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Just a few days ago, we received the official reveal of the next instalment in the blockbuster Transformers movie franchise. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is set to release in cinemas in June 2022, and will see the vehicle-disguised favourites of Bumblebee and Optimus Prime encounter characters from the Beast Wars era of the toyline, such as the apelike Optimus Primal and the rhino-based Rhinox. In a nod to the '90s roots of Beast Wars, Rise of the Beasts will be set in the Brooklyn of 1994, and serve as a sequel to the '80s-set Bumblebee movie of 2018.
Rise of the Beasts has been reported far and wide as 'Transformers 7', which makes sense. It is, after all, the seventh live-action production to star the shape-shifting robots from Cybertron since 2007's Transformers turned the somewhat-faded toyline back into a global powerhouse, spawning even more toys, comic, theme park rides, TV shows and enough merchandise to fill a million Optimus Prime trailers. But it's not really the seventh film, is it? Because just as Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's Batman of 1989 isn't actually where things started for the Caped Crusader on the silver screen - that'll be Adam West and Burt Ward's 1966 picture of the same name (discounting the serials of the 1940s) - 2007's Transformers was preceded, 21 years earlier, by a movie that shook the very foundations of media aimed at kids.
Watch the 30th anniversary trailer for The Transformers: The Movie below...
Transformers was well established as a mega-brand in the toy world by 1986. Hasbro's licensing of existing Japanese toy robots - which could be converted into cars and trucks and planes, guns and boomboxes and microscopes - and using them to form the ranks of the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons had enraptured kids around the world. Optimus Prime was an icon to millions, and those same fans knew all about his battles with the maniacal Megatron, leader of the Decepticons. The likes of Starscream and Soundwave on the bad guy's side, and Bumblebee and Jazz on Prime's team, had become household names. Marvel produced a tie-in comic, which circulated in the US and UK; and a television cartoon brought the struggles between the two factions to life, leading to daily playground reenactments.
With a second season of the cartoon in production, bringing with it new characters and new toys to match, Hasbro decided to go bigger still, and commissioned Sunbow and Marvel (yes, the Spider-Man/Avengers Marvel, same one) to produce a feature-length movie. But it wasn't just going to go further in terms of budget, in animation quality, musical score and voice-acting talent. This movie was going to be the weapon with which Hasbro did away with its old line of toys, on shelves since 1984, and brought in all-new figures for kids to desperately pester their parents for.
With the second season of the TV show aired and new characters like the triple-changing Blitzwing and the combiner team of the Aerialbots making their way to birthday and Christmas lists, the summer of 1986 saw the release of The Transformers: The Movie - "the most incredible rock and roll adventure ever," as the trailer proclaimed. Kids rolled up, dragging their parents and guardians, older siblings and grandparents to their seats. Excitement was palpable - at least amid the younger cinema-goers.
Lights down, and what in the heck is that? The movie opens not with Prime nor Megatron, but a new antagonist, the planet-proportioned Unicron - who immediately devours a world of sentient, non-Transformer-branded robotic humanoids, basically exterminating an entire race in seconds. A still-striking scene of incredibly graphic animated violence, with screaming robots crushed to death by incredible forces and a whole planet wiped out by a monstrous being we're yet to understand, it was unlike anything fans of the TV show had ever seen. But what was to follow would be even more shocking.
Fifteen minutes into The Transformers: The Movie, and four of the main Autobot characters have been mercilessly slain, all gaping laser wounds and slow-motion close-ups of robo-faces belching smoke. In the show, combat was rarely anything but a device to move the plot along, a few pew-pews and maybe a character or two gets patched up before the credits roll. There were toys to sell, so Hasbro wasn't about to 'off' any of its big-hitters. So imagine the shock when a character who could take any laser blast the Decepticons aimed at him, Brawn, is turned to scrap by a single shot from Megatron. It was unprecedented. Absolutely staggering to see. And another 15 minutes later, something even more remarkable happened.
Hasbro killed Optimus Prime - and Megatron, kind of, but he's reformatted as Galvatron so he makes it to the end in one piece (physically, at least). This symbol of good, of peace, of hope, an inspirational hero to countless kids and even a father figure to some, was laid out, surrounded by all-new characters that Hasbro was aiming to sell the all-new toys of, and shown fading from red and blue to grey and black as he died, right there on the screen. Cue: tears (guilty) and angry parents - not only aggrieved because of the emotional trauma their kids had just experienced, but peeved as all heck that they'd only just got an Optimus Prime for little Billy or Sue or Gary or Claire, and now he'd been written out.
What happened next was that Hasbro did not kill off the character Duke in 1987's G.I. Joe: The Movie, as had been the plan, due to the huge negative reception to killing Prime in The Transformers: The Movie. Such was the sustained affection for and popularity of Prime, too, that he returned to the Transformers cartoon at the end of its third season, and was restored as Autobot leader in the brief fourth season - that mantle having passed to Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime (that's him, above) during the events of The Movie. And ever since, Optimus Prime has been at the centre of all Transformers media. Despite Hasbro's best efforts to wipe his name and toy from hearts and minds, they quickly came to realise that he was a character that transcended the brand, and really had come to stand for an attitude, a way of thinking, that kids of all ages could aspire to.
But the story of The Transformers: The Movie, and the repercussions of its plot, are well documented - not least by me, as I've definitely written words very much like these before, for other sites and magazines. What I really want to ask, now, is something else. As this so-called seventh Transformers film looms, isn't it time we really directed some respect the way of the 1986 animated movie? Widely panned by critics on its release, and the very definition of a cult classic in the here and now, it's not a picture that many people would immediately call good. But... is it?
The Transformers: The Movie is a very attractive, very vibrant, very 1980s film, with synth rock and hair metal all over its soundtrack and The Breakfast Club star Judd Nelