The Transformers: The Movie, 1986.
Directed by Nelson Shin.
Featuring the voice talents of Peter Cullen, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Frank Welker, and Orson Welles.
Beyond good. Beyond Evil. Beyond your wildest imagination… As the war between the Autobots and Decepticons rages on a new enemy emerges – Unicron, a giant, planet-devouring entity who threatens the very existence of the Transformer race.
It is easy to criticise The Transformers franchise – and in particular, the eighties animated television series – as little more than a clever marketing ploy. Despite being one of the most successful children’s series of its time, the cartoon (along with sister franchise G.I. Joe) has often been described as one long commercial, designed purely to clear the shelves of Hasbro’s latest toy range. However, despite all the criticism there is little doubt that almost a quarter of a century later, 1986’s big screen feature adaptation The Transformers: The Movie has proven to be a true cult classic, and a seminal film in its genre.
Set in 2005 – twenty years after the events of the first two seasons of the television show – the evil Decepticons have taken control of the Transformers’ home world Cybertron, leaving the Autobots to set up base on Autobot City: Earth. Unicron (voiced by legendary filmmaker Orson Welles, whose work was completed mere days before his death in 1985), an enormous planet-shaped robot, attacks and destroys a defenseless world before drifting away into the vastness of space. Meanwhile a strike team of Autobots including Ironhide, Prowl, Brawn, and Ratchet assemble near Cybertron’s moons in preparation for a counter-offensive. Unfortunately the Decepticons intercept a transmission to Autobot City and ambush the shuttle, leaving no survivors.
On Earth, Spike Witwicky’s young son Daniel is enjoying a fishing trip with Autobot Hot Rod when they notice a shuttle returning to Earth. Setting off in pursuit they realise the shuttle has been hijacked by Decepticons, who soon launch an all-out attack. The Autobots – led by Ultra Magnus alongside other new faces including Blurr and Arcee – transform Autobot City into a fortress as the Decepticons lay siege to the stronghold. An S.O.S. is sent Optimus Prime, and the Autobot leader arrives with the Dinobots just as the Decepticons look to gain the upper hand. A huge battle ensues as Prime cuts through a number of henchmen en route to a deadly showdown with arch-nemesis Megatron. Prime ultimately manages to defeat Megatron but is left mortally wounded from the confrontation. The Autobot leader soon perishes, passing over the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus, and promising that “one day an Autobot shall rise from our ranks and use the power of the Matrix to light our darkest hour”.
The Decepticons retreat aboard Astrotrain, but after arguing over a shortage of fuel the scheming Starscream convinces them to abandon their wounded, including defeated leader Megatron, and eject them into space. As Megatron and his fallen comrades drift away they soon encounter Unicron, who promises to provide new bodies in return for the destruction of the Autobot Matrix – the only threat to Unicron’s domination. Megatron reluctantly agrees and is transformed into the warrior Galvatron, who soon disintegrates Starscream and resumes command of the Decepticons. Back on Earth, the Autobots receive word that Unicron has consumed two of Cybertron’s moons, and when the Decepticons launch another attack the weakened and out-numbered heroes are forced to flee.
Galvatron pursues the Autobots and confronts Ultra Magnus, stealing the Matrix and intending to draw on its power to defeat and enslave Unicron. Arriving near Cybertron, Galvatron fails to open the Matrix and merely enrages Unicron, who transforms from his planet-shaped form into a giant robot and begins to attack the Transformer home world. Galvatron proves little match and is consumed by Unicron, while the Decepticons try in vain to defend their planet. The Autobots soon arrive on the scene and join in the battle. Hot Rod crashes his shuttle through Unicron’s eye and inside the young Autobot encounters Galvatron. A fight ensues with Hot Rod proving he has “The Touch” as he reaches out for the Matrix and unleashes its power, transforming him into Rodimus Prime and destroying Unicron from within. With the giant defeated, the remaining Decepticons are forced to retreat leaving the Autobots to reclaim Cybertron as their own.
The Transformers: The Movie was released to mixed reviews and was considered a flop at the box office, collecting only $5m during its opening weekend. Criticism was levelled towards its animation style (now highly regarded by Western audiences), dark tone and high body count, with the death of beloved characters such as Optimus Prime having a profound and disturbing effect on young children (indeed the furore surrounding Prime’s fate led to Hasbro altering the fate of Duke, leader of G.I. Joe, who was originally supposed to die in G.I. Joe: The Movie, released straight-to-video the following year). The film is also notable for its use of the word “shit”, although this was removed from many home release versions.
While the decision to kill of many of the better known characters lay with Hasbro – who wanted to make room for the next range of action figures – it remains a bold and daring move and something that would be inconceivable for studios today. Added to this are the excellent action sequences, perfect soundtrack, and a cast that includes the aforementioned Orson Welles in addition to Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Scatman Crothers (also in his final role), and voice-over legends Corey Burton, Peter Cullen, Casey Kasem, and Chris Latta.
For long-time fans the movie is sure to retain nostalgic value, while there is also much to appeal to (and distress) younger viewers and newcomers to the franchise via Michael Bay’s recent live-action blockbusters. A landmark entry in the field of children’s animation, The Transformers: The Movie is perhaps the greatest big-screen adaptation of a cartoon series, and among the best animated movies of its decade.