TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986)
Director: Nelson Shin
I'm among the oldest members of what could loosely be defined as "Generation Y." And I could be a little biased, but the Gen Y'ers around my age had the coolest childhoods ever. The toys were cooler, the TV shows were cooler, the movies were cooler, and the cartoons were cooler. And thanks to Ronald Reagan, we were the first to see a new way products were marketed to kids. Prior to the '80s, the Federal Communications Commission strictly regulated how things were advertised to youngsters. But in 1984, the FCC decided to open the floodgates and do away with most of their restrictions. Thanks to this, toy manufacturers started making their own cartoons based on their products. Soon we were seeing cartoon versions of G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K., the Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, and countless others. And let's not forget one of the more memorable ones, the Transformers. The creation of Hasbro, the Transformers began as a series of action figures before transitioning to their own popular syndicated cartoon not long after the FCC dropped their restrictions. The cartoon even inspired a movie, appropriately titled The Transformers: The Movie. It was the second animated movie released in the summer of 1986 that was based on Hasbro toys, following My Little Pony: The Movie. Both underperformed so badly that Hasbro's yet-to-be-released G.I. Joe animated movie had its theatrical release cancelled and was sent direct to video. And although the Transformers movie was a critical and financial failure, long-time Transformers fans continue to hold it in high regard. I wasn't really into the Transformers when I was a kid, and I thusly have no sort of nostalgic feelings for it. So let's see if the movie holds up for an outsider looking in.
It is the distant year 2005, and the villainous Decepticons have conquered the Transformer homeworld, Cybertron. Forced to retreat to Cyberton's moons, the heroic Autobots aren't willing to take this sitting down, and make plans for an attack. They launch a supply shuttle to their base on Earth, but the Decepticons catch wind of this and launch a full-scale battle on Earth. The Autobots manage to rebel their enemies, but not before their commander, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), is mortally wounded by the Decepticon leader, Megatron (Frank Welker). Before he dies, Optimus Prime chooses Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) to succeed him as leader of the Autobots, bestowing upon him a powerful talisman known as the "Autobot Matrix of Leadership." With his dying words, he states that the Matrix of Leadership will shine a light when the Autobots are in their darkest hour.
Meanwhile, a fuel shortage in their spaceship prompts the fleeing Decepticons to lighten the load by throwing their wounded out the airlock, including the injured Megatron. As the remaining Decepticon lieutenants argue over who will be the new leader, the castoffs are left to drift through space. They ultimately encounter Unicron (Orson Welles), a planet-sized machine that consumes other planets for fuel. Unicron retrieves them and offers to rebuild them on the condition that they destroy the Matrix, the only thing that could possibly destroy him. Megatron reluctantly agrees, and is reborn as Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy). Galvatron's first order of business is to destroy his treacherous underling Starscream (Chris Latta), taking command of the Decepticons as he did when he was Megatron. He then finds Ultra Magnus and defeats him long enough to steal the Matrix. With Ultra Magnus out of commission, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) steps in to lead the Autobots on a mission to reclaim the Matrix, defeat Unicron, and take out the Decepticons once and for all.
If you don't eat, sleep, and breathe Transformers, you probably aren't going to like The Transformers: The Movie that much. In fact, I'll guarantee you won't. The whole thing is utter nonsense from start to finish, thanks to ugly animation and terrible writing. But I'd be stupid to expect anything more out of it. The movie was produced with the sole purpose of selling toys, so if Hasbro's stock went up after this, good for them. But since I've always been relatively indifferent to the Transformers, I can't really see why the movie is so beloved. Yeah, there are the stories of kids losing their minds because Optimus Prime died, but I couldn't get over how bad the movie is. Maybe it's one of those cases where I'd appreciate it more if I were a kid in 1986 instead of as an adult in 2009.
Let's start this critique with the animation, courtesy of Toei Animation. It might have worked for a Saturday morning TV show, but for a motion picture to be released theatrically, it sucks. It looks cheap, to be blunt. Half the time, I wasn't quite sure what was supposed to be going on, since the animation didn't strike me as being very detailed. The scaling is inconsistent as well, because some characters appear larger or smaller depending on what was needed for the shot. And let's not forget the handful of sequences where I would swear that the animators were just repeating a few of frames over and over in order to get the necessary shots. At least it was counterbalanced by the movie's awesome music. From the great synth-oriented score composed by Vince DiCola to the rockin' soundtrack, the music is nothing short of spectacular. Okay, I'll admit that twenty years of musical evolution have made the songs kinda cheesy in retrospect. But don't tell me you can't listen to Lion's version of the Transformers theme song or "The Touch" by Stan Bush and not get a little excited. And even though the use of Weird Al Yankovic's "Dare to Be Stupid" at one point seems really out of nowhere considering the rest of the songs, the music is totally awesome.
Unfortunately, Ron Friedman's script isn't so fantastic. It's actually the exact opposite of fantastic. The plot is insane and disjointed, the dialogue is forgettable, and it moves from one scene to another seemingly at random. There's pretty much zero character development, so unless you've seen every single episode of the cartoon, you're not going to know anything about anyone in the movie. And oddly, the movie actually has a pretty huge body count, while a lot of brand new Transformers appear for the very first time with barely an introduction. Turns out it's because Hasbro wanted to kill off as many of the original Transformers as they could so they could roll out their newest product line. Classic characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron don't even appear on the poster, because they've been replaced by all these new Transformers. Just as the show was a commercial for toys, the movie is a commercial for new toys. Maybe that's why Friedman's writing is so sloppy. Why bother coming up with anything substantial when all you're really supposed to do is make sure a bunch of new toys get face time while pushing the old ones out of the way?
Last on my list is the voice acting, done by a combination of big-time actors and the usual people from the TV show. The most talked-about member of the cast is Orson Welles, who died just five days after recording his dialogue. They supposedly had to run his voice through all kinds of computer filters to make it sound presentable, though you still get the feeling that Welles just didn't care at all. (And if I'd gone from making Citizen Kane to doing voice-over work as a planet-eating giant robot in an 84-minute toy commercial, I probably wouldn't care about too many things anymore.) The rest of the cast, though, aren't too bad. Among the famous names who contributed, the only negative part came from John Moschitta, who you may or may not remember as the fast-talking guy from the FedEx and Micro Machines commercials back in the '80s. The whole fast-taking thing is okay for commercials, but having him play a character that talks at super-speed every time he shows up is annoying. But as a whole, the celebrity voices which include Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Monty Python member Eric Idle, Casey Kasem, Judd Nelson, and Scatman Crothers in his final movie aren't bad, even if they're only really there to collect a paycheck. As for the usual Transformer voice actors, it's just business as usual for them. Among them, the only really memorable work comes from Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime. He's simply fantastic. Cullen makes Optimus Prime sound like the proud, inspiring hero he should be, and if there's one positive thing I can say about the Transformers property as a whole, it's that Cullen rules.
But honestly, I can't say that I'd recommend The Transformers: The Movie to anyone that isn't already a huge Transformers fan to begin with. If you aren't already a fan, I doubt this flick will convert you. I'm convinced that only the truly die-hard Transformers aficionados, the ones who absolutely cannot get enough of it, will love this movie. Me, on the other hand... I didn't care too much for it. I'm sorry, Transformers fans, but it just wasn't for me. There are some really cool parts, granted. But for me, those cool parts are ultimately few and far between. So while I'd give it a higher rating if I were a fan, I can't justify giving The Transformers: The Movie more than two stars on the Sutton Scale. I keep saying it, but if I were more into the franchise, I'd have probably been able to appreciate it more.
Final Rating: **