Before Michael Bay decided to piss all over our nostalgic memories of The Transformers cartoon with his live-action monstrosities, there was a feature-length animated film that for all of its clunky animation and cheesy, dated soundtrack is better than the entirety of Bay’s series of movies. For those of us who grew up watching the cartoon every day after school in the early 1980s, the movie came as quite a shock. Most of us, at that early, impressionable age, were unprepared for the much darker tone and the increased level of violence, including some of the show’s most popular and beloved characters getting quickly killed off in the first few opening scenes. The Transformers: The Movie (1986) was a commercial and critical failure but went on to develop a strong cult following among fans.
It is 20 years into the future (making it, at the time, 2005!) and the war between the Autobots (a race of good transformable robots) and the Decepticons (their evil counterparts) continues to rage. The Decepticons have taken control of the transformers’ home world of Cybertron. The Autobots are planning to retake the planet but need to get more energy from Earth in order to do so. Unfortunately, the Decepticons learn of these plans and their leader Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker) intercepts the ship headed for Earth with the intention of launching a sneak attack on the Autobot’s base. Unbeknownst to the Autobots and the Decepticons, a planet-sized transformer named Unicron (Orson Welles) is devouring entire planets to feed its insatiable desire for energy. Only the Matrix of Leadership, housed in Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, can stop him.
The dark tone of the movie is set right from the prologue, which features Unicron mercilessly destroying an entire planet of transformers. No one is spared. We even see one escape pod almost make it before getting sucked into Unicron’s massive, gaping maw. For kids used to the relatively tame television series this sequence came as quite a surprise. This was nothing compared to what came next as soon afterwards the Decepticons ambush a ship carrying several Autobots that are quickly and casually killed off! It was one thing to see anonymous characters with nothing invested in them be destroyed but it was something else entirely to see characters we had grown to like on the series dispatched so suddenly and coldly. These deaths do raise the stakes considerably as if the filmmakers were making a statement that all bets are off with this movie – any character, no matter how beloved, is fair game.
Clearly the powers that be (i.e. the toy company) meant to clear the decks for a new generation a.k.a. a new line of toys for kids to buy but I think they underestimated just how profound an effect all these deaths would have on their audience. This culminated with the death of Optimus Prime – the most popular transformer. Not since Darth Vader cut down Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977) had the death of a heroic character been so traumatic for its fanbase. At least Prime got to go out in style with an epic one-on-one slugfest with his nemesis Megatron. For kids at the time, it was an emotional moment because we cared about Prime. His death scene, in particular, had gravitas and meant something to the fans of the show. This is something that the Bay movies never were able to replicate with their multi-million dollar budgets.
Another memorable aspect of the movie is the scope and scale. Where the T.V. show’s action was largely confined to Earth, the movie opens things up by introducing other worlds and races (even if they are all transformers). And so we are presented with the Planet of Junk, one of the more fascinating additions to The Transformers universe. It is inhabited by the Junkions and their leader Wreck-Gar who speaks in T.V. clichés mainly derived from advertisements. In an inspired bit of casting, he is voiced by Monty Python alumni Eric Idle. Their world is a metallic compost heap masquerading as a planet and rather fittingly their theme song is performed by none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This race of robots provides a much-needed moment of levity in what up to that point had been a very dark film.
The battles are also bigger and more intense as Unicron transforms into an enormous robot that attacks Cybertron but this almost pales in comparison to the intensity of the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron that left many fans shocked by its outcome. No one was prepared for what went down and the film never quite recovers from this moment. Speaking of gravitas, who better to play a transformer the size of a planet than Orson Welles, the brilliant filmmaker who made Citizen Kane (1941)? His digitally augmented voice has the dramatic weight befitting the scale and power of Unicron. The filmmakers needed a formidable actor to play a formidable character and they found their ideal candidate in Welles. This gig would be his last and he died five days after completing his work from a heart attack.
One of the things that dates The Transformers movie the most is its soundtrack of awesomely bad generic ‘80s hair metal, complete with the show’s cool theme song redone by Lion. Most memorably is Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” which went on to be hilariously immortalized in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). The one song that acts as a crazy counterpoint to this bloated arena rock is Weird Al Yankovic’s theme for the Junkions, “Dare to Be Stupid.” His goofy, non-sensical lyrics (anticipating Beck by a few years and actually goofing on Devo) are perfect for this absurdist, almost Dada-esque race of transformers.
After the first two seasons of the television show, toy company Hasbro wanted to eliminate many of the characters and introduce a new line. Season three would feature several new characters and the feature film would make that transition. Toy lines are discontinued for new ones and so the dilemma facing the screenwriters of the movie was how to make this transition seamlessly. According to story consultant Flint Dille, “So, we had this one scene where the Autobots basically had to run through a gauntlet of Decepticons. Which basically wiped out the entire ’84 product line in one massive charge of the light brigade. So whoever wasn’t discontinued, stumbled to the end.” The scene didn’t quite play out that way but over the first third of the film, several of seasons one and two characters were killed off. Not surprisingly, it was Hasbro that dictated the story of the film, “using characters that could best be merchandised for the movie. Only with that consideration could I have the freedom to change the storyline,” said director Nelson Shin in an interview.
The Transformers: The Movie’s pacing is fast and furious with never a dull moment – perfect for kids with short attention spans and actually works in its favor as any narrative fat is trimmed, packing a lot of action into its running time (again something the live-action films failed to realize with their bloated lengths). While I don’t know if the movie exactly lives up to its poster’s tag line, “Beyond good. Beyond evil. Beyond your wildest imagination.” It was a pretty mind-blowing experience for this impressionable youth back in the day. So, I come at this movie now with nostalgic baggage in tow, unable to really look at it objectively. I can only imagine what kids of today think of it now. Sadly, they probably don’t even know/care of its existence having been bombarded by the Michael Bay movies, which is too bad because they lack the imagination, the ambition (which are largely earthbound while the animated film takes place mostly in outer space) and the substance that makes The Transformers: The Movie by far superior. Plus, I’d take the likes of Stan Bush and Lion over the bland nu metal stylings of Linkin Park any day.