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SECOND LOOK: The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Written by Mark Russell

The Transformers franchise has turned thirty years old this year and is still going strong. Commonly considered one of the most beloved animated series of all time and an icon of the 80s, Transformers began with the classic “Generation One” television series that aired in 1984. But twenty years before Michael Bay created four bombastic, earache-inducing movies, the original series had its own film – 1986’s epic The Transformers: The Movie. Granted, the whole movie was, on paper, just a feature length advertisement of Hasbro’s new toys, but damn it was an awesome one. Transformers is a media franchise and thus it needs to promote its new products, and this great fun movie was the perfect way to go with the series. So let’s transform, roll out, and take a Second Look at the film.

The movie was directed by Nelson Shin (really named Shin Neunf-kyun) who has had a successful career as an animation director and president of Akom Production Co. Akom has produced and animated such series like The Simpsons, Batman: The Animated Series, and Transformers itself. The film has a very exciting space opera plot that takes a lot of inspiration from Star Wars, It is set to a kickass soundtrack composed by Vince DiCola, the animation is beautiful and well detailed in comparison to the limited budget of the cartoon, and the film takes on a more darker, adult tone with numerous characters getting killed or being heavily wounded. And to top it all off, you have legendary actor Orson Welles voicing the film’s bad guy Unicron, a giant transforming robot who deaths planets!

Let’s take a look at the plot – twenty years have past since the Autobots and Decepticons began their intergalactic war, and Megatron (Frank Welker) wants to end the battle with the massacre of Autobot City on Earth. A lot of characters from the cartoon are killed off, until the first act comes to a dramatic end with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Megatron having a final battle that ends with Megatron being crippled and Optimus dying, but not before passing the magical Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus. Meanwhile, Megatron is chucked into space by his lieutenant Starscream (Chris Latta) where he is found by Unicron, a giant planet-eating robot voiced by Orson Welles in his final role. Unicron reformats him into Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy) and sends him off to destroy the Matrix, which is the only thing in the universe that can destroy him. The surviving Autobots have to protect the Matrix and rally an army to defend the galaxy from Unicron.

The film has a large number of similarities to Star Wars. The basic story about saving the universe from a planet-sized death weapon and a hero rising to challenge evil. In this case we have Hot Rod (Judd Nelson), a Luke Skywalker-esque character who idolises Optimus, wants to do good, and is a talented mechanic. A lot of the characters fit into the traditional roles that Star Wars made – Arcee is Princess Leia (at least in the hair department), Springer is Han Solo, Ultra Magnus, Kup, and Optimus all share the Obi-Wan role, Galvatron is Darth Vader, and Unicron is the Death Star with a touch of Galactus thrown in. At one point, Megatron wields a lightsaber during his fight with Optimus. It’s not the first time that Transformers borrowed from Star Wars, using sound effects from the films in the series.

The film has a large cast of characters, most of whom are new and a lot of the old ones are either killed off or disappear save a select few. The new characters are quite likeable though most don’t really expand much in character. Arcee was not the first female Transformer made but was definitely the most iconic. Then, you’ve got Blurr, a speedy Autobot who speaks at a million miles per hour, and voiced by John Moschitta Jr. (also known as the narrator of the Micro Machine adverts).

Most of the film’s laughs come from the Dinobots, though the grouchy Kup gets a few good lines as well. But the characters who steal the show are Galvatron and Unicron. Galvatron makes a terrific badguy and Leonard Nimoy sounds like he had a blast voicing him. Galvatron would be voiced by Frank Welker in the series and would become a raving lunatic. Orson Welles as Unicron rocks, and even though it was his final performance and he cared little for the role, it might be one of his most memorable roles.

The film was animated by Toei Animation, with beautiful fluid motions and it is nice to see the Transformers express through their faces, since the budget of the show left a lot to be desired. There are some truly spectacular moments in the film, like when Megatron is transformed into Galvatron, and when Unicron transforms from killer planet to giant robot.

The film is surprisingly violent and action-filled. The Transformers are bashed about, blown apart and beat the hell out of each other. In one scene, Starscream has to shoot his own foot off to escape being crushed. Within the first half an hour, the most beloved Autobots have all been massacred, and Optimus Prime and Megatron are beating the scrap out of each other. There was also a small amount of swearing in the film too, but they have been cut from more recent re-releases (try saying that three times fast).

The death of Optimus Prime was a shocking event for the film’s target audience, so much that Hasbro had to order a rewrite for G.I. Joe: The Movie which averted the character Duke from dying, instead shoving him in a coma. At the end of the film, the show’s announcer declares Optimus Prime will return, which he did a short time later. Optimus dying would become a bit of a tradition in later Transformers series. As of 2014 and taking all continuities into account, Optimus has died over eighteen times.

Of course, while the fans had grown attached to the characters who are killed off, most outsiders would basically see it binning old toys and buying new ones. But Transformers is much more than that. The movie also serves as a way to expand the universe, introducing some new planets and characters like the Quintessons, face-changing cybernetic tentacle aliens who rule over a planet with Queen of Hearts-styled court rulings, and the Junk Planet where Eric Idle is king and everyone listens to Weird Al Yankovic songs. Good times.

Speaking of which, the musical soundtrack of this film is probably the best part of the whole thing. Vince DiCola composed the memorable themes of the film, and has become a popular celebrity in the fanbase. Among the highlights is the chilling but kickass theme for Unicron, the completely random but hilarious use of Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid” where the Autobots have a five second dance number, the tearjerking music during Optimus’ death, and of course, “The Touch”, a song that just screams awesomeness, written and sung by Stan Bush who has come back repeatedly to sing the song again in newer products like in Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. The song plays during Optimus and Megatron’s battle and again in the finale. The use of 80s hair metal is great and only helps make the film great to watch.

All in all, The Transformers the Movie is better than all four of the live action films combined, is definitely a nostalgia trip for those who grew up with it in the 80s, and while it may not go down in history as anything historically significant, it will still be a pretty awesome movie. What are you thoughts on the original

Transformers movie and television series? Is it superior to the live action films or is it rubbish? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

 

Dedication

Casey Kasem

This article is dedicated to the memory, talent, and legacy of Casey Kasem (1932-2014). Beloved disc jockey, radio host, music historian, actor, and voice actor. Take care of yourself, Shaggy.

About the author

Mark Russell