A story on NPR the other day irked me with its suggestion (apparently endorsed by the current CEO of Hasbro) that the early Transformers and GI Joe cartoons were simply toy commercials, and apparently lame ones at that. Given the profound influence these cartoons had on my cultural development as a child, I took some offense. The contemporary Transformers schlock-films by Bay et al. are more product and advertising than the original 'toons ever dreamed of being. And it truly pains me to have my beloved Autobots & Decepticons treated so poorly by our modern special-effect princes and big-screen storytellers.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. Watch the animated epic, The Transformers: the Movie (1986) and be cured of your Hollywood-induced cynicism. I saw this movie in the theaters with my brother when I was an aging 12-year old and I still consider it my most fond farewell to these legendary icons. The plot is satisfyingly absurd, some of the characters actually die (which never happened in the episodic cartoons), and the majority of the film takes place off Earth, providing a novel backdrop for the storyline.
Broadly speaking, the film was meant to bridge the gap between the 2nd and 3rd seasons of the cartoon - and yes, to introduce some new characters (i.e. "toys") for us to latch onto. The new generation of toys were more futuristic in design, and from my standpoint, less appealing. So, Optimus Prime was replaced by Rodimus Prime (voiced by Judd Nelson) as Autobot commander; Megatron was replaced by Galvatron (voiced spectacularly by Leonard Nimoy).
It is worth pointing out how "cool" the original Megatron toy was to boys of my age-group. Here's a photo:
Pretty hardcore, really. I'm not sure how many parents nowadays would be comfortable with how "realistic" looking this thing is - but that, of course, was the whole point of the Transformers. Megatron was relatively unique in that the object he was imitating was small enough that the toy itself was a replica. You don't run into that problem with Optimus Prime - he's just a rad toy truck. Now that I think about it, this may ultimately explain why they made the move from Megatron to Galvatron, even though the latter's "laser-gun" form was much less interesting to me. Cops mistakenly killing kids touting toy guns is always bad press.
So probably the strongest selling point of the movie for me was the heralded death of Optimus. I always fucking hated that guy. Just a big boyscout, teaching his "lessons" about world peace and being generous and listening to your parents and shit. Watching him eat it in the spectacular battle-scene between him and Megatron confirmed my belief (always confounded by the episodic cartoons) that Megatron was simply tougher and better. A gun beats a truck. It seemed simple to me.
And if that wasn't enough, both Ironhide and Starscream - two of the most obnoxious characters in the series - bite it as well. Ironhide with his disingenuous southern drawl and frank idiocy, Starscream with his weaseling and whining and constant backstabbing. Good riddance.
The larger threat at play in the movie is Unicron: a robotic planet that wanders the galaxy consuming worlds (voiced by Orson Welles, in the last role before his death). So, yeah, he's got a Galactus thing going on and that makes him one bad-ass ripoff.
As a final selling point, we should consider the bizarre Quintessons, the divine watchmakers, the gods of this universe. Imagine that your most profound existential quest leads to the discovery that your creators are psychopathic, multiple-personality disorder freaks with 5 faces who spend their time feeding robot slaves to mechanical sharks. Yeah.
Really, the dweebs who write wikipedia can do a much better job explaining this stuff that I can:
"Twelve million years ago, the alien race known as the Quintessons used the planet of Cybertron as a factory to produce cybernetic lifeforms. Their early experiments in fusing organic and technological components into one being resulted in the creation of the "Trans-Organics," which proved too primitive and unstable, particularly a living energy siphon named "The Dweller", and they were all sealed away in the lowest levels of Cybertron.
Subsequently, the Quintessons turned to pure robotics for their creations, and produced lines of consumer goods and military hardware robots—which would eventually become the lineal ancestors of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively. Forging their bodies in the Plasma Energy Chamber, the Quintessons programmed their robots with intelligence using Vector Sigma, to allow them to carry out their tasks on their own, thereby leaving the Quintessons to do nothing other than live in leisure. However, what they failed to realize was that their robots had developed true sentience and real feelings — after a million years of slavery, they could now feel and know the difference between it and freedom, and they struck back against their masters. The Quintessons fought back against the rebellion with their Dark Guardian robots, unconcerned and thinking themselves untouchable, but when the Coda-Remote, a device created by the rebel leader, A-3, was used to shut down the Guardians, the robots got the upper hand, eventually forcing the Quintessons to flee Cybertron. They scattered through the galaxy until they became largely forgotten by the Transformers."
With a creation mythology like this, how can someone suggest that the Transformers cartoon was merely a commercial vehicle? Clearly, there is love and depth of process here that belies an actual narrative. Compare, for a moment, to Pokemon, the "media franchise" in which the cartoons, I would argue, primarily served as a means of driving product sales and secondarily served as entertainment.
The Transformers Movie has so much going for it, I can even overlook the lameness of our one human protagonist, Daniel (son of Spike, who's homoerotic relationship with Bumblebee in the cartoon series still gives me the willies). In general, the lack of human involvement in the plot is a refreshing release from the hominid-centrism that is characteristic of so much sci-fi fantasy. It also suggests that the Transformers of old had enough character that they didn't need Megan Fox to bring in an audience.
Finally: you must watch this YouTube parody featuring my favorite Transformers character, Soundwave. It summarily encapsulates all that I feel about this whole modern-day Transformers debacle...
"Beth: eject. Operation: shut the fuck up." Fucking brilliant.
The reference to "The Touch" is from The Movie's original anachronistic, butt-rock soundtrack which, I should mention, also contained Weird Al's "Dare to be Stupid":
1. "The Touch" (Performed by Stan Bush)
2. "Instruments of Destruction" (Performed by N.R.G.)
3. "The Death of Optimus Prime" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
4. "Dare" (Performed by Stan Bush)
5. "Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way" (Performed by Spectre General)
6. "The Transformers (Theme)" (Performed by Lion)
7. "Escape" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
8. "Hunger" (Performed By Spectre General)
9. "Autobot/Decepticon Battle" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
10. "Dare To Be Stupid" (Performed by "Weird Al" Yankovic)