September 17th, 1984 was a day that American pop culture was about to forever transform.
At that time, the number one movie was still “Ghostbusters.” Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” ruled FM radio. Frederick Forsythe’s “The Fourth Protocol” sat atop the fiction charts.
“Dallas” reigned as TV’s most popular show.
Along came “The Transformers,” a series drawn by Japanese and Korean animators featuring American storylines and stars. The show’s beginnings were far from humble. How could they be, when the arena-ready theme boasted the show was “More Than Meets the Eye?”
Synergy Gone Wild
The show, based on two separate Japanese toy lines picked up by Hasbro, was an instant success. The 30-minute episodes were action-packed, heavily plotted and offered amped-up excitement for the Transformers toys Hasbro stocked on store shelves.
In addition to inspiring millions to buy action figures, it engaged audiences with its ongoing battle between the heroic Autobot robots and the evil Decepticons.
Produced in the age when nothing was off limits from being turned into a Saturday morning cartoon, “The Transformers” stood out. The show boasted inventive action, a catchy theme song and the ultra-cool spectacle of seeing (for starters) a truck turn into a giant robot.
I’m partial to “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” which had bulkier storytelling and a stylishly weird cross-over with “She-Ra and the Princess of Power.” There was also “M.A.S.K.,” which ripped off “The Transformers,” infused a bit of “G.I. Joe,” carried a gentler tone and arguably the best head-banging title song of the cereal set.
Yet, whenever those heroic Autobots were front and center, I could never turn the channel.
Still In Its Prime
“The Transformers” inspired an unceasing cult phenomenon, an ongoing product line juggernaut for Hasbro, three terrible Michael Bay movies (more on that later) and the irony-free affection of fans who still place Autobot or Decepticon stickers on the cars.
Two years after the original series launched, the ambitious plan was hatched to produce a movie spin-off. In the same odd year that brought us “Platoon,” “A Room With a View,” “Crocodile Dundee,” “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Fly” came “Transformers: The Movie (30th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray].”
In fact, it was distributed by the same studio that released “Blue Velvet!”
With its trailer airing relentlessly between Saturday morning cartoons, it announced itself as being “Beyond Good, Beyond Evil, Beyond Your Wildest Imagination.”
As in the animated series, the animation in “The Transformers: The Movie” is closer to the richness of Japanese Anime than the often lazy Saturday morning variety. The establishing scenes immediately declare their cinematic pedigree by Vince DiCola, whose cool, synth-based “Transformers” film score sounds identical to his evil Russian theme music from “Rocky IV.”
FAST FACT: Hasbro sold $390 million worth of Transformers toys in 2014.
The plot: floating in the cosmos is a giant Epcot ball-sized sized robot named Unicron, who devours planets(!). The heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, the Laurence Olivier of this franchise), defend Autobot City from a Decepticon siege.
A fallen Decepticon makes a Faustian bargain with Galvatron and one of the most beloved characters in the franchise is killed off. This latter touch isn’t on the level of Janet Leigh’s legendary “Psycho” exit. It’s a gutsy, gritty touch all the same.
That death scene is a great one, distinguishing this as not something you’d see on TV. Ditto the PG rating, with its occasional profanity and non-stop chaos.
As Seen on TV
The cinematic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons was far from the only movie spinoff of a popular toy-based TV series.
The ’80s also saw the release of “My Little Pony: The Movie,’ “Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer,” “G.I. Joe: The Movie” (which went straight to video), “Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw,” “Go-Bots: Battle of the Rock Lords,” and “He Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword.”
They all have their nostalgia-fueled fan bases. Only one delivered “Beyond Your Wildest Imagination.”
“The Transformers: The Movie” is the “Citizen Kane” of ’80s Saturday morning cartoon movies. It just so happens to co-star none other than Charles Foster Kane himself.
In his final film performance, Orson Welles voices Unicron. His voice is electronically altered and the might of his work is sometimes muted. Far better is Leonard Nimoy, a standout as the conniving Galvatron. Nimoy can take a line like “Decepticons- to earth!” and make it sound golden.
Like the series it’s based on, the movie never seems fully aware of how ridiculous it all is. One action sequence is set, without irony, to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid.” Only Eric Idle’s line readings (as Wreck-Gar) sound vaguely sarcastic.
There are oddly Shakespearean nods of political turmoil and power struggles to maintain a literal crown. The societies of good and bad robots, living in space stations not unlike the Death Star, are equally fascinating. The grotesque Quintessons, with their pits of Sharkticons, are arresting side villains.
John Moschitta, Jr. can be heard voicing Blur in his legendary faster-than-fast cadence. Moschitta is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as The World’s Fastest Talker. Any opportunity to hear him speak is highly advised.
The new Shout Factory Blu-ray 30th anniversary release is loaded with great extras. I loved the featurettes on the restoration of the original print and a comic book artist/super fan’s approach to designing the cover jacket.
Some of the extras are carried over from the 20th anniversary DVD, including the commentary by the director, producer and a few cast members. Best of all is the brand new “Til All Are One” documentary, in which everyone from rocker Stan Bush to story consultant Flint Dille (who comments that Welles “looked like a planet”) weigh in.
The documentary features the unusual approach of lens flairs and slow-pans during its interviews. Well, the discussions center on a movie where a planet transforms into a giant robot, so the glossy approach feels right.
Comparisons to this movie and the original series to the gargantuan, Michael Bay-directed movies from 2007-2017 is akin to the Classic Coke taste test. Only, if you were to compare a bottle of cold, fresh Coca-Cola to a rusted, roach-infested can of New Coke.
Let’s start with Bumble Bee, a strong, vocal figure in animated form. Bay turned Bumble Bee into a mute, cutesy provider of lite FM tunes. More importantly, the cartoon form of “Transformers” knew to keep the humans on the side and not the other way around. The robots are best front and center, as Cullen is the real star (of this and the Bay films).
If you’re 30 or older, there is no resisting “The Transformers: The Movie.” When the hair band version of the already-rockin’ theme song first plays and opening titles like “Judd Nelson as Hot Rod” appear, I was a goner. If you can make it past the opening credits without head banging or giving an ’80s Power Fist, you’re a stronger viewer than I am.
This is as much a product of its era as other definitive ’80s mania movies such as “Top Gun,” “Howard the Duck,” “Trick or Treat” and “American Anthem,” all from 1986.
What was it about that year?
The hairstyles were bigger, the movies were brasher and the soundtracks ought to have come with helmets to protect us from all the head banging we inflicted upon ourselves.