Tentacle-Free Anime: "Transformers: The Movie" (1986) Review
It's been a crazy week. On one hand I got to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Transformers: The Movie along with everyone else, which was great. On the other I lost one of my cats of 15 years which has been very difficult to struggle with. I didn't let that stop me in getting you the entertainment you so deserve, however. In honor of its 30th Anniversary, I've teamed up with one of my best friends, and fellow Trash Mutant, ReuBen DeBord, to discuss Transformers: The Movie. Roll out!
Kazekun: We watched this in honor of the 30th Anniversary, which by the time this discussion goes up would be a week ago. It's not ideal, but we're only fashionably late at best. So that's not too bad.
Going into this Reub, were you a fan of Transformers and had you seen this movie before? I'm a big Transformers fan, and I've seen this movie quite a few times, actually. But this is probably the first time I've watched it critically.
K: Quickly commenting on the Bay films, I thought the first film was just okay as well. And the second film completely turned me off of the series. I saw a bit of the third, but there was just nothing there of substance so I won't be returning to that series. I must admit, I too am one of those people who called it the bee's knees, the cat's meow, the Matrix of Leadership of Transformers stories. I still think it's pretty good - spoiler alert! - but I noticed quite a few interesting things about this film I had never noticed before. So what did you think of it, man?
R: I, uh, hated it. A lot. Not to step on your toes, but it's a really stupid film. But not stupid in the same way that the Bay films are stupid. It's a different realm of stupid.
K: I definitely don't think it's a stupid film, but it's definitely geared way towards marketing a fast-paced transition from one generation of toys to the next. How is it stupid for you?
R: You are not wrong, this movie, much like the cartoon, exists to sell toys. There's even a few plot points in this movie that I am 99 percent sure are only here so that they can create new toys. For me, a film absolutely has to have characters with real motivations and some semblance of a plot. And I just didn't get the feeling that either of those things were in this movie.
I can at least respect some movies that I don't care for or just aren't for me as long as they have those things. But like you said, this is actually an hour and 18 minute commercial for toys, and less of a narrative. If I was in the target audience for the toys, then I might have really loved this movie, but I missed that boat by about 18 years or so.
K: What are some scenes that stuck out to you as terrible? One scene I wasn't too keen on was when Ultra Magnus was brutally killed and instead of just leaving it there, the other Autobots rebuilt him good as new and that kind of cheapens Optimus Prime's death right there. Simply because I didn't understand how they couldn't have done that for Optimus earlier in the film but, for Magnus it's all just simple science.
R: Oh, well, I can explain that. Poor old Optimus Prime didn't have Nipple-Guns to help rebuild him. Ultra Magnus was only spared because of the magic touch of Nipple-Guns.
K: Hahaha! I honestly forgot about those damn things. Nope, you're exactly right. And honestly I think Optimus is better off for it; imagine having to tell your friends that you were brought back to life by Nipple-Guns. Not an enticing story. I also noticed this movie was VERY fast-paced. There was SO much that happened in this film and everything was constantly moving. There were maybe a few seconds-long slow scenes. Holy cow this movie just moves moves moves.
Oh, and some of your problems with this film can probably be explained by this bit of info I had once heard: the entire story was laid out in a single night of brainstorming, which is simply insane... If true, that is.
R: I am not sure what to believe about this movie. Flint Dille wrote a screenplay called "The Secret Of Cybertron" which he claims the finished product here actually used a few of his concepts. But then Ron Friedman, the credited screen writer, claims he never laid eyes on the Secret of Cybertron screenplay, and he says that Hasbro asked him to write a script, they saw it and said it was too intellectual, so he dumbed it down, and that's the movie we got.
As far as your comment that this movie is too fast, I agree, it is very fast paced, but at the same time, hardly anything of note really happens. The plot is as follows: 20 years after the events of the first 2 seasons, the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is still going on. Meanwhile, this big robot planet called Unicron transforms Megatron into Galvatron. Why? To sell more toys. Unicron wants the core of Autobot leadership destroyed, because it's the only thing that can stop him. The Autobots then go and destroy Unicron. They fight some Decepticons along the way, they meet some British robots (of whom Nipple-Guns is one), they meet some floating head things, but overall, there's very little actual story. Most of this movie is fight scenes that are, like you said, very kinetic and hardly give you time to digest what you've just seen.
K: The thing that sticks out the most to me in all of that is that it's 20 years after the first two seasons? Is that really true? Sadly I haven't seen as much of those original seasons, but I didn't imagine they led into this movie very well. But 20 years? That's pretty insane for any story franchise with a film taking place between TV seasons. I had heard about the Secret of Cybertron screenplay, where it was said that Primus and Unicron are brothers. If they had gone that route I would've loved to have seen Cybertron itself transform into a planet sized robot to slug it out with Unicron.
