Principal Cast : Peter Cullen, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Susan Blu, Lionel Stander, Frank Welker, John Moschitta Jr, Buster Jones, Paul Eiding, Gregg Berger, Neil Ross, Michael Bell, Scatman Crothers, Casey Kasem, Dan Gilvezan, Lenoard Nimoy, Roger C Carmel, Don Messick, Eric Idle, Clive Revill, Orson Welles, Hal Rayle.
Synopsis: The Decepticons and the Autobots continue their war for Energon, bringing into play the battle for Cybertron from the destructive power of planet-sized transformer Unicron.
It’s amazing how nostalgia boosts ancient intellectual properties for Gen X-ers. Take the Transformers property, a long-running toy-line campaign aided by a seminal 80’s cartoon series that was so successful it spawned its own feature film, populated by several big names voicing new and old characters on the big screen. Sadly, whilst it remains a touchstone moment in many of my vintage’s collective memory, the original Transformers feature film (not the Michael Bay version) is a garish, tone-deaf, obvious, frenetic example of keeping the target demographic (young pre-teen boys) entertained through sheer concussive action rather than well rounded or developed characters. An anthemic rock soundtrack may have added to the allure of the film back in the 1980’s, but today it’s astonishingly kitschy without a lick of ironic enjoyment.
The planet-sized robotic devourer of worlds, Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles) moves through the galaxy destroying planet after planet. meanwhile, on Cybertron, the Decepticons – led by Megatron (Frank Welker) and the ambitious Starscream (Chris Latta) – and have won the planet against their opposition, the good Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In order to counterattack, Optimus sends a team to Earth to fetch more Energon supplies, only to have the vessel destroyed and its crew killed by Decepticon forces, who then proceed to attack Autobot City on Earth. With Optimus Prime defeated and killed, and the Matrix of Leadership passed to Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack), the Autobot’s last hope appears doomed with the arrival of Unicron, who restores a badly defeated Megatron with a new body – becoming Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy) – in order to destroy Ultra Magnus and the Matrix before he consumes Cybertron completely.
Transformers The Movie is nothing if not exactly what fans wanted. Young kids lapped up the orgy of transforming robots and nonsensical plot conniptions as their favourite tertiary and secondary robots-in-disguise characters blew each other to smithereens up on the big screen. Things like consistency of physics and plot logic are defeated by a deafening musical soundtrack and an earnestness of toy sales as the various Autobot and Decepticon iterations play out with second-grade simplicity. This isn’t a film of subtlety or nuance, much like its small-screen progenitor, retaining that cool-easy animated style and famously identifiable sound-effect heavy aural landscape where on the big screen it simply goes for broke to astonish and amaze.
The story makes not a jot of sense, characters inhabit the same personality deficiency as that of a pile of house-bricks, and even the inestimable talents of Optimus Prime amount to nought with the film’s most famous bait-and-switch, the death of the famed Autobot leader, striking a dagger into the heart of fans everywhere (and no, he doesn’t magically resurrect by the film’s end, so he is effectively truly killed off) in a blitzkrieg of frenzied animation and Manga-influenced action sequences. The monolithic Unicron scenes particularly reminded me of those old Robotech episodes, slow-motion carnage and hyperkinetic animation combining with ferocity and frenzied ephemera to accentuate scale, and those moments work largely thanks to the voice work of Orson Welles (he of Citizen Kane fame).
The other vaunted talents behind the microphone here, including Leonard Nimoy (as the resurrected Galvatron), Eric Idle (as Wreck-Gar) and Judd Nelson (as Hot Rod and Rodimus Prime) are fun for keen-eared viewers, while series’ regulars such as Frank Welker, Dan Gilvenzan, Neil Ross and Don Messick again do their best to accommodate the ludicrous plotting and hysterically over-the-top dialogue within a framework of workable emotional content. Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime remains an enduring pop-culture icon, moreseo here with his untimely death: it should be noted that the giant transforming robots have very little consistency to their ability to be defeated. Some Autobots are gunned down with relative ease by Decepticon attackers, whilst in other scenes the Autobots more than hold their own against a barrage of blaster fire, which makes for confusing internal logic – some might suggest “plot armour” persists through the film – and a convenience of logic that breaks down upon even the slightest examination.
The Transformers movie hasn’t aged particularly well, either as a piece of storytelling (it’s a basic plot, with generic characters and a largely formulaic, episodic nature) or as an animated film (the animation style is… well, pretty basic for a feature film), a quickly-quickly approach taken by the studio which was also continuing to work on the television series that stretched the talent behind the scenes to the limit, and it shows. Blocky character work, limited in detail and physicality, hidden behind an orgy of explosions, ratcheting camerawork and epic music, reduces a lot of the action and “plot” to broad brushstroke caricature and simplistic, easy-to-follow nonsense that kids may engage with. Kids today will probably be aghast at how awful it appears to their modern eyes (I know mine were), while adults for whom this film was a seminal cinematic experience will remain disappointed at how deceptive the nostalgia factor is in making you think the film wasn’t that bad. It was that bad.