Friday, June 24, 2011

Transformers, No. 1 - The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

It is every film blogger’s occasional joy to run across a complete blind spot. Given my age, interests, and the never-ending rants of the ever-expanding nerds I went to college with, I am somehow a deeply lesser human being for having never seen The Transformers: The Movie – to go by the nerds’ wizened jabberings, the single greatest animated film conceivable.

Actually, I had next to nothing to do with the Transformers brand growing up, except for a few toys I think I must’ve burgled from somebody. But do not weep for a childhood that never happened, because every young boy has two possible career options: be a giant truck, or a dinosaur. I was a dinosaur. My hosannas then and now go out to the almighty Turtles – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the layman. That’s when I wasn’t intentionally wrecking my childhood with R-rated junk instead (e.g. RoboCop), so a single cartoon utterance of “Oh shit!” probably wouldn’t have even phased me.

Time to do my penance for pop cultural ignorance, and probe this Transformers trend…

It all began as a toy! In an eternal tale of inspiration, in 1984 Hasbro proved Orwell right and acquired preexisting molds from Japan (MicroChange, which spun-off from Diaclone, which spun-off from Microman, which spun-off from G.I. Joe). The toys: robots which could transform. Hasbro’s witty contribution was to call said transformers “Transmorphers” – er, no, “Transformers.”

Largish robots that can turn into cars, and vice versa – it’s a truck enthusiast’s automotive wet dream. To fuel and overwrite children’s playtime fantasies, Hasbro commissioned a story for their semi-Japanese-ish car-bot-itrons. These guys were involved: Jim Shooter, Dennis O’Neil, Bob Budiansky. (Through advance research, it seems I am a worthless scrap of meat for not knowing that a priori.) Thus there are two robot factions, the Autobots and the Decepticons, who battle each other…over energy resources. Despite seemingly interchangeable tactics, one side is good and angelic, and the other side as evil as Pazuzu. The Decepticons, because their innate ancestral name sounds like the English Earth word “deceive,” are the “bad” ones. And…let the hyperactive schoolboys choose their allegiances!

The toy line lead swiftly to a TV show, “The Transformers” (“Fight! Super Robot Life Form Transformer” in Japan, which is an infinitely cooler name). Plus, such publicity leads to more toys purchased, which a cynic without a childhood to rape (i.e. me) would point to as the ultimate goal. For this great mid-‘80s renaissance of product promotional programming, we can thank regulators for lifting a previous ban on such glorious capitalism. (Thanks to “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” because you cannot oppose crass marketing in light of such patriotism!)

The show, by all evidence, explores the war twixt Autobots and Decepticons over the planet Cybertron. It is contemporarily set, with scant Earth humans from the Witwicky family in there not to be further toys (though who really knows), but to entice those weirdos not auto(bot)matically interested in robots. Robo-wise, the cast is massive, to reflect each and every toy available for purchase at your local participating toy emporium: Optimus Prime, Brawn, Bluestreak, Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Gears, Hound, Huffer, Ironhide, Jazz, Mirage, Prowl, Ratchet, Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Trailbreaker, Wheeljack, Windcharger, Hauler, and those are only the good guys, and only from the pilot.

Imagine now, as we artlessly jump ahead to 1986’s big damn theatrical The Transformers: The Movie, an uninformed viewer suddenly plunged into a universe more overloaded than the one outlined above. This is the effect of attempting to watch The Movie now without proper grounding. As animated by Japan’s Toei (though an English-language American release), the Transformers characters are…difficult to tell apart. The movie makes no appeals to newbies, no effort at introductions or explanations. It is mostly by color that I can pick out at least the most important characters (Optimus, Megatron, Hot Rod, Starscream)…though one could complain similarly about the Turtles, I suppose.

The voice cast is really show-offy – among others, Peter Cullen, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Frank Welker, Eric Idle – in perhaps an effort to create some personality distinction. For whatever reason, the DVD’s vocal synch doesn’t work, so this one is screwed up – with hilarious results! Plus, stiff robot faces aren’t the most expressive, so it’s hard sometimes to know which head is yakking anyway.

I feel rather like Stan in “South Park’s” recent “You’re Getting Old” – exposed to entertainment so clearly not meant for me, as it’s both juvenile and instantly time-stamped. Everything throughout feels like the same bombastic visual and aural noise (no, I’m not yet reviewing the Michael Bay efforts). The Movie is no doubt designed for those consumers already initiated in the “Transformers” world – the “Generation 1” world specifically, though they didn’t know that at the time.

The animation is the perfect representative of “Super Robot Seizure Happy Time Hour” – flashing lights and visual dissonance, done with admittedly some budget for a mid-level Japanese 1986 production, but wholly cluttered to behold.

