Ricky Church revisits The Transformers: The Movie on its 35th anniversary…
In 1984, the world was taken by storm by the Transformers franchise, a series of toylines, comics and an animated series featuring transforming robots from the planet Cybertron locked in civil war. The two factions, Autobots and Decepticons, found their way to Earth and continued their war as the Autobots fought to stop the Decepticons campaign of tyranny throughout the galaxy. The original Transformers series proved to be a hit with characters like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee and Starscream becoming household names among children. With a popular trifecta of TV, toys and comics, it’d be hard to imagine the franchise getting any bigger than it already was.
Bigger it became in 1986 as the Autobots and Decepticons brought their war from the small to big screen with The Transformers: The Movie, a full-length animated feature film that fundamentally changed the franchise forever. The 35th anniversary of the film’s release is upon us and even after three decades, Transformers: The Movie is still regarded as a pivotal and nostalgic piece of the franchise which continues to hold up upon both repeat viewings and newer entries in the franchise. “Beyond Good. Beyond Evil. Beyond your wildest imagination” was the film’s tagline and it certainly proved that with how much it struck its core demographic with one of the most shocking deaths in a childrens film.
The Transformers: The Movie was made concurrently with The Transformers‘ second season with a massive budget that cost $6 million, six times the amount to make 90 minutes of the series. However, the second season did not lead into the film. Rather, the film acts as a new jumping on point as it is set 20 years after the events of the series and Spike, the teenaged human protagonist and Autobots’ main ally, is an adult with a young son of his own while the Decepticons have conquered Cybertron. All the while a mysterious and gigantic new entity named Unicron has emerged and threatens Autobots, Decepticons and humans alike. Not only that, but the film’s tone is completely inconsistent with the TV series as Transformers: The Movie has a gritty edge to it, downplaying much of the silliness and corniness of G1 with more mature elements like a serious story, a character swearing “shit” and, of course, plenty of often and surprisingly brutal deaths.
Admittedly, the concept for Transformers: The Movie is a bit of a cynical one as Hasbro, the makers of the toys and producers of the series, wanted not only to introduce the new wave of the Transformers‘ 1986 toyline in the continuity, but focus entirely on them. To that end, Hasbro ordered many of the original Transformers characters – mostly Autobots and a few Decepticon – to die so they could make way for the new
toys characters. Supporting characters fans had gotten to know like Ironhide, Prowl and Ratchet died in the opening minutes while others like Wheeljack got killed offscreen with the only acknowledgement being their lifeless body seen among a pile of bodies. Though Jazz and Bumblebee were among the few of the original Autobots to be spared, they much spent of the movie thought to have been killed by Unicron until the climax, leaving the story almost entirely populated by the new characters. Even Spike is pushed aside to focus on his son Daniel as the new human lead.
Chief among those deaths was the heroic Optimus Prime. In one of the most colossal misjudgments in the history of pop culture, Hasbro decided to kill off Optimus Prime as part of the new toy wave with Hot Rod becoming Rodimus Prime at the end of the film. Even after being warned by some of the writing staff of the series, they didn’t realize just how popular Optimus was with children or as an 80s icon. Even Peter Cullen, the voice behind Optimus, didn’t know of Optimus’ popularity as the studio held back all the fan letters he had been receiving over the years (Cullen even expressed his disbelief at learning of their decision during a Fan Expo panel with Frank Welker just a couple years ago). It wasn’t until after release and the subsequent backlash with parents complaining they had to walk their crying children out of the theatre after Optimus’ death scene Hasbro and Cullen learnt how significant the character was not just to the fanbase, but the franchise itself. If Optimus had to die, though, he went out in the grandest way possible as Transformers: The Movie gave fans an epic and no holds barred final fight between Optimus and his nemesis Megatron, a fact the trailers and commercials billed as if it were the biggest boxing match in history.
The ‘climactic’ showdown between Optimus and Megatron (‘climactic’ because it takes place around 20 minutes into the movie!) is one of, if not the, most talked about moment of the whole franchise. Optimus Prime and Megatron was one of the defining rivalries of 80s cartoons, up there with (for some, even beyond) Inspector Gadget and Dr. Claw, G.I. Joe and Cobra or He-Man and Skeletor. The fact these two got a final battle was huge, but even more so as this scene is the one fans can pinpoint as the moment the franchise forever changed as Optimus and Megatron dealt each other fatal blows with Optimus passing away and Megatron being rebuilt and reformatted into Galvatron, the new Decepticon leader with some of Megatron’s memories and personality. Even though Optimus would return late in the third season of Transformers, the damage was done. In almost every single iteration of the Transformers franchise since, it has become common for Optimus Prime to die and be brought back to life. His death can last anywhere for some years as with the original cartoon to a matter of minutes or even seconds with his shortest death being in Transformers Animated for a grand total of 30 seconds. Even Optimus Primal of Beast Wars died for a few episodes and was brought back with the Megatron of that series boasting “you Optimuses do love sacrificing yourselves.” In any new Transformers series, it’s a surprise if Optimus doesn’t die.
Aside from Optimus’ death, Transformers: The Movie is also responsible for several other additions to the franchise. Unicron has often been a constant threat to Cybertron lingering in the background and, unlike this film, has gotten a backstory, most often being Cybertron’s version of Satan and regarded as a myth. The Matrix of Leadership, the film’s main MacGuffin and a piece of significant lore that was never previously mentioned in the series, has also played a prominent role in much of the canon, particularly where it concerns the origin of the lowly Orion Pax into the heroic Autobot Optimus Prime. Likewise, Megatron’s transformation into Galvatron is similarly featured in various series, though in some cases, both in cartoons and comics, Megatron and Galvatron are separate bots. And while they might not be as popular as the original core cast, the new characters have also proven to be quite popular over the years. Despite Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime’s role in Optimus’ death, he’s certainly a fan-favourite.
There are two factors that really set Transformers: The Movie apart from the series proper. One is the voice cast the film assembled as it gained some pretty big names to play the new characters. Judd Nelson, fresh off The Breakfast Club, voiced Hot Rod, Monty Python‘s Eric Idle was Wreck-Gar and Robert Stack of The Untouchables as Ultra Magnus were some of the big additions to the film. Leonard Nimoy turned in his logical and heroic performances as Star Trek‘s Spock to voice the villainous Galvatron while the legendary Orson Welles of all people is Unicron, a role that would turn out to be Welles’ final as he passed away only a few days after completing his recordings. To have actors of that caliber be a part of the Transformers franchise is a pretty big feat, and though Welles was reported to have hated working on the film, he did set an incredible precedent for how Unicron continues to sound whenever he shows up in a series, though credit must also be given to the post-production team who ran Welles’ voice through a synthesizer to give it more menace since his voice was pretty weak due to his failing health.
The other factor is the animation. As mentioned, the budget for Transformers: The Movie cost six times more than it did to create several episodes of the series. The work shows as the animation is way more detailed than Transformers. The colour, facial expressions, transformations are all much richer than most episodes. The scene this can be pointed to the most is Unicron’s transformation from a planet-sized object to a giant robot, displaying a great level of intricacy as the various pieces moved and morphed into a body. It is one of the most visually compelling sequences of the whole franchise, but the animation throughout is a great argument itself that Transformers: The Movie is perhaps the best animated film to come out of that decade. While reviews were pretty savage toward the film at the time, it is impressive in its scope. Adding to its legacy is the growth of the home video industry with the arrival of VHS. For years, only a handful of Transformers episodes ever made it to VHS and were harder to find while Transformers: The Movie was readily available. Its longevity is due to the fact it could be viewed over and over again pretty easily, possibly allowing for the newer elements of the canon to become so permanent as kids born in the late-80s/early-90s arguably had more familiarity with The Movie than they did with Transformers proper.
Despite the controversy surrounding the reasons for killing off its characters and the impact Optimus Prime’s death had, Transformers: The Movie is still a significant and fun piece of the franchise. The lore it introduced has been utilized time and time again, from Beast Wars, Transformers Prime, the IDW comics to the live-action films from Michael Bay. Even with six live-action films though, many still consider The Transformers: The Movie to be the best Transformers film for its story, characters, rock-ballad soundtrack and action. 35 years later, it is definitely a worthy piece of Transformers to celebrate and watch simply to hear Optimus Prime utter the immortal words of “One shall stand. One shall fall” to the tune of Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch’ once again.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.