Tim here. We are come to the release weekend of a new Transformers movie - this one has Mark Wahlberg replacing Shia LaBeouf and robot dinosaurs replacing the idiotically absurd lack of robot dinosaurs. And with solemn redundancy almost as predictable as the content of the movies themselves, the same critical conversations that happen every time a Transformers opens are happening once more. There's the "if you like these movies, you are objectively wrong" essay; the litany of reviews all bemoaning the length, noise, and visual incoherence of Michael Bay's latest bombardment of ugly CGI and sexism; the handful of weakly noble defenses that it's all actually fun, and don't we like having fun? And I largely agree with at least two of these, and always enjoy when they put in their appearance.
Then there are always the pieces about how the Bay movies are cynical, loud junk that entirely miss the goofy fun of the crudely-animated Japanese cartoon from 1986 that first brought the Transformers to the big screen. And since I wasn't doing this when the last movie opened, it's my pleasure to write about that one this time around.
For Transformers: The Movie (or, formally speaking, The Transformers: The Movie, but that’s a lot of definite articles in just four words) is actually pretty good, considering how crappy it is. [More...]
By which I mean, one must make allowances both for the state of low-prestige anime in the mid-‘80s, and for the general quality of feature-length movies that are barely-disguised toy commercials; but the latter of these is not a hurdle that Bay’s movies have yet been able to overleap. For Bay’s films persist in taking all of this very seriously and treating the matter of robots fighting other robots with epic gravity, whereas the cartoon is a giddy, gaudy explosion of bright colors and delightfully terrible ‘80s rock. They are both equally silly and nonsensical at the level of plot and dialogue (okay, fair is fair: the cartoon probably has worse dialogue, full of words like “Decepticreeps” and putting the suffix–icon at the end of words to demonstrate that things are evil), but the animated film has a more loopy, carefree mentality that makes that go down a great deal easier.
Set in the unimaginable far-flung future world of 2005, Transformers: The Movie depicts its population of shape-changing alien robots as locked in battle for their home planet of Cybertron, with the evil Decepticons controlling the surface, as the heroic Autobots plan to stage an attack from the planet’s moons. Meanwhile, a population of Autobots still lives in peace on Earth. This wearying long-term war is about to be interrupted by the arrival of Unicron, a gigantic robotic sphere that travels through space devouring planets, and was notoriously the final role ever played by Orson Welles, who recorded his last lines five days before his death. Some of the finest bitchery ever bitched came out of this performance, as Welles complained to his biographer Barbara Leaming:
You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another.”
And so on and so forth.
The star of Citizen Kane certainly had a right to be disgusted by the straits he ended up with – and the final sound mix augmented him so heavily by synthesizers that you can’t even slightly make out his voice any more – but Transformers: The Movie really isn’t that bad at all. It’s cheesy as hell, of course. Nobody who has childhood memories, or even adult memories, of Stan Bush’s random, highly enthusiastic anthem “The Touch” can possibly deny that the movie is deeply mired in the most excessive, idiotic swamps of pop culture of the day.
Still, for unapologetic junk food, it’s no worse than anything else that happens every summer, and in a lot of ways its better. For one thing, it has a woman Transformer, which is a weird thing to say about a species of presumably genderless robots, and she is indicated by being bright pink, wearing lipstick, and having robot boobs. But she never leans over a car flaring her ass for the camera, and that is all that’s required to make the film’s gender politics infinitely more progressive than anything going on in the Bay movies.
Also, infamously, the film has death – no small amount of death of fairly significant characters. In ’86, this was present for one reason only, and that was so that Hasbro could phase in a new wave of toys by introducing several replacement cast members. And it even kind of feels that way, given how conveniently all of the new characters have different body shapes and color patterns, and turn into things that the old characters didn’t turn into. But let’s table that: the point remains that in a movie pitched directly at kids, the is the dramatically necessary, permanent death of main characters (also the word “shit”, which caused quite the to-do back in the day). It doesn’t really land with much impact 28 years down the road, with the Transformers franchise having been so completely changed by time, the live-action movies, and God knows what, and the kids of today have no real connection to this particular version of those characters, but still: how many movies for a young audience have presented, with so little apology, the fact that death happens and can’t be fixed, and you have to move on? It’s honest and harsh in a way that more children’s entertainment ought to be, frankly, even if its motives are more mercenary than anything.
All of this should not take away from the fact that, even as the best of all Transformers movies, the animated Transformers still isn’t very good. It is plagued by achingly dumb dialogue, arbitrary weirdness, a structure that’s too obviously designed to be retrofitted into individual TV episodes if the need arose (to my knowledge, it didn’t). And the state of animation was, worldwide, not terribly high in those days; despite being animated at a fairly prestigious studio like Toei, Transformers is awfully stiff with a very limited amount of detail.
But even as a far less than perfect animated adventure, the film’s attitude and energy, its color and its simplicity, and above all its focus on being lightweight entertainment instead of whatever the hell Bay’s lugubrious epics are meant to be, are enough for it to serve as a great reminder that giant robots punching and shooting each other are supposed to be fun. Plus, it’s literally half as long as the new movie, and if there’s anything that points to the cartoon’s fleetness and the new series’ bloat, it’s that.