Years before Michael Bay got his greedy paws on the Transformers franchise and gave our favorite robots in disguise the typical Hollywood treatment of loud explosions, dopy human characters no one gives a crap about, and a ton of CG action there was already a full-length feature film that existed.
One more faithfully associated with the cartoons and figures therein represented. Released in 1986 the film was a big deal and, well, definitely left its mark on pop culture. It also shocked – and (to the outrage of parents) broke the hearts – of children across the nation. It made some pretty big waves and that’s for damn sure.
Today we’re looking back at TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE! And the inexplicable controversy involved with it. Now before we go further I gotta warn you that spoilers are inevitable from here on out. The movie came out in ’86 so there’s been plenty of time for word to have already circulated. Still, if you’ve not seen the film I encourage you do then come back to read this. Ok, with that out of the way.
Kids had it pretty good back in the day. And sure I know every generation tries to claim that, but give it a little thought and it’s easy to see how the ‘80s was the best decade to grow up in. It was the era that really amped up horror movies (practically birthed the Slasher genre into the world), heavy metal was on the rise, we had a gazillion cartoons to lose our minds over, and a new thing called the NES was teaching us a brand new way of living. We still played outside, got sand in our hair, and I remember all my friends and I would go into the woods purposely trying to get lost. It never happened though. At the end of the day, we always made it back home and sat around the family table to eat some of Giovani’s greasy pizza.
I’m not saying everyone was happy, but it was an amazing time to be alive. We got to not only watch our favorite animated heroes acting out new and amazing adventures on the TV but goddamm we also got toys of self-same heroes that let us make up our own adventures once the TV turned off.
Our imaginations were on fire!
In my last article, I talked about the art of MOTU and mentioned how He-Man dominated the toy market. That’s true. But also the (titanic) financial success of MOTU showed businessmen that stupid little pieces of plastic could do a magic trick and turn into gold if, if, you knew the trick. So companies slapped themselves around coming up with tricks of the trade, gimmicks they called them, and realized that if the toy was cool it would sell.
And that was the alchemical secret. We weren’t expecting perfection in what we played with. We just wanted it to be cool. Hasbro must have been drinking some good coffee one morning because someone put two and two together and came up with cars transforming into kick-ass robots and BINGO!
They also had Japanese toy developers who’d already been doing this thing for years to thank for the main inspiration but that’s for another story. Shhhhh.
Hasbro knew they had a hit on their hands and Transformers quickly came into our lives.
Hailing from the distant planet of Cybertron vessels of immortal good came to our planet calling themselves the Autobots. Led by Optimus Prime in an ongoing struggle with their arch enemies the Decepticons, a galactic band of cosmic terrorists who followed the megalomaniacal command of Megatron. Optimus Prime was the good guy while Megatron was the bad one. Both had their own armies to lead and that simple premise is all it took to make thousands of kids happy. Now I was the kinda kid who didn’t give a flying fuck about cars but once Transformers could turn into mechanic dinosaurs, well then I had to get a few of these things.
The Inevitable (Commercial) Movie
Transformers were on top of the world and Hasbro was making a fortune. Along with the refugees of Cybertron, their famous G.I. Joe toy line was also raking in the cash. So naturally, they decided to make even more toys! Newer and better ones. They knew this stuff was kiddie cocaine and we were buying it up like little addicts.
But Hasbro had an ingenious plan, and that’s not sarcasm outta me. Hasbro had their new figures already lined up but in order to introduce them a planned full-length motion picture would reveal consumers to the thrilling new lineup. It was nothing short of an hour and twenty-five -minute long commercial that cost the company a mere five to six million dollars with one goal in mind: sell some damn toys. It was very ambitious of them.
Not only would they be pulling in ticket sells they were very sure kids – having just seen the movie – would rush out of theaters pumped as fuck and begging their parents to rush them to the nearest KB Toys and buy them the newest brand of heroes and villains. Deviously ingenuous!
The plan to part parents from their hard-earned cash was released that August (plenty of time for kids to make out their Christmas demands for Santa) and TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE hit theaters! Just saying those three words together felt like an invocation for greatness. Transformers had all it needed to be a blockbuster masterpiece!
Featuring cinematic legends like Orsen Wells and Leonard Nimoy in a film with a built-in audience… this had to be something amazing.
For one thing, the movie opens up in one Helluva way.
We’re introduced to a mysterious floating entity making its way across the cold dark oceans of space. We’re soon to learn this is none other than Unicron, the film’s antagonist and a devastating threat to all life across the galaxy. Right away Unicron targets a peaceful planet of sentient robotic beings and promptly devours this alien world quickly ending the lives of billions. Not a one of them has a hope of escaping the consuming wrath of Unicron.
Now mere seconds before this cataclysm we just saw little robot children horsing around in a robot mall. We’re also shown families all out and about enjoying a typical day. Robots living their best life without a care at all in the whole wide world WHEN OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE the evil Unicron consumes their existence! So right away it gets our attention and we gotta see what happens next.
I mean a whole planet just died for fuck’s sake.
One Will Stand. One Will Fall.
The first act reaches peak performance as a thrilling battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons erupts. Now, this is what we were all waiting for. Good vs Evil. Pure legend fuel. The Decepticons take advantage of the Autobots’ low-energy source and use it to their dastardly advantage. The battle is on and somehow it feels almost out of place like this is something that should be happening in the final act of the movie instead.
Anyhow this battle climaxes in a blistering fight between Optimus Prime and the Megatron. The two champions meet together in a final battle that will determine the future of all sentient life.
Sadly some idiot keeps getting in the way of the fight and you wish the fuckhead would just go away and let these two guys kick ass. Optimus Prime ultimately wins but both opponents are severely damaged. But victory is at hand.
Megatron is a dirty, rotten bastard though, and takes a cheap shot as one last-ditch effort. Unfortunately, he hits his mark and blasts a crater directly into Optimus Prime’s chest, dealing nothing short of a death blow. Mortally wounded now the leader of the Autobots hangs onto a thread of life, buying precious seconds so that he may pass over the Matrix of Leadership to someone else to lead the Autobots after his passing. Optimus Prime then dies. And, contrary to what I expected, does not get a resurrection.
In case you didn’t know that happened I’m being serious. The Autobot hero to thousands of kids died on screen and that’s when audiences lost their shit right then and there. Kids panicked, screamed, and left their seats crying their eyes out as they fled up the aisle. Funny how Hasbro didn’t see that one coming.
Now when your target audience is between the ages of 5-9 it’s a fair chance they’ve not been introduced to death yet. Especially not the death of a hero they all looked up to. This was too fatal for them to compute.
Optimus Prime died and the backlash of it rocked the company. Something Hasbro did not foresee happening. To the suits who wanted to sell snot noses more toys they figured the best way to do that was by literally killing off the old ones!
No less than fourteen Transformers are killed in the movie. I mean holy shit! Over a dozen of them die, and some in pretty wild ways. Seriously, Starscream is shot into little pieces that litter the floor. People who mention this movie always talk about losing Optimus Prime but I was shocked to see Ironhide and Starscream go. You have to remember this was before we were given The Death of Superman and was a formula no one was used to yet.
And in the case of Superman, it was announced ahead of time he was going to die. So we expected it to happen and had time to prepare ourselves. In the case of the Transformers, it was just a sudden deathblow to childhood innocence.
I should mention that even though Megatron doesn’t exactly die…or does he? Well, he’s dumped out into space where he won’t survive and finds himself before the hellish audience of Unicron. Unicron changes the leader of the Decepticons in order to preserve Megatron’s existence, but at a dire price. Megatron is transformed (heh no pun intended I guess) into Galvatron and voiced by the one and only Leonard Nimoy (Spock). Yes, it’s cool such a legendary actor voiced him but do you think little kids give a hamster’s shit about that? The voice was way different and Megatron might as well be as dead as Optimus Prime.
The movie opens with a whole planet dying. Optimus dies. Megatron dies. A whole lot more died as the movie played out. It’s a helluva ride.
So the dust settled and the smoke cleared and Hasbro quickly saw the folly of their ways. Mainly by the moths flittering out of their wallets. I’m sure no one expected to leave that many kids in a state of heartbreak. But the movie was panned by critics and the core audience had zero interest in going back to the movies to watch their heroes get ass fucked to Hell all over again. So the loss was pretty significant.
Some may note that I purposely mentioned G.I. Joe earlier. Some may not even know there is an animated G.I. Joe movie, and that’s thanks to the failure of Transformers at the box office. Hasbro intended to release the Joes in theaters with a similar business strategy in mind – kill the old to make way for the new. However, the negative feedback from Transformers: The Movie made the Joes do a few reshoots and change a scene that originally had Serpentor (EMPEROR OF COBRA!) throw a snake spear directly into Duke’s heart thusly killing him deader than fuck. The new cut featured Duke – still getting struck in the heart by a freakin’ snake – slipping into a coma. Duke must be one tough son of a bitch to survive something like that.
Live and learn you could say. The loss of Optimus Prime was a little much for young fans to deal with. As it so happened the following season saw a happy return of the favored Autobot leader. It didn’t matter that the Matric of Leadership was passed down to Rodimus Prime. Kids wanted Optimus back. And as penance Hasbro complied and returned him. Let that be a lesson to them!
Truth be told I really enjoy the movie for what it is. I love that it’s a something of a time capsule of yesteryear and feels far more like a genuine Transformers film than the live-action treatments. The main complaint of the Bay movies is how much focus is on the human characters instead of the titular heroes. That’s not the same for the animated film which focuses wholly on the Transformers. The movie takes us on an adventure across space and over alien planets as the battle to stop Unicron rages.
Unicron, voiced by Orson Wells (isn’t that amazing?), is a very fitting enemy and looms grimly throughout the film and serves as a fitting threat. His inclusion alone gives the movie a more epic feel. Basically, imagine a Death Star that’s self-aware and can transform itself into a gargantuan warlord. He’s that badass!
Easily he’s the best thing introduced in the movie.
Overall I do recommend watching it if for nostalgia alone. It’s a forgotten sci-fi from our childhoods. There’ll be some time off with the holidays on the horizon and that means plenty of time to watch some ol’-time classics. Why not brush off this old tape and give it new viewing? This time of year always has me going back to old cartoons.