The arrival of the fourth movie in Michael Bay’s Transformers series, subtitled Age of Extinction, brings attention to the fact that the last three decades (September 17 of this year will be the 30th anniversary of when the very first Transformers television episode aired) have brought us multiple animated series’, one animated movie, and four live action movies built around the simple goal of having giant robots beat the holy hell out of each other. Selling toys is, of course, still the real incentive though. Even diversions into Beast Wars still carried through with those hard-set goals. There’s really not much to it, and yet here we are 30 years later as this premise continues to be milked for all its (relative) worth.
I, like many men born after 1980, certainly harbor some level of nostalgia for the Transformers, so I figured that as Bay’s latest installment in the long running franchise is upon us I would revisit the first of the robot films. No, not the first Bayformers from 2007, but the animated film made in 1986 during a height in the franchise’s popularity. Revisiting Transformers The Movie is a curious experience, one that almost definitely requires the viewer to hold dear to those nostalgic memories as they venture back.
In many ways, despite unflattering comparisons to the cartoon from fans, Bay’s Transformers movies aren’t so different from this one. The same criticisms lobbied at his iteration of the ‘robots in disguise,’ from incoherent plotting to mind-numbing action and paper thin/annoying characters, can be found here as well, so looking at this movie is all about how it filters through your perspective. On the one hand, it shows much nostalgia plays into your enjoyment of the movie. On the other hand, a reasonably short running time and actually being able to distinguish which robot is which during the action does make a difference.
Those may seem like small points, but after about an hour and a half of non-stop beat-downs, a few distinguishing factors go a long way. There is a ton of characters old and new, though as many fans know the old characters get the raw end of the deal here. This is a merciless movie that takes out the majority of the original cast within the first half. Optimus Prime and Starscream’s deaths are the most famous, but Ratchet, Ironhide, and others also bite the dust pretty quickly. Despite the naked motivation to kill these characters in order to focus on new toys in the merchandise line, seeing Optimus’ life slowly go out as his comrades watch still carries a charge of emotional resonance.
Since these rather heavy scenes (especially for a kids movie) are all packed into the beginning on Earth, this leaves the newly introduced characters to pull their weight for the remainder, to rather mixed results. The most memorable is the main villain Unicron, a planet-sized Transformer that devours worlds and provides Orson Welles with his last film role before his death. I’m sure Welles, the innovative director behind Citizen Kane who evolved the very language of film, didn’t expect his final contribution to be that of a giant planet-eating cartoon robot.
Some of the new Autobots make impressions, from the fast talking Blurr to the sole female robot Arcee, although many of them fade into the expansive cast. With the enormous amount of characters on display, it’s hard for the newcomers to leave their mark. The movie tries to compensate for this by hiring big name actors such as Judd Nelson (Hot Rod), Robert Stack (Ultra Magnus), and Eric Idle (Wreck-Gar) to provide the voices. Leonard Nimoy (who would later voice Sentinel Prime in Bay’s Dark of the Moon) comes out on top as Galvatron, who is basically just Megatron with a voice change and new paint job, but even these seasoned vets are overshadowed by fan-favorite Dinobot Grimlock.
All this isn’t to say that Transformers The Movie is without its pleasures. The soundtrack more than fills out the movie’s quota of fun 80s cheese, from Lion’s cover of the catchy Transformers theme song to Stan Bush’s cornball rock anthem “The Touch.” And for those looking for plenty of robot-pounding-robot action, at least until it has worn down the viewer by the third act, will get what they’re looking for. However, like many other pieces of pop culture from our youth, the movie works at its best for those walking in with their nostalgia filter on. Anyone not all that familiar with Transformers should only seek it out as a curiosity, or just remember that Toy Story perfected the plastic-toys-with-souls story.