The soundtrack is inundated with period power ballads, and assorted sub-New Wave synth what-have-you. “The Touch,” Stan Bush’s central tune (originally meant, amusingly, for Stallone’s Cobra), is the sort of inspirational pap Daniel La Russo wouldn’t be caught dead training to. Plus, it’s sorta awesome. The entirety of every scene is pumped to full volume with it and similar noise, forever overpowering the hard efforts of the voice cast. (To say nothing of including “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid,” which I like – because it’s “Weird Al” – but is wholly out-of-place near the climax of a self-serious American mecha monstrosity.)

Individually, the story works just like the songs or the visuals – that is, at 11, independently trying to overwhelm the senses with so much spectacle and event and detail that one is never able to get a grasp of what exactly is happening. Or at any rate, my laid back adult mind cannot do this – The whole of The Movie plays like the fever sugar rush babbling of an explosion-happy six-year-old, which no doubt explains its appeal to those who were that age in that year…a limited, niche audience, to be sure.

Here’s what I could figure out: The always-hungry, planet-devouring Unicron (voiced by the similarly omnivorous Orson Welles, who then died) threatens to destroy the peaceful tranquility of the Autobot-Decepticon war. It is also the distant future year of 2005 now, allowing for a heady combination of robots and hoverboards and prophetic Bush satire (okay, only the first two).

Meanwhile…okay, I think it’s all action sequences from here on out. Anyway, assorted cartoon robots launch special effects towards each other, eventually Unicron is turned into something else all explodey, and…a whole shitload of main characters die!

Okay, The Movie is famous for decimating the “Transformers” lineup, in a cruel act of attrition which utterly devastated many ‘80s boys – Imagine if you first learned about death through the passing of Optimus Prime. Seen in isolation, and with recourse to other period anime features with more decidedly mature tones, one (myself) barely grasps the gravity of all this. Part of it is…I sometimes cannot tell if someone is dying. Honestly, I think there’s something wrong with my brain, that the boundless, uncontrolled energy of The Movie is more confusing than the zanier efforts of a Lynch or a Cronenberg.

Besides, going in I already understood the true motive behind animated mass murder: TOYS! The Transformers: The Movie was put out in the summer between the second and third seasons of the TV show, which is a familiar pattern for – yes – the era’s anime films. (See, e.g., “InuYasha.”) The Movie is subservient to the show, which is subservient to the toy line – and toy lines must renew themselves with time, lest the eternal capitalist impulse dry up without new products. So while artistically the show might’ve wished to continue developing its established cast, each new toy means a new character, and it demands the removal of an old character.

So The Movie is really a filmed product announcement, one you have to pay to see. Only no child heading into theaters knew this – they simply knew they’d be seeing their favorite soulless robot heroes in a glorified adventure. Who’da thunk the freedoms of cinema (over kid-vid Saturday morning TV) meant mecha mortality.

And here are the new toys (er, characters) The Movie establishes: Hot Rod, Kup, Bluur, Arcee, Springer, Ultra Magnus, Wreck-Gar, Wheely, Steeljaw, Ramhorn, Eject, Rewind, the Sharkticons. (God, these names!) I get all this info from outside research, because there’s nothing in the film which makes it remotely that clear. Plus, certain former characters aren’t quite killed, but rather “promoted” into “new” consumer-dictated figurines: Megatron becomes Galvatron, and some other misspellings change as well.

And there’s something called the Matrix of Leadership, and I’m sure it makes sense if I could parse out its exposition over the cock rock. As it is, that just sounds like some phraseology from a business retreat.

“More than meets the eye.” “Robots in disguise.” The central concept of “Transformers” isn’t anathema to something a little less batshit nutsazoid. Robots hidden among us…this opens up a rich fantasy reverie, and is obviously the engine behind the ongoing franchise. Too bad the facts of toy production dictate continuous elaboration, which turns – in no time flat! – into lunacy. To capture a new market share, Hasbro invented new sub-lines of Transformers such as the Insecticons or the…er, the Dinosauriconobotics. (Sorry, “Dinobots.”) Also the Constructicons, and probably something called the Comiconitrons.

So…giant robots morphing into giant dinosaurs. It’s cool, in that reductive, maniac sort of way, but these ideas do rather undercut believability. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this overstuffed world was/is the appeal. Maybe it’s more fun to see gigantic robots on alien planets, where their scale is equivalent to the local architecture, as opposed to on Earth where they look massive. All these things which alienate me, which make me hear farting noises, could be what’s fun about the brand.

And moving on briefly beyond The Movie…“The Transformers” continued on TV for two more seasons. Assorted spinoffs then emerged in Japan, but we expect the Japanese to do silly things to begin with. The line bifurcated within the U.S. as well, creating numerous new animated shows and toy lines and comic book continuities, all distinct from each other, except when they’re not. To wit, there’s “Beast Wars,” “Robots in Disguise,” “Armada,” “Energon,” “Cyberton,” and something simply called “Transformers: Animated,” even though all of those are animated. And those are just – I think – the shows. All hail Hasbro, which develops ideas like tumors! Each new line is a chance for new customers – renewing a fan base is one approach, unlike most series which try to maintain a single audience long term.

And then there’s the live action franchise, which is a separate bag of bolts…

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