Most of what I enjoy about this film is based off of the excitement I get about certain scenes as a fan of the franchise. And I understand that. But I give it credit for being ballsy in a lot of its story decisions, especially when Hasbro knew a lot of kids would be coming to watch this film. There are two audible swear words in the film as well as many, many gruesome robot deaths. And many of those deaths belonged to beloved fan favorites.
R: Yeah, the original series was contemporary, but this movie inexplicably takes place in the far future of 2005, and Spike, the kid from the series, is now an adult with an annoying kid of his own. And yeah, there are swears, but they feel forced to me. Like a teenager who is trying to be edgy. As for the deaths, they didn't really impact me at all. Not even Optimus' death. Mostly because, like I said earlier, these characters don't have much depth. Optimus is "stern leader guy," Kup is "cranky old man." Megatron is even less developed in both of his forms, and is just "evil." So when Optimus dies, it doesn't elicit any emotion from me because he's a cardboard cut out. And I doubt that I'd have a different reaction if I had watched the 40 something episodes that precede this movie, because I can't imagine the series is executed much better.
K: No it's really not. Then again, this generation of Transformers isn't what introduced me to the franchise growing up. Like you, it was Beast Wars which is my personal favorite era. There isn't much thinking going on in the film, and admittedly the movie ends on an odd note. It kind of just ends. But I found Unicron to be a really interesting villain, even if he is more of a Galactus figure without much depth. Maybe it's the idea of him I like more. You're also right about most of the characters being bland in their personalities due to just existing, instead of really getting character arcs. However I would argue that Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime has the most interesting character arc in the story. It could've used A LOT of work, don't get me wrong, but I found it interesting that not only was he sort of the cause of Optimus' death by trying to help him, but also he ends up being the chosen successor. I find all of that interesting.
R: I think you just hit the nail on the head about why this movie is so frustrating. It has some excellent ideas, but the execution just isn't there. Giant planet that is actually a robot? AWESOME! Optimus Prime dies, and the Autobots are at their lowest point they've been in thousands of years? Yes, sign me up! But none of it works on screen. Like you said, Unicron is Galactus with less motivation. Galactus works for me because he's hungry and he has to eat. We have no idea why Unicron does what he does in this movie. At all. He's barely even in the movie, which, again, is a sign of a missed opportunity. Ron Friedman talked about how he wanted to introduce a bad guy that would force the Decepticons and the Autobots to work together. Which sounds amazing. Except they don't really work together all that much in this movie. The end even suggests that the war is now over, though I imagine that proved to not be true when season 3 of the series happened. We get an incredible opening scene of Unicron destroying some robot world, and then it's another half hour before his story intersects with the Autobots and the Decepticons and their war.
K: I really wanna know the full story of what went on behind the scenes of this movie. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the recent Suicide Squad movie. Full of good ideas, almost none of which are executed in a great way. Both relying on fanboy power to get them through the box office. And honestly, they both worked on me in that regard. Because I think their both fun. But they're also both big messes when looked upon critically. I like this film for its novelty as a lifelong fan and impressing me with some of the surprising moves they made for a series marketed towards kids.
Also the visuals are pretty stellar. Say what you will about the story, but I find this movie to be really flashy in a good visual way. My eyes were on fire with how good this movie looks the entire way through. Some of Transformers may not look great at some points, but overall the big set pieces looked GREAT.
R: Yeah, I agree. I already mentioned the opening scene, but it is maybe one of my favorite things about this movie. One thing that puzzles me about this movie is the cast. This movie has an AMAZING cast. You had me at Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy, but we've also got Robert Stack, Judd Nelson, Casey Kasem, Scatman Crothers. Someone really put a lot of effort into this movie, trying to get some star power, but also stars who can actually act. I just wish they had put as much effort into the story itself.
K: I believe this is one of Orson Welles' final acting jobs as well, which is really sad. He made an amazing Unicron. Something you said earlier actually ties into this pretty well, in that execs at Hasbro told Friedman that his script was too intellectual. Given this line-up of star power, do you imagine they all read the original, smarter draft, and signed up for that? Instead of what we ended up getting?
R: It may be cynical of me to say this, but I believe they came in and read what we heard and they got paid for it. I doubt anyone involved in this, except maybe Transformers alums like Peter Cullin and Frank Welker, really cared much about the movie.
K: You're... probably not wrong. So I think we've both come to the conclusion that, while you're not a fan of the movie as a whole, and I'm still a big fan but for fanboy reasons, we both agree that after 30 years this movie doesn't really hold up. I would have us talk about the soundtrack, but I think you'd agree that not only is it just all over the place, but a barrage of rock and pop songs with no real flow just adds to the idea that this movie wasn't given much intellectual thought. Which is just a shame.
