BnB Shame #9: Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Ever thought about putting your house up for and AirBnB? If so, did you ever give a thought to the judgment potential renters might give you from your DVD collection? You don’t know how it got there. Maybe it was a gift. Maybe you got it at a 3 for $5 sale at Wal-Mart. Or, perhaps worst of all, maybe you actually like it. Welcome to “BnB Shame”.

Exhibit A:

Transformers: The Movie

Why make it:

To clear the decks and sell new toys to children. Toys that were developed in-house and are, as a whole, much lower quality than the Takara toys that Hasbro was pushing onto kids two years ago. Seriously, Hot Rod was some hot garbage. Name me one person out there whose windshield/canopy/spoiler piece didn’t snap off a week after owning him. This is unacceptable, Hasbro!

But yeah… this is that movie that kills Optimus, murders Prowl, disposes of Wheeljack, maims Ironhide, disintegrates Starscream, wipes the floor with my personal favorite Transformer Ratchet (it was small comfort that the Autobot medic got to live on in the comic books), and turns Megatron into an evil Leonard Nimoy. All because they needed kids to become future hoarders. Buy Blurr, Wheelie, Springer, and Cyclonus, you dumb children! (But not Arcee. Transformers are for boys!) Orson Welles, who voiced main villain and planet-eater Unicron, once told his biographer that he had spent the day playing a toy in a movie about toys “doing horrible things to each other.” What do you think he would’ve said if he’d lived to see the Bay movies?

Who am I kidding? You know he would’ve done a voice cameo. That doesn’t change the fact that most of the voice actors involved saw this as “voice actors gotta voice” type of work. I listened to a podcast once reuniting some of the voice actors not named Peter Cullen or Frank Welker to talk about Transformers. It was pretty apparent none of them could tell Sideswipe apart from Sunstreaker or Smokescreen. They seemed like they would have loved to talk about literally anything else. It’s just toys doing horrible things to each other.

Also someone swears, and that was a huge “WTF” moment for kids at the time.

Why Review This Now:

Hey, 2019 marks the 35th anniversary of the Transformers! Also, I am a guy who writes on the internet, and am legally obligated to have my opinions about Transformers: The Movie known!

Light Our Darkest Hour:

There is a very good reason why I and literally every other person in the world who call themselves Transformers fans owns a copy of this movie on DVD. GI Joe: The Movie was a fun curiosity that future writers would ignore (like, Cobra Commander is never portrayed as a snake person for ancient times). GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords is almost completely forgotten despite having the vocal talents of Margot Kidder, Roddy McDowall, and Telly Savalas. I don’t think any one outside of screamy YouTube personalities has any feelings either way about the Care Bears Movie Trilogy.

But Transformers: The Movie? Despite being a box office flop (the best estimate being $5.8 million on a $5-6 million budget), the movie transformed a silly Saturday morning cartoon where sometimes an ambitious inventor robot will make dinosaur robots just because he could into a full-fledged mythos that every single Transformer iteration can never ignore. Before it was just Autobots who rage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons. Now… that conflict was just so insignificant.

There were god-tier robots now that had no allegiance to either faction. There were whole planets that cared nothing about this petty war, where robots would scavenge garbage and learn language from TV commercials. There were other worlds where cannibalistic creatures were called Sharkticons, but were clearly round frog creatures. We get the inklings of a frightening world beyond the confines of what we’d been used to, one where you can meet your creators and realize that they hate you and want to kill you.

Take that, Prometheus!

Autobots and Decepticons don’t matter anymore. You’re all just pawns of a cosmic battle, or food for a giant robot. Before, humans were the insignificant ones standing next to titans. Now the titans themselves are small, unable to stop forces that can rend their bodies asunder and rebuild them as unwilling slaves.

As generic as it sounds, Optimus Prime’s request that the Matrix of Leadership be passed on until the day “’til all are one” works here. That one day, former enemies can set aside differences because the universe is cruel and dangerous and you need to stick together.

How It Pains Me To Do This:

And yet… Hot Rod (voiced by Judd Nelson) may not be the best character to center the movie around. He’s a good character in theory. The young hot-shot who is indirectly responsible for getting his beloved leader murdered, and eventually has to lead the Autobots himself? That’s a great storytelling beat!

Unfortunately he doesn’t suffer any blowback for Optimus’ death (though the fans were not as forgiving). He goes on some adventures with veteran Autobot, Kup, but his detour to face the Quintessons is somewhat unrelated to the main plot (namely, the giant planet-eating robot voiced by Orson Welles). If the movie is building up to the resolution that Hot Rod deserves to be the next Prime, here’s where he should be displaying leadership skills. As a result, Hot Rod becoming the Autobot leader (which happens in, like, the last 5 minutes) feels completely unearned.

It doesn’t help that Judd Nelson sounds like he’s phoning in his role. For all his criticism about the movie, Orson Welles at least brought it as Unicron as a threat that was unworldly and unknowable. Nelson has voiced Hot Rod as recently as 2018, so it might be interesting to see if he’s honed his vocal skills in the last 33 years. (Nelson wasn’t around for The Last Knight, with Hot Rod’s vocal duties going to Omar Sy doing an OUTRAGEOUS French accent!)

Robert Stack does slightly better as Ultra Magnus, but I would’ve like to have his storyline better developed as well. Ultra Magnus is the heir apparent to Optimus, but always comes off as someone who’s unwilling to take that next step into becoming an inspiring leader. Hey, it happens. Some people were born to lead, others are more comfortable at being support staff.

His whole storyline, though, boils down to him being unable to activate the Matrix of Leadership… but not because of his self-doubt. It mainly because Hot Rod held the Matrix first. I honestly would’ve left out the scene where the Matrix dropped and Hot Rod scoops it up. The story, instead, would have been that Hot Rod had that ineffable inner strength and confidence that Ultra Magnus lacked.

But, alas, this movie paints the original Autobot leader with the flame decals as a total, colossal screw-up.

This Is Bad Comedy:

It should be no wonder that, outside of Optimus’ death, the things people remember mostly about this movie are the bad guys. They are finally menacing in a way they weren’t on the Saturday morning cartoons. The rack up a gigantic body count. There’s factional infighting. And there are glimpses that they’re considering an alliance with their hated enemies. At one point, Galvatron tries to side with the Autobots to overthrow Unicron, but the control over him is too strong. He may have been a villain before, but now he’s a servant of the actual Transformer devil.

And, of course, there’s the scene that everyone loves: when Galvatron finally deals with Starscream, who has prematurely crowned himself the leader of the Decepticons. By putting on a crown and a cape. And surrounded by robots blowing trumpets. It actually makes you kinda love the Decepticons. All Starscream ever wanted was the pageantry of leadership.

It does make you wonder what would happen if Starscream ever truly took over… though this movie does answer it. The Autobots are held together by righteousness and the belief in their cause. They can survive and thrive in a post-Optimus world. Even if an upstart like Grimlock thinks he deserves to be king, he’s quick to offer his services (and those of his Dinobots) to the true leader when one is anointed. The only thing holding the Decepticons together, though, is Megatron. Without him, factional infighting is inevitable.

Crap, this is going to turn into one of those reviews where I say a movie made to sell toys is more complex than it lets on, isn’t it? Like the internet isn’t full of these already? Well, that too was inevitable.

Secret Song pick:

The entire Transformers: The Movie soundtrack is a surprise treat. It’s got the Junkions and the Autobots bah-weep-grah-na-weep-ninny-bonging to the sounds of the Devo pastiche, “Dare To Be Stupid.” (Admittedly, having a robot voiced by Eric Idle dance to a Weird Al Yankovic song is probably the movie’s biggest selling point.) Of course, everyone one knows the great Stan Bush hit from this movie, “The Touch”, which has been implemented in other films as a sign of virility.

For my money, though, the true Universal Greeting to let other fans know that you’re cool is that other Stan Bush song. I am, of course, talking about “Dare.”

I mean, sure. The other two songs accompany a dance party and Hot Rod doing a sweet pose when he transforms into Rodimus Prime… but “Dare” is the score of the sweet battle scene that opens the movie.

Potential BnB Renter’s Assessment:

You are a sad manchild holding onto his toys for too long. Unless, you know, they are also sad manchildren themselves. Incidentally, I have watched this movie with my wife, and she find the Bay movies much easier to follow. You do have to have a certain attachment to the property ahead of time to enjoy it.

That’s not to say the movie can’t attract new fans. A young friend of mine (who is now in college) used to watch this movie all the time… and his introduction to Transformers were the Bay movies. You don’t have to have watched the 1984 cartoon to be affected by Optimus’ death… though it does help that Peter Cullen remains a constant presence in both versions.

Every subsequent iteration of Transformers has plucked elements from the movie, and there are references all over the blockbuster films. Whether it’s the phrase “One will stand, one will fall” or the casting of Leonard Nimoy as a villain or the appearance of Unicron and the Quintessons, Transformers: The Movie is a foundational building block of Transformers DNA. It’s the Rosetta Stone of the fandom, without which the franchise would occupy the same room in your memory palace of misfit toys like MASK or Visionaries. The movie represents a promise that even if your starting point is a 30-minute toy commercial, at some point a greater universe will reveal itself.

I have no idea if my copy is an official one or some weird bootleg. I mean, when I play it, it’s in 4:3 aspect ratio. Plus the wordmark on the front isn’t the one from the movie poster, but rather the rounder, more italicized logo being used in the early 2000’s for the likes of Armada. Just cause to spring for the Blu-Ray version, ya think?