Despite tepid reviews from critics and the passionate Transformers fan base, the movie franchise that Michael Bay built looks like it’s going to be sticking around for at least the next few years, and probably even longer than that. Plans have even moved forward on a shared universe for Hasbro’s many properties a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so you’ll probably be hearing about Autobots and Decepticons when your 80, whether you like it or not. In fact, between all the various Transformers-related movies and cartoons that Hasbro continues to authorize, total market saturation seems to be their ultimate goal.
If you’ve been following along here for a while, you’ll know that I have a love/hate relationship with the giant robots and that I’m constantly wrestling with my feelings for the property even though the people in charge of it (particularly the movies) don’t seem to understand its potential and frequently take the laziest path in effort to get people to a theater. Like every kid who grew up during the 1980s, I loved the Transformers cartoon and toys during their heyday from 1984-1987, and like every kid in the 1980s, I was a victim of marketing brainwashing. In 1981, newly-elected president Ronald Reagan passed legislation that allowed corporations to market things specifically toward children. The ‘70s had been a tumultuous decade for children’s entertainment, with watchdog groups and child psychologists determining that kids couldn’t tell the difference between entertainment and advertising; therefore, laws were put into place to prevent this from happening. When Reagan deregulated children’s entertainment, what followed was a golden age of toys and cartoons that fed off of one another. Characters like He-Man and Rainbow Bright and Care Bears and the Thundercats only existed to sell us toys, but we didn’t care. It was an unprecedented era of creativity for us that allowed us to manifest our wildest dreams in action figure form on the playground. The cartoons served as the inspiration, the jumping-off points for our own adventures.
For me and a whole bunch of nerds hovering around 40, the pinnacle of Transformers storytelling is the theatrical film that hit screens in 1986 because it changed everything. Newer movies may fare better in terms of complexity and characterization, but fans like myself will always hold this movie as the peak of awesomeness for the franchise. This is not simply nostalgia; I aim to back this up with examples. Here are my five reasons that Transformers: The Movie still matters (and is better than Michael Bay’s movies).
5) The Visual Style. The syndicated television series was the product of a collaboration between Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions, a subsidiary of Marvel Comics (and the same people behind G.I. Joe, the sister show to The Transformers). Animation was largely done by the Japanese company Toei, with some work being picked up by a handful of other Japanese studios. For the movie, the budget was raised to six times that of a standard episode, and it really showed. Toei spearheaded the entire production of the movie; they would spend the 1990s as one of the leaders in the animation field with their work on Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, but for a lot of us, this was our first exposure to what they were capable of creating. Unlike the television series, which took place primarily in the daytime under bright blue skies and the backgrounds of dry deserts and desolate canyons, Transformers: The Movie took place in the darker environment of wild space and strange, mechanical landscapes. Nothing at all was familiar about the battlegrounds of the movie, lending the film a tone that was unsettling. The animation itself was—and still is—jaw-dropping. The rounded, soft edges of the television series were gone. These robots looked and felt incredibly dangerous. What we didn’t know at the time is that many of us had just been given our first glimpse at true anime, and it was stunning.
Cobra, but didn’t make it into the film. While Boogie Nights probably used “The Touch” better and made it a pop culture meme, it was Transformers: The Movie where the song originally appeared and garnered a whole bunch of fans the first time around. There was also a “Weird Al” Yankovic called “Dare to Be Stupid,” and both this song and Stan Bush’s “The Touch” ended up on a single. The soundtrack to the film didn’t break any Billboard records, but it became a cult classic that endures to this day and has been reissued with the rest of Vince DiCola’s score. The music was a crucial element in the success of Transformers: The Movie and made it feel fresh and edgy for a wide audience. This factor can’t be underestimated.
3) The Voice Cast. While now probably relegated to the “who cares” department by everyone other than ‘80s buffs, the movie featured some notable celebrity actors in the vocal department for added credibility alongside the already-established stalwarts from the TV series. Judd Nelson was coming off the one-two punch of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire when he appeared as Hot Rod, a character of extreme importance to the expanding mythology (spoilers: he takes Optimus Prime’s place as the new leader). Robert Stack (The Untouchables) is Ultra Magnus, and Monty Python’s Eric Idle is Wreck-Gar (a character I still can’t stand). Leonard Nimoy is Galvatron, another extremely pivotal character for the story, cast no doubt for the credibility that he would have brought to the production. For a movie that is essentially very hard science fiction, Spock himself lends the role a weight and importance that would have resonated with the older viewers who had a history with Star Trek and hard science fiction. The most astonishing and strange casting choice is Orson Welles as Unicron, the Transformers version of Galactus, a planet-eating force of destruction. Fitting? Welles died just five days after he finished recording his lines for the animated movie, making this his final film performance. I’m sure his family was very proud. When you add these established Hollywood actors to the outstanding vocal work of series regulars Peter Cullen and Frank Welker (neither of whom get enough credit as actors), you have an incredibly strong set of performances that ground the story in the same kind of grave and important tone that the film sought and achieved.
1) It Changed Everything. Piggybacking off the previous point, the changes that occurred in the movie weren’t just temporary events meant to invoke a sense of drama. Michael Bay’s Transformers films consistently and overtly copy the most important beats of Transformers: The Movie without seeming to understand why they mattered. Bay’s movies try to mimic the impact of certain character deaths, but they don’t understand that for us to really care about those deaths, there has to be a real loss and a real change. You can’t kill of a character and then bring them back in the same movie and have there be any real impact. Nothing has been lost. Transformers: The Movie, through total accident, made the deaths in the movie really matter. When Optimus Prime dies, he doesn’t return before the end of the movie. And when sad children gathered around their TV sets for new episodes of the syndicated show in the fall of 1986, they wouldn’t find him there, either. Optimus Prime was still dead, and so were all the characters who bit the big one in the movie. We had a new leader and a new group of Autobots waging the eternal war. Years had passed since the last episode. Characters we knew as children now had children of their own. Optimus Prime did eventually return at the very tail end of the third season in 1987, some nine months after his character died. Not coincidentally, his return basically marked the end of the series. I wonder what audiences would think of a Michael Bay movie where most of the heroes die and never come back and where the surviving ones look so different that they’re unrecognizable. What about if the action moved off Earth completely and instead took place in the future on a series of strange planets inhabited by creatures that weren’t remotely humanoid and there were no human actors?