Transformers: The Movie* is hard to defend, but I'm happy to do so every chance I get (don't worry, it's not that often). Fortunately, Shout! Factory has saved Future Ian a lot of bluster by releasing a gorgeous 4k restoration of the film on Blu-ray, to mark its thirtieth anniversary. This package makes a solid case for director Nelson Shin's work as a piece of capital-"A" Art, with several new bonus features that will make even the most ardent scoffers shut up and take notice.
Let's get this out of the way: Transformers: The Movie was conceived as a ninety-minute toy commercial and an extension of the wildly popular kids' cartoon show (which were half-hour toy commercials--or ten-minute ones when spliced into vignettes for The Bozo Show). Product tie-ins are nothing new, especially in today's mega-media landscape, where every movie is an advertisement for another series of three movies--plus spin-offs, Netflix series, comics, games, etc. But in 1986, Hasbro wasn't interested in expanding their product line; they wanted to clean house, unveiling new characters/toys that fans, they'd assumed, would simply swap out in their hearts as easily as their shelves.
For Shin, writer Ron Friedman, and story consultant Flint Dille, "cleaning house" meant removing any doubt from young minds that their beloved, first-generation Autobots and Decepticons were dead. Optimus Prime and Megatron didn't take their war for supremacy to some distant nebula, ceding the fight for Earth and Cybertron to a new class of robots-in-disguise. No, they straight-up murdered each other on screen, and took out just about any other Transformer whose original form wasn't futuristic enough for 1986's sophisticated consumers.**
As Dille recalls in the Blu-ray's new making-of documentary, 'Til All Are One, the studio and filmmakers weren't ready for an aggrieved fan reaction. Even the film's voice actors, like Dan Gilvezan ("Bumblebee") and Neil Ross ("Springer"), who hadn't known about the overhaul until they received their scripts in the recording studio, were taken aback by the passion with which children everywhere mourned the death of John Wayne-esque Autobot leader, Optimus Prime.
Ah, yes, Optimus Prime. It's no secret that I still tear up (or, at the very least, get goosebumps) every time I see that big, red semi-truck roll across the bridge into Autobot City, which has been overrun by Decepticons. This early scene follows several others of extreme violence (particularly for an 80s animated kids' show), in which planets are destroyed, hero-bots are shot at point-blank range in the face, and black smoke billows out of mouths as bodies collapse in shredded heaps. In other words, Optimus' declaration that "Megatron must be stopped--no matter the cost" isn't just macho posturing; it's a promise to the viewer that a childhood icon is about to die (horribly) saving the world.
The Blu-ray's newly restored picture lends this moment even more heft. The landscapes are crisp, the waterfalls along the bridge are crystal clear, and we get a clean sense of movement from Prime as Stan Bush's "The Touch" kicks in--first with a power-anthem battle-cry; then with soft, almost lonely notes that sell the necessity of Prime going it alone; then with the full-on stadium-rock charge as Prime plows through a Decepticon blockade. A behind-the-scenes look at the restoration process offers jaw-dropping, side-by-side comparisons of this and other scenes, revealing much more detail than was available to audiences in 1986. In particular, The Autobot City charge is perfectly realized now, allowing audiences to fully appreciate the balletic fluidity of Prime's transformation as he blasts out of truck mode, flips in the sky, and glides back to earth in humanoid form with his hand canon ablaze.
I don't know what went through my parents' minds as they watched me watch this movie in the theatre three decades ago, but the contradictions of this moment--with its innocuous aesthetics, pending martyrdom, and relentless gun violence--must have been downright chilling. As an adult today, I remember someone once describing the violence in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch as a "beautiful bloodletting". Swap out squibs for painted cells, and, yeah, you've got that.
Count me among the kids of that generation who was shocked by the movie, and didn't care for the new toys that accompanied it, but who also appreciated the fact that Shin and company were giving me an early taste of grown-up animation. It's easy to snicker at Dille's assertion that many of the film's compositions and designs are like something out of an art film, but Transformers: The Movie really does have more in common with Akira than with anything Michael Bay has done for (or, more precisely, to) the property.
Comic-book artist Livio Ramondelli, who created the new poster-cover for Shout! Factory's release, was also a childhood fan. In one of the disc's cooler features, Ramondelli talks about what Transformers means to him, and takes us through his creative process--from the challenges of staying true to thirty-year-old character designs while still maintaining his artistic voice, to tweaking the poster layout for maximum dynamism. The segment ends with a mystery, though: Ramondelli's final thumbnail sketch is slightly different than the painted art you'll see on the shelves. Originally, Optimus Prime held a striking ready-for-battle pose. In the final piece, he's depicted as opening the Matrix of Leadership, an all-powerful Maguffin that lives in his chest. From this puzzling, straight-forward perspective, the classically noble Optimus Prime looks strange, as if he's flashing for Mardi Gras beads.
The featurettes, documentary, and assortment of classic ads go a long way in making up for this edition's one shortfall: the only commentary track was recycled from the 20th anniversary DVD release. Gone is the DVD's fan commentary track, which offered a fun, minutiae-packed, outsider's take on the movie. The filmmaker track is fine, though, and newcomers should be content with Shin, Dille, and actress Susan ("Arcee") Blu's*** thoughts on the making of the film. This omission is far from a deal-breaker; it's just a small detail that keeps this from being a definitive package.
If you've never watched Transformers: The Movie, and have never considered watching it, there's no better time to be adventurous. Yes, it was born of a corporate mandate, but Nelson Shin's team put together a bold, stakes-heavy (occasionally corny) film that transcends mere commercialism and nostalgia. Shout! Factory's loving restoration and examination of the work finally pays this overlooked gem its due.
*Sorry for dropping the title's first "The". Much as I love the film, "The Transformers: The Movie" is just too damned clunky.
*The tape-deck Transformers survived, though, because cassettes were--and always will be--the (Sound)wave of the future.
**Trivia Time: Blu also appears in 'Til All Are One, and I got the strange feeling that I'd seen her before. Sure enough, the actress also played Mrs. Shepard in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.