The Movie is a great bit of anime isn’t so surprising when you look at Toei Animation’s track record in the ’70s and ’80s. Aside from producing contract work Hasbro, it also animated such shows as Devilman, Mazinger Z, UFO Robo Grendizer, Getter Robo, Fist Of The North Star, and Dragon Ball. But thanks to the story ideas thrown in by writers Flint Dille and Ron Friedman, Toei got to flex its creative muscle on all kinds of eccentric characters.
Indeed, Transformers‘ second half seems to have been conceived purely so that everyone involved could take the story in weird directions. Hot Rod and granddad robot Kup (voiced by Lionel Stander) wind up on a planet where a five-faced despot, leader of the Quintessons, holds meaningless trials in which prisoners are executed whether they’re innocent or guilty. In a startlingly macabre touch, Kranix, the sole survivor of the planet devoured in the opening reel, is eaten alive by hungry Sharkticons.
The rest of the surviving Autobots, meanwhile, wind up on Junk Planet, populated by a race of scavenger robots called Junkions, who chatter in a language entirely made up from overheard commercial jingles from TV broadcasts (their leader’s Wreck-Gar, voiced by Eric Idle, of all people). In the final act, as Autobots and Junkions unite to save Cybertron, Unicron reveals his alternate form: a colossal humanoid who looks like a cross between a samurai warrior and the Devil.
Put all of this together, and you have a movie that is far richer and more individual than most kids’ fare of the era. Transformers: The Movie is extraordinarily dark in places – in the case of poor old Kranix, eaten by Sharkticons, or the robots melted by acid in Unicron’s belly, excessively so – but it’s also far funnier and surreal than you might expect from such a commercial film.
Transformers: The Movie may be remembered for Prime’s death and Stan Bush’s head-banging anthem, “The Touch,” but it’s full of quirky ideas that were placed there simply because its writers and artists felt like throwing them in. It’s those quirks, almost as much as a generation’s nostalgia for the robots in disguise, that have seen the 1986 movie endure over the past 30 years. Full of color and rich with detail, is a sublime time capsule from a decade of excess.