However, that rock anthem version of the Transformers theme song is pretty sick, even if the lyrics are corny as hell.
Do you think this will keep you from ever watching anything Transformers in the future? And do you imagine this film is better than the Michael Bay ones or worse?
R: Oh, Kazekun, if I had a dollar for every stupid 1980s crowd-pleasing "lyrics describe the plot" song in this movie, I'd have 10,000 dollars. No, this hasn't put me off Transformers, I don't think. I am a big fan of the comics that have been coming out from IDW since 2006. Those comics even incorporate a lot of the ideas from the animated series and this movie, but they make them actually work. If anyone is like me and you watched this movie and came away wanting, I'd recommend the Simon Furman Transformers stuff from IDW, just for a start. And maybe Transformers: War Within, volume 1, which is a great character study of Optimus Prime when he first becomes Prime. But skip volume 2 because it's crap.
As for a comparison to the Bay films, I think they're are problematic because they're not really about the Transformers, but are instead about whatever 1 dimensional humans he inserts into the story. But it doesn't even feel like those humans are actually important, because they get replaced and rotated in and out from movie to movie. Shia LaBeouf is only in 3 of the movies, Megan Fox is only in 2, then you get Mark Wahlberg. It feels like they're not actual characters, but are instead just vehicles to move the generic plot forward.
K: I guess you could say they're the real Transformers. Heh.
You've definitely read more of the Transformers comics than I have. At least of the IDW stuff. I've read some of the Marvel era, but it's not all very good. I'm super glad to hear you're enjoying them, though. I have the Transformers: Beast Wars Omnibus of the 2006 and 2007 IDW series. It focuses more on the characters of the Japan-only Beast Wars-era characters. It's oddly convoluted, so I wouldn't wholly recommend it unless you just wanna read a story with those characters. I completely agree with you on the Bay films. For essentially being "love letters" to this franchise, I feel Bay completely lost sight of what makes these characters and this franchise so great to those who enjoy it so much. At the very least, I feel this film right here acts more like a love letter to the series than any of those did. It may not be intellectually bright, but it feels more like a Transformers story and focuses more primarily on the Transformers themselves, which is precisely how I prefer it. The less humans in a Transformer story the better, in my opinion.
R: Yeah, I absolutely agree on that. I think this movie was going in the right direction by shifting the focus toward the Transformers, but it maybe could have done a better job of it than what it did. So Kaze, did you have any final thoughts on this movie? I don't think I had anything else insightful to add myself.
K: At the end of the day, if someone who is a Transformers fan wants to sit down to watch this movie and hasn't already, they totally should. Also, this isn't a bad introduction to the bots themselves if you're showing your kid, there's enough action to keep them entertained. And to be honest its as safe a story as any to introduce your kid to death. I would have loved for this movie to be more intellectual and that was very much a mistake on Hasbro's part. A movie quite like this perhaps probably couldn't be made today as an animated feature. That's probably why we have the Bay films.
I would still recommend it as a fan and on a popcorn level. But if you're an adult watching this movie, it may be really hard to watch through rose tinted glasses and not see the mistakes. In which there are many. I hope that doesn't turn people away from the movie or the franchise, especially after it's endured for 30 years now.
Ultimately, I liked this movie. Here's to 30 more years. Maybe in that time we'll get a really good Transformers film that takes some of the ideas originally presented here and utilizes them in a way that not only makes sense, but makes us think and makes us feel all at the same time. I would love that.
R: Yeah, I could get behind that, too. I've heard some good things about some of the later animated series' of the last 10 years or so, but I haven't watched any of those myself. I would more or less agree that if you're wanting to indulge in some nostalgia or introduce your kid to Transformers, this is the piece to do it with. But maybe play the game of "what could we have done to make this movie better" with your young one after the credits are done.
K: I can agree with that. Definitely. So ReuB, what's your score for this film? I give it 3 Robots in Disguise out of 5. For nostalgic reasons, mostly.
R: Oh, out of 5? I'd have to say maybe 1.5. The animation is really good at times, and I like some of the ideas. The high highfalutin concepts that Friedman was trying to get across may sound pretentious, but they work a lot better in premise than they do in execution, but that still saves this movie a little bit.
Kazekun's Final Score: 3 Robots in Disguise out of 5
ReuBen's Final Score: 1.5 Good Animation out of 5
Happy Anniversary! Here's to another 30 years!
Are you a fan of the classic Transformers movie? Or is a dumb toy advert? let us know your thoughts in the comments!