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The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Fleeing the Bay Area

It's no secret that I hate remakes. I've always thought it would be better to update a movie that failed than one that succeeded, because the opportunities to impress an audience are so much greater. But because of brand recognition and a host of other dubious factors, Hollywood keeps pumping out mediocre garbage that rarely touches on the greatness of the original.

Case in point: Michael Bay's live-action Transformers trilogy. As I've said before, Bay and his creative team spent several years on a series of films that broke ground technologically, but whose stories were bogged down by a convoluted mythology and grade-school humor. A much ballsier move would have been to adapt and tweak the 1986 animated feature, The Transformers: The Movie.

Sure, it was meant as a ninety-minute, big-screen toy commercial (director Nelson Shin admitted that Hasbro called the shots on which characters would be featured, based on their upcoming action-figure line); but it took the television series on which it was based to an entirely different level. In the first fifteen minutes, most of the valiant Autobots are brutally murdered by the Decepticons during a surprise attack; add to this a prologue in which a giant, sentient planet named Unicron (Orson Welles--yes, that Orson Welles) devours a smaller planet and everyone on it, and you have the makings of a pretty bleak movie.

Of course, it can't be too bleak, because it's for kids--meaning the plot also has to be kid-simple: Following a raid on the Autobots' Earth base in which both Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Decepticon leader Megatron (Frank Welker) are mortally wounded, Unicron hatches a plan to destroy Prime's Matrix of Leadership; for reasons that aren't explained, it's the one thing that stands in the way of his devouring every resource in the galaxy. After rebuilding Megatron into a super-being called Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy), Unicron dispatches an army of Decepticons to track Prime's successor, Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack), and crush the matrix.

What makes The Tranformers: The Movie so great is writer Ron Friedman's expansion of this universe to include worlds and characters not even conceived of in the animated series. The story shuffles from one weird location to another, with an organic flow of action that rarely lets up. After Galvatron blows up one of the two Autobot escape ships, the survivors land on a planet ruled by a floating four-faced monster who holds trials for any derelicts that trespass in its aquatic technology kingdom. From there, it's on to the planet of Junk, where we meet a race of spare-parts warriors whose language is comprised of TV-signal pop-memes. The last stop is Unicron's belly, a massive energy factory crossed with a deranged auto mechanic's idea of The Garden of Eden.

All of this would be terrific, were it not for the mountain of elements that make the film an embarrassing guilty pleasure at best. From the "Ring Around the Rosie" dance following Weird Al Yankovich's "Dare to Be Stupid" to the charming but utterly ridiculous Dinobots to the 80s metal and power-rock anthems, there's a lot here that anyone who didn't grow up playing with the toys will likely find intolerable without lots and lots of booze (I was at a loss last night when trying to stand up for Shin's use of neon colors--particularly grape-gum purple--throughout so much of the movie; someone in the room said they were reminded of "Jem", and I nearly burst into tears).

If you've never heard of this movie and decide to give it a chance, please know that I'm severely qualifying my recommendation. There's a lot of indefensible craziness here. But there's also an epic story, a lot of heart, and some spectacular animation. Especially in this era of CG wizardry, where we've become so numb to spectacle that many people just assume is created by a series of expensive algorithms, it's nice to see what a staff of highly skilled illustrators could do by hand. Unicron's transformation scene alone, with its myriad shifting parts and atmosphere-disturbing residual effects make checking out the movie worthwhile. There are problems, of course; namely, that the robots' scales are inconsistent: in one scene, a Dinobot is smaller than a larger robot's leg; in the next scene, the same Dinobot has tackled the mid-section of that same robot, who is now equal in size.

I'm convinced that with a couple of edits to scrub the script of the really cheesy stuff, Michael Bay could have filmed a live-action adaptation of The Transformers: The Movie and made it even more successful than the stuck-on-Earth, racist-robots-and-giant-swinging-balls travesties he opted for. He cherry-picked a few elements (the Matrix of Leadership, Prime dying, a giant beast sucking up everything in its path), but stopped short of ignoring his populist instincts and giving us something truly out-there. The original Transformers movie--by accident, I'm sure--proved that one can make a compelling little piece of science fiction out of a line of popular toys; unlike the modern cinematic incarnations, which are purely kids' stuff.

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