For the past ten years, one Rhode Island company has made me so deliriously happy, I’ve considered corporate personhood, so I could ask for its hand in marriage.
2006 was the year this little toy company had a subline of their Transformers toys called “Classics”; new figures of favorite characters from the 1984 cartoon. And a funny thing happened- these robots from an old show sold very, very well. Characters like “Bumblebee”, “Megatron” and “Optimus Prime” were familiar to a enviously broad range of people. They had staying power equal to Superman or Batman. The world was on the cusp of finding this out.
That same year, director Steven Spielberg gave a mission statement for the first live-action Transformers movie, which he was producing. I have to recount this here to prove I didn’t dream it.
“Guys, in this next draft really take your time describing the transformation. Savor it; spend a paragraph on like the different things you might be able to see. I want when ILM gets it for them not to be able to think the head can just pop out of its ass.” -Spielberg
I still maintain an expensive Transformers habit because they’re better than ever, and they’re two toys in one. You get a robot and a sportscar! It’s a universally appealing concept, and to do it justice, Hasbro contracted the creation of great personalities and concepts. A shameful percentage of my artistic inspiration comes directly from this line of children’s toys.
Before it became prohibitively expensive, Hasbro would hire painters to render astonishing portraits of their robots. This and the Sunbow/Marvel cartoon combined to form the traditional Transformers aesthetic. Even toys that were on the crummy side came in lovely silvery packages, and it worked. Want proof? Show the following picture to anyone. Note the awe in their reaction.
The key is the imagination in the depiction of a changeling. Flight is a common daydream, but what if you could become the plane? Is the act of becoming something else not a common daydream as well?
Since Transformers aren’t human, and often disguise themselves to hide, millions of story possibilities emerge. Twenty years back, they were disguised as beasts on prehistoric Earth. They’ve been boom boxes, stealth bombers and soda machines. Their origins, one of the last remaining footholds of legitimate science-fiction, allow for the kind of melodrama that gets too messy when humans are the stars.
This is why Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots of Cybertron, became more popular than Superman.
And in 1986, Hasbro killed him to make room for new toys, and they did it in the most spectacular way conceivable.
The Transformers: The Movie.
Let me get a few things out of the way. You are now gazing at the locus of my obsession. I have seen this film over 300 times. In 2005, when the movie takes place, I attempted to watch it every day for the whole year, before quitting on January 12th when I started to hate it. I’ve had the original soundtrack on vinyl for 30 years. I’ve seen it in a theater, on VHS, on DVD and on acid. I know it so well I ran it through my head in jail, more than once.
I forced myself not to cry when I was 14 and saw Optimus die, in a sparsely-attended theater. I followed Rodimus Prime’s subsequent term like it was Meet The Press. Since I know the name “Rodimus” is less familiar to you, it won’t surprise you when I tell you Optimus returned to lead the Autobots.
This is no joke, folks. Hasbro made a glorious, bold move, introducing a cast of new characters and killing off the old… and it cost them. There was such a backlash regarding the death of Optimus Prime, it affected 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie. Conrad “Duke” Hauser was meant to die at the hands/scales of Serpentor, but the audio was redubbed to make it sound like he survived. If you muted the audio, Duke was dead as fuck.
Let’s just say Optimus Prime is really popular.
In TF:TM and the original series, the distinctive voice of Optimus is provided by the legendary Peter Cullen. It’s one of the deepest, most sonorous voices I’ve ever heard; exactly the voice you’d expect from a 28-foot-tall robot. I defend and respect Michael Bay because he put that voice in theaters again, as the same character, booming out of the speakers like Zeus. He also did this with the great Frank Welker, allowing his performance as Soundwave to go unaffected, unlike its “musical” tone in the old cartoon.
This is why these two men are in the Transformers Hall of Fame. In case you missed it, Peter Cullen and Frank Welker voiced the same characters, flawlessly, almost three decades apart. Welker reprised his role as Galvatron in Age Of Extinction. Galvatron first appeared in TF:TM, voiced by Leonard “Spock” Nimoy, who was Sentinel Prime in 2011’s Dark of the Moon. He deserves similar accolades.
I use a term I call “sound branding”. Think of the noise your computer or videogame console makes when you turn it on; that’s what I mean. The creators of the Transformers had the uncanny foresight and innovation to form the “transformation sound”, which is one of the most distinctive and memorable aspects of the brand. Big surprise, I am dangerously obsessed with that sound, too. That’s hard-core sound branding.
If you look in the closing credits of The Simpsons, you’ll see the name Nelson Shin, as director of overseas animation. Shin directed TF:TM, and some excellent episodes of the old cartoon. If you’ve never seen TF:TM, it is the exact point where art and plastic meet. No one ever, ever looked at Hasbro’s toys the same way after this.
It went on to be popular enough to warrant a 30-year anniversary edition this year, on Blu-Ray.
You could easily compare the opening of TF:TM to the beginning of Star Wars; a pain-stakingly rendered depiction of an object of colossal size. In Wars, it was a Star Destroyer; here, it’s the evil robot planet Unicron. Right off the bat you’re given a sumptuous feast for the eyes comparable to the villain’s meal in measure.
I always catch my breath when Unicron thunders past. The mass of a metal planet, conveyed in ink and paint. Not even models look that good, never mind CGI. The opening battle of Revenge of the Sith is as real as you’re gonna get.
Unicron is, as you know, voiced by the late great Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. He died during production, and a handful of lines were done by Nimoy instead. I think Unicron’s final words in TF:TM are actually Nimoy, and I’ve long suspected that Unicron’s name began as a typo of “unicorn”. I have the same theory about “Decepticon”, after mistyping “deception” on numerous occasions.
One more sidebar about words: one thing I adore about the Transformers franchise is how it’s expanded my vocabulary since I was 12. In all seriousness:
- “Autonomous” was in the “Tech Spec” that came with Optimus Prime’s toy, and I had to look it up. I deduced that Hasbro named the Autobots because they were all cars at first, and I figured “autonomous” was a more inclusive word to use as inspiration. Lo and behold, my theory was confirmed in the 2007 movie, in the voice of Optimus Prime himself.
- Until I saw Dark of the Moon in 2011, I didn’t know “dosvidanya” meant “goodbye”.
- In Age of Extinction, I thought Lockdown said “terminus”, and I was corrected online that he said “temenos”, a word I did not know existed. I looked it up, humbled myself, and voilà– learned something new again.
Those are technically thrills, just like the transformation sequences and battles. You’re supposed to be thrilled when you see or learn something new.
The songs get all the attention, but the instrumental score of TF:TM, by Vince DiCola, is legitimately one of the finest I’ve heard. DiCola programmed his own synthesizer patches, which is why the score is wholly distinctive; the only sound-alikes are other DiCola soundtracks, like Rocky IV. He takes the on-screen tension and shoots it out of an ion cannon. War is every bit as intense as it should be.
DiCola’s accompaniment over the consumption of Lithone is poignant and fierce. I swear to god, the crew of this movie treated it as though it were a serious entry into the world of sci-fi film, and it shows. I’m deconstructing it 30 years after it came out, at great length, without a second thought. Once upon a time (the 80s), animated sci-fi was a precious commodity.
Before 1996, Transformers typically had “blank” eyes; red for bad, blue for good. Beast Wars updated the look with pupil-like points of light, to indicate where the robots were looking. The live-action movies took this ball and ran with it, creating “optics” like massive, whirring clockworks. The old cartoon characters represent the Transformers viewed from afar; close-up, you saw the incredible network of moving parts.
That’s why we overlook the parts of Transformers movies that viewers tend to complain about. Look, you can play with your toys, but you have to share, and Aunt Julie and Uncle Kevin want to hang out, so be nice. Appreciate what you have, kiddo. It won’t last forever. Nothing does.
However, those of us who are the longest of longtime fans were spoiled rotten by TF:TM. It’s over 80 minutes of solid sci-fi eye-candy. Even if the music bugs you, you have to admit how perfectly suited it is. This is where the tradition of Transformers and corny songs began, which continues to this day in the Michael Bay films.
Optimus Prime and Hot Rod both get their own theme songs, courtesy of Stan Bush. You can’t love “You’re The Best (Around)” by Joe Esposito, and hate “The Touch” at the same time. Especially if you’ve seen TF:TM. (And Boogie Nights.)
Megatron and his Decepticons utterly slaughter the Autobots, and invade their city. The animators are in top form, as are the voices and sound effects. No words I can type will do this animation justice. This film is second only to Akira, and only by microns.
Finally, Optimus Prime arrives, complete with transformation sequence (and noise), and “The Touch” kicks in full steam. I am thirteen once more.
You want the exact moment when the hearts of a generation swelled to bursting with innocent pride and wonder? This is it. This is why Optimus Prime is as sacred to some as Jehovah, and why his rendering is treated with nearly the same import.
We pretty much knew that Prime was gonna bite the big one before we saw the movie. It wasn’t really “spoiled”, but there was a comic book adaptation already on the shelves, and the TV ads bellowed “DOES PRIME DIE?” He wasn’t on the poster anywhere; neither was Megatron. One of the tracks on the LP of the score was titled “DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME”. For crying out loud, the franchise was only two years old. We were just watching cartoons, not obsessing over them. (Not for a few years, anyhow.)
All this aside, Prime’s death in TF:TM is masterful in its depiction. DiCola’s score is spacey, but beautifully funereal at the same time. The scene begins with the beeping of Prime’s life-support machine, before crossfading with somber piano and keyboard. Prime’s old comrades are gone; he’s surrounded by the last survivors of the attack, including a chatty veteran who now barely speaks. There’s foreshadowing as Prime drops the Matrix of Leadership, and Hot Rod catches it, before handing it to the recipient chosen by Optimus; Ultra Magnus.
Robert Stack, onetime leader of TV’s Untouchables, is Ultra Magnus. He is perfectly cast, particularly in this scene, as he initially refuses Prime’s gift. Stack’s appearance in TF:TM made it a great bonding opportunity with dads.
After passing on the Matrix, Optimus Prime expires and turns grey. Just when you think you can make it without getting all pissy-eyed, young Daniel Witwicky delivers the coup de grace.
This was a movie created to sell toys. It set the gold standard for how deeply you could get the audience’s emotions invested in plastic. Pretty deep, as it turns out. Here we are thirty years later. I’m not complaining, but you probably are.
The movie loses a touch of momentum once the original cast is out of the picture. Mostly, this is a result of getting us used to the new characters, whom we’ve just met. One of the biggest advantages of a prodigious toyline is how it accustoms you to a greater nebula of personalities. And for the first few years, when a Transformer was released in stores, that was it; you had no other chance to own that character. In 2016, no child is denied the right to their very own Optimus, of any size and difficulty. And don’t even ask how many Bumblebees there’ve been since 2007. More than there are actual bumblebees.
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but Spike Witwicky says “shit” in TF:TM, and Ultra Magnus says “damn”. In 1986, this combined with the intense violence to put the movie in a class with Heavy Metal. Tonally, it’s extremely similar, with background paintings as vivid as the action. The live-action movies are approaching this level of eye-candy, which is the desired aesthetic, forged over decades.
The veteran I mentioned earlier is the beloved Kup, played by Lionel Stander, the butler from TV’s Hart To Hart. “Kup” is short for “pickup truck”, which is what he becomes. Stander’s delivery is gruff and military, and Kup gets some of the most affecting shots during Prime’s demise.
When I told my dad Kup’s name, he replied “he’s an athlete?” Dads are such cards.
Eric Idle, of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, voices Wreck-Gar, a robot that lives on a junk planet with legions of “Junkions”. Almost everything audiences whine about is present in the Junkion scenes. Wreck-Gar and his crew “talk TV”, meaning they speak in dialogue they gleaned from earth’s television broadcasts. When they decide to help the Autobots, all robots present begin to dance in jubilation, even swinging their partners. There’s a “child” robot called Wheelie who talks in squeaking rhymes. Wreck-Gar strides right up to Grimlock, a robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, and kisses him on the lips. All of this happens to a “Weird” Al Yankovic song.
That’s an original Yankovic tune, and he was clearly a huge DEVO fan; he sings in voices specifically meant to evoke Gerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh. If I’m being truthful, it sounds more like actual DEVO than anything DEVO did in 1986.
Some of the most spectacular animation is in the Junk Planet scenes. When Ultra Magnus “lands” the shuttle (see my earlier notes about Transformers and landing) at 47:11, it’s simply jaw-dropping. Every bit of detritus is alive with motion.
This movie was the first appearance of the Quintessons, horrific five-faced slavers with no emotion, who play a secret role in the Transformers’ creation. The idea is expanded that Cybertron has many sister planets, each with their own unique mechanical life. The brief glimpses you receive only stoke the fires of your imagination.
Hot Rod and Kup crash into Quintessa’s ocean, and the artists go cuckoo with the concept of aquatic machines. I must remind you that this movie is 2-D, made of ink and paint and acetate. It was made lovingly and with the utmost care.
Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime is voiced by Judd Nelson. He’d just appeared in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, in 1985. I can’t be too tough on the dude. If you listen close, Hot Rod sounds like he could hardly give a fuck. Nelson probably took the gig before he thought about it. He co-starred in New Jack City five years later. I doubt he felt the need to delve too deeply into the motivations of Mr. Shiny Space Robot.
Mention must also be made of the successful landing of the Quintesson ship; the animators work overtime here, with a fully-rotating giant drill-bit that never once looks rubbery or liquid.
Regrettably, DiCola’s music cue as the ship lands isn’t included on the soundtrack. However, I’ll bet there’s an extended “anniversary” version somewhere that has it.
Kup teaches Hot Rod and the Junkions the “universal greeting”:
Bah weep graagnah weep nini bong.
There are unrelated videogames wherein this works. The spelling was provided by the Marvel Comics adaptation, from Ron Friedman’s script. I finally stopped using it in conversation around 2006.
There used to be TV commercials for Federal Express, featuring a fast-talking man named John Moschitta. In TF:TM, Moschitta voiced the Autobot data courier Blurr, one of my favorite robots of all time oh my god do you have ANY IDEA HOW COOL THE TOY WAS Sorry.
Many times in the franchise’s history, a voice and a character “clicked”; Soundwave’s unique form of autotune, Shrapnel’s habit of repeating the last word of a sentence, and Blurr talking like the FedEx guy. There’s even a touch of special effects to make Blurr actually blur when he moves. The new cast of robots is as wonderfully realized as the old.
Funny thing is, as unique as Blurr’s voice was in 1986, Shia LeBeouf talks just as rapidly in Dark of the Moon, as Sam Witwicky. That kid drinks way too much coffee.
The final act of the film begins when Unicron transforms from a planet to a gargantuan robot. I studied this sequence frame-by-frame when I animated the Oblivionicus Maximus for John’s Arm: Armageddon. As far as I’m concerned, you could transfer the frames of this sequence to the pages of an expensive, glossy coffee table book. This is art.
This movie is 86 minutes, and I could write 1000 words about every one. I haven’t even scratched the surface of my admiration for this film. No comparison exists. Even Akira, the only film I know of with superior animation to this one, doesn’t have a fraction of its cosmic cross-cultural magnetism. I didn’t view it over 300 times because I was obsessed with the toys; I wanted to relive the thrill of the animation and sound as often as possible. I wanted to breathe it. I wished I could reward the universe for gifting something so absolutely perfect.
Whatever flaws you could unearth in TF:TM, you cannot deny the concentrated mass of pure inspiration within. Enough for thirty years, and counting.