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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Will the real Optimus Prime please stand up?

by Sean

What constitutes a classic movie? In my mind there are two types of classics. You have the movies that are critically acclaimed and receive thoughtful praise by those who consider themselves experts in the area of cinema, and then there is the other type: the one much more personal. These movies rarely receive the praise they deserve by gatekeepers of fine art, but nonetheless touch people and become one of those binding threads among friends.

I’m here today to offer a tribute to one of my personal classics: a film that should have been a landmark in modern animation, but through poor marketing and even poorer box office returns got tossed aside into the dustbin of failed sure-fire hits. I’m speaking of the 1986 animated film, The Transformers: The Movie.

The colossal failure of this movie still puzzles me to this day. There are few men I know from my generation who don’t think of this movie fondly. This should have been a hit based on the built-in market alone. Perhaps that was its doom. Boys of my generation lived during the golden age of after-school cartoons. Unlike my parents who had some cartoons on the weekend and my son who has access to non-stop cartoons around the clock via Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Internet, we were only able to get our action fix for a glorious period of a few hours after school. Saturday morning cartoons were a plus but did not match the power-packed combination of such classics as He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and of course, Transformers.

Now, our parents knew these were just half-hour-long commercials for the much more lucrative toys. Perhaps the thought that our regular fix of cartoons nearly broke the bank come birthday and Christmas time and the thought of what an 84-minute dose of pure Transformer fury would do their pocketbook was too much to bear. It’s either that, or the movie company and the general viewing public had their heads up their collective rears. You be the judge.

What made this movie special is that it there was no reason to believe that something special was about to be unleashed. The Transformers, like all of our favorite afternoon cartoons, had shoddy animation, decent but not great acting, and each episode followed the same basic premise: the bad guys come up with a new plan to vanquish the good guys and take over whatever it is they are after, the good guys foil the plan, and then the bad guys run away cursing the good guys and vowing revenge. No one ever dies and the good guys always win.

That all changed with this movie. While The Transformers: The Movie did introduce a new set of characters, this movie never felt like a commercial. The characters all had depth and soul. Yes, I am talking about giant transforming robots. This movie also introduced real gravity to the situation by introducing the death of beloved characters into the equation. This was heavy stuff for a kid.

At this point I should probably provide a synopsis of the story. I could, but I won’t. The plot is a little too complicated to summarize in just a few sentences. If you want to read a synopsis, I suggest going to this page on IMDB.com.

This is the key to what made the film so great. The story went much deeper than the normal cartoon affair. You had near annihilation of the Autobot race; you had the unwilling and hated Megatron making a Faustian deal to save his own life; and you had the giant planet-eating robot who was the main enemy, yet how do you defeat what is essentially a force of nature?

Now I mentioned how serious this movie was. Yes there were some light-hearted moments, usually involving the Dinobots (who I still detest), but overall the tone of the film is way darker than anything that has preceded it and most that have followed. I knew I was in for a ride in the very beginning of the movie, when Megatron and his minions hijack an Autobot ship and kill everyone on board. When one autobot that still has some life in him reaches out for Megatron’s leg and begs for mercy for his fellow Autobots, Megatron’s response still send shudders down my spine. He looks down at the fallen robot and says with a sneer, “Such heroic nonsense,” and then blasts him at close range with his blaster. Are you kidding me? I had never witnessed anything so murderous in my life.

And then they kill the one character I would never in a million years have been killed: Optimus Prime. This would have been like killing off John Wayne in the first ten minutes of True Grit. I could see some of the minor characters getting knocked off, but you just don’t mess with Optimus Prime.

Well, they did. You watch the journey of Hot Rod as he leaves his childish ways and accepts his destiny as the chosen leader of the Autobots, and the devastation as Ultra Magnus wants to save his people but can’t, because he is not the prophesied leader. You see Megatron make a deal with a devil and how he chafes under the rule of someone else. These were serious story lines; much more serious than what we usually followed.

Much like how Big Trouble in Little China (another of my personal classics) tried to introduce mainstream American audiences to the Hong Kong style of martial arts films, The Transformers: The Movie introduced mainstream America to Japanese anime. This was better-looking than any other American cartoon at the time. The care and work that went into the film is on display throughout. This aspect of it alone should make The Transformers: The Movie more than just a personal classic.

A movie just isn’t complete without a soundtrack that fits what’s going on in the movie. The The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack is no exception. Nearly every song fits as if it was made for this film, with the only real clunker being Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid”. There isn’t a fan of this movie that doesn’t have the specific scenes play out in his head when he hears Stan Bush sing, “You got the touch,” or think that he could save the universe too as long as Stan keep on crooning, “Dare to keep all your dreams alive!”.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I love this movie. And if you are pondering actually dusting off the only copy at the local video store and giving it a spin, consider this: it has a great story, great acting, great animation, and great animation, and for a cartoon 23 years old it still holds up. Plus there’s a cuss word in it, which made it feel so rebellious to us youngsters.

I recommend it not only for the nostalgia, but because it deserves a bigger audience. The Transformers: The Movie deserves to take it’s proper place in the realm of sci-fi classics.

Sean the Wereseal lives in Arizona and blogs about life, the universe, and heavy metal at The Mean Streets of Apache Junction. A regular contributor to The Curse of the Were-Weasel, Sean is also the author of the cult classic, "Lost Chapter from Stranger in a Stranger Land.
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