Thirty years usually signals an antique for cars, right? What about robot cars? Do the same rules apply? Oh, wait. Sorry, my bad. My other geek brain is showing.
Transformers: The Movie turns 30 this year. This movie is an important part of geek culture. There isn’t one person that hasn’t seen the movie, watched the cartoon (no matter the iteration) or played with some variation of the toys. We have introduced our own children to it, like we do with all our fandoms. Some of us are even old enough to have seen it in the theater. We love this film because it pulls us back to when we were kids, no matter how old we were when we first heard the guitar riffs of the theme song or the chord progressions of “The Touch” by Stan Bush.
The movie is PG, but I was still too young in 1986 to be dropped off at the local movie theater on my own to watch a movie, so my big brother dutifully went along despite professing to be “too old for cartoons.” Which was B.S. because he loved it (and still loves it) as much as I did. The theater was crammed with kids and a smattering of parents chaperoning. It was great! Just like the cartoon I watched everyday after school until… “Damn!” There. Ultra Magnus said it as he struggled to open the matrix of leadership. The gasps from the parents in the crowd… it was a PG animated movie after all. There was not supposed to be swearing! I think that was a huge turning point for PG movies. After that I noticed more and more boundaries being pushed in PG movies as far as situations and language. But in that darkened theater that word was music to the ears of every kid there.
Do you remember when you watched Bambi for the very first time and you heard the crack of the hunter’s gun? You just knew that someone Bambi loved had died but you didn’t see it? Well, Transformers stepped outside of the box and killed off a major and beloved character, Optimus Prime, in this movie. On screen. It was a bold step. One parents weren’t ready to address. I felt shock. Who was going to lead the Autobots now? The theater rumbled and there were a few sniffles, but mostly there was anger. Anger from kids can be dangerous, spotty actually. They don’t know what to do with it or how to appropriately express it. But why were we mad? The good guy died! Good guys aren’t supposed to die. Most parents at that time tried to protect their kids from bad things like that. (Yes, it was a cartoon, I know but characters in cartoons didn’t die back then.) This event preceded the Ultra Magnus moment previously mentioned.
The introduction of the new characters was great. The show needed a new place to go and how do you get there in a half an hour? You can’t, so you put it into a feature length script and hope that your fans don’t kill you for it. In this case the fans loved it! Being kids of course we would, but our parents were thinking, “Oh dear Lord, more stinking toys they’re going to want for Christmas.” (Did I ask for Arcee? Yes, yes I did. Did I get her? No, but I got Wheelie instead. Which was equally as awesome.)
Arcee was the first female character in the franchise. It was a big deal. At least for me anyway. I’m a nerd, a geek, a tomboy. I was the girl running around the playground with the boys and playing in the dirt rather than playing princess. I didn’t understand why one of my favorite cartoons didn’t have a girl. Did I care? No, not really because I’ve always thought girls could be whatever they wanted. Why couldn’t I be Optimus Prime, Rodimus Prime, or even Ratchet? But, here on the big screen was a girl robot, kicking ass and taking names! There were several other new characters introduced but Arcee was the biggest impact for me.
The plot, even all these years later, still stands up as a credible plot for an animated show. There’s a lot you can do with an animated show or movie that you can’t with live action. (Although these days with advancing technology it does seem anything is possible.) You can stretch the boundaries of the imagination because there is no need to suspend disbelief. It’s already done for you. The animation itself? Come on, it’s 30 years old. It looks pretty darn good if you ask me. You can revisit the old anime Star Blazers from 1979 if you want a real OMG moment on how far animation has come. The difference in Star Blazers and Transformers is worlds apart. Star Blazers was blocky and vague in some of the forms the animators used. Transformers had a bit more detail. Techniques will always change and get better but you can’t have improvements without something to improve on.
We can’t forget that Transformers: The Movie had a great cast that included Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Casey Kasem, Buster Jones, Orson Welles (in his very last complete film before his passing) and Eric Idle. Not to mention a rock ‘n roll soundtrack with a number from Weird Al and it turned out to be the unofficial theme for the “Junkions.” It was one of the first animated movies that I can remember seeing with a rock soundtrack, another important moment in movie history. But Transformers is all about nostalgia.
Transformers brought some of the first international toy licensing to the U.S. It opened the doors for other things. I know… what about Sanrio and Hello Kitty? Hello Kitty has enjoyed surges in popularity where Transformers has been a steady property since it was introduced. Transformers was based on several different Japanese transforming robot toy lines that were put under the umbrella of Transformers with the tagline “Robots in Disguise” when they were licensed by Hasbro. Remember the Gobots? Yeah, not many people do and folks that do would argue that Gobots came first but the Hasbro/Transformers deal was in the works long before Tonka and Gobots. Tonka wanted to be first and rushed things along, which could be why things failed for the Gobots, despite having a good head start. I know that handy little tagline had me asking for them for Christmas, right along with G.I. Joe. Hasbro hooked up with Marvel and Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, to complete the backstory for the Transformers since it worked so wonderfully with G.I. Joe before.
You know when you hear Transformers, if you’re in my age group, you immediately think of your childhood and you remember running around pretending to be your favorite robot in disguise with your friends on the playground at recess, or during free play at P.E. Transformers is one of those names that has withstood the test of time, spawning several iterations of cartoons, comic books, toys and movies. It is arguably one of the most successful franchises in history and it all started as Diaclone toys in Japan.
Dust off your DVD, put in the player, and spin it tonight with your kids. Or, if you can wait until its Blu-ray release in September, December in the UK, you can catch it fully restored.