“You’re at your best when the going gets rough, you’ve been put to the test but it’s never enough. You’ve got the touch. You’ve got the power.”
– Stan Bush
On August 8, 1986, The Transformers: The Movie — the first big screen adaptation of Hasbro’s insanely popular toy line — hit theaters. Due to factors ranging from bad word of mouth spawned by the surprising death of Optimus Prime in the flick (I would have put a spoiler alert here, but c’mon son, the film was released three decades ago) to it being lost in an already-crowded summer lineup that also included Short Circuit, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Labyrinth, Big Trouble in Little China, The Karate Kid: Part II, Aliens, Howard the Duck, Stand By Me, Flight of the Navigator, and The Fly, Transformers underperformed at the box office and actually wound up losing money.
Any discussion of Transformers‘ initial failure has been replaced with reverent appreciation. You see, these days it isn’t viewed as a crass commercial tie-in designed to introduce the 1986 line of Transformers toys — a point that screenwriter Flint Dille makes clear was the movie’s main missions in the documentary Til’ All Are One featured on the new release — but rather as a milestone in animation history. While this writer thinks there is a good deal of hyperbole in that mindset, it is somewhat difficult to argue with given just how beautiful the film still looks today (especially when viewed in the Blu-ray’s 4K restoration).
So the question being asked here is a simple one: Is The Transformers: The Movie worthy of a rewatch for those who aren’t biased by warm nostalgia for the franchise? The answer is a resounding yes.
Lovers of the ever-raging war between the Autobots and the Decepticons are clearly the target audience here, but what is most striking 30 years later is just how much the film stands on its own as an enjoyable animated sci-fi romp. Opening with a beautifully realized opening sequence in which Galactus surrogate (originality isn’t one of the movie’s strengths) Unicron devours a planet of robots, children included, Transformersgets things underway in the grimmest manner possible — telling the audience that their money has been well-spent, because they are in for a ride full of death and destruction unlike anything seen on TV series.
In terms of animated bleakness, the film isn’t as disturbing as, say, Raymond Briggs’ nuclear war tale When the Wind Blows,yet there is a kind of perverse glee to be taken in just how many characters in this film meet their end. Even though the robotic deaths were clearly dictated by commerce, they work on a dramatic level in a way that advances the story almost as much as it drives sales of Rodimus Prime toys. (Or maybe not, that character was always problematic, even with the white hot charisma of Judd Nelson voicing him).
It always sounds glib when someone compares Optimus Prime’s demise to that of Bambi’s mother, but to Gen Xers this is a more than apt correlation to be made. If a seemingly unstoppable hero like Optimus can have his lifeforce snuffed so quickly, what chance do any of us have? It’s a pretty existential subtext to include in an 85-minute toy ad.
There is also a casual weirdness of the film that nearly elevates the movie into a Fantastic Planet-esque stratosphere of what the fuckery. Just check out the sequence with the Quintessons. Although the characters were eventually given an elaborate backstory (several conflicting ones, actually) in the TV show and comics, here they are nothing more than a genuinely disquieting design whose bureaucratically driven malice feels like something ripped out of The Prisoner — in turn giving the film an element of sophistication and maturity.
Elsewhere in Oddsville are some of the choices for the celebrity voice casting. Judd Nelson and Leonard Nimoy make sense as children were aware of who these actors were due to The Breakfast Club and Star Trek‘s stranglehold of the pop culture zeitgeist during the time of the film’s production. The same can’t be said of Orson Welles, Lionel Stander, Robert Stack, and, arguably, Eric Idle (although the cool kids knew who he was). Logic dictates that the hiring of these high-profile actors was done to throw reluctant parents forced to drag their kids to a fighting cartoon robot movie a bone, but that didn’t stop many an 1980s child for wondering who Orson Welles was, and why it was such a big deal he was in this.
As for those Transformers fans who insist on claiming that this is Welles’ finest role, well, that’s stupid, stop it.
There is adventure here. This is excitement. There is death. There is hope. And Rule 34 states that there is probably more to this flick as well, but I’m not judging you. Okay, I probably am. Perverts.
The ultimate message of Transformers can be found in Stan Bush’s cheesy epic “The Touch,” basically that inside ourselves we possess the strength to overcome obstacles in our path. It’s hardly an original insight, and watching Bush over-emphasize the merits of the song in the Blu-ray special features (note to Shout! Factory: Why isn’t the music video on your release?) is nearly as enjoyable as watching Dirk Diggler cover it. Still, its a kind of mantra for a generation who learned that if ridiculous cartoon robots can put aside their differences, then maybe, just maybe, they can make the world a better place too. Judging by current headlines, they failed miserably, but it’s still a nice thought.
If only Michael Bay’s subsequent Transformers flicks were this much goofy fun.
Chris Cummins still wishes there was a Jem/G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover TV event. You can find more of his manchild musings on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.