I never really understood the premise behind Transformers, but I didn't care. They were above and beyond the greatest toys a kid could dream of playing with. Who needed either action figures or Matchbox cars anymore? The Transformers were both. And as a loyal consumer child of the '80s, I followed my favorite toy line as it spun-off an animated television series, a comic book series and a full-length feature film. As I said, I didn't really get the story. All that mattered was that there were good guys (Autobots) and there were bad guys (Decepticons), same as any action cartoon. Anyway, the more I try to comprehend the premise of Transformers, the more questions I have about its logic, so I kinda prefer to be in the dark.
It's been nearly twenty years since I sold all my toys at a tag sale, and I haven't watched the television show or read a Transformers comic in all that time. So, when I decided to take a nostalgic look at Transformers: The Movie I was more in the dark than ever. Because it functions as a continuation of the television series, existing chronologically between the show's second and third seasons, there isn't much in the way of introductions. This is a movie for people familiar with the premise, the story and the characters of the Transformers universe.
And yet, the makers of the movie apparently wanted to market the thing to an older audience, one that probably wasn't familiar with the transforming robots' origins. In order to garner a PG rating, rather than a kid-centric G, the movie features a lot more violence, actual deaths of characters and one infamous use of a four-letter swear word. It also employed some big names, including Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle and Brat Packer Judd Nelson, to voice new characters. However, the idea to sell the movie to older kids didn't work out and the disappointing box office of Transformers: The Movie supposedly even killed plans to release G.I. Joe: The Movie in theaters and plans to make a Jem movie altogether.
Today, it almost seems like someone involved in the making of Transformers: The Movie had a secret agenda, like someone intended for it to become a cult classic twenty years down the line. I guess you could say the same about a lot of films that gained a cult following long after original release, but with Transformers: The Movie, things are a little different. Those elements that were meant to attract older kids back in 1986 are part of its current appeal with older fans -- especially those who grew up with the toys and series and now appreciate the franchise in an ironic way.
Now that I'm much older, I find it interesting (and sad) that Transformers: The Movie was officially Orson Welles' last film. I also find it funny that one of the cheesy songs on its soundtrack was later used in the plot of Boogie Nights, but I don't fall in with the group that considers this a cult classic or a guilty pleasure, and I am certainly not one of the major BotCon-attendee-level fans. If anything, I'm simply a grown-up thinking back fondly to his Transformers-obsessed youth. And because of this primarily nostalgic approach to the movie, I really couldn't enjoy as much of it as I expected to.
For me -- and there's a good chance this was the case when I first saw the movie when I was nine -- the problem is that most of the original Transformers are killed off in the first act. None of these deaths, of course, is as problematic as the death of Optimus Prime, who was, and still is, such an iconographic figure. For the rest of the movie, I'm left missing these familiar characters and it affects my ability to embrace the new characters and care what happens to them. It doesn't help that the greatest scene of the movie, a final showdown between Prime and Megatron, happens very early on, and nothing that follows is as memorable.
While most of the movie is a succession of tedious battles between the remaining Autobots and Decepticons (many of the latter, including Megatron, have been remodeled), with a final battle against the planet-size robot Unicron, there is an entertaining story going on between the new characters Hot Rod and Kup, who play out a sort of veteran cop/rookie cop relationship. I will never understand why Kup, the elder, transforms into a futuristic vehicle, but otherwise he's an enjoyable addition to the team. Plus, his origin and design are the least questionable things about the movie, so it's better off not even thinking about it.
Transformers: The Movie doesn't work as a stand-alone film -- not that it was ever meant to be, but it is still an issue for me. Many, many fans will disagree, but aside from the soundtrack, violence and swear word, I don't see any purpose for the storyline to be told as a feature (it was even broken up into episodes at one point). However, if I ever decide to re-watch the television episodes, or if I show them to my children, I'll obviously include the movie. There's a good chance this will never happen, though. I think I'd much rather find some of the old toys, either for myself or my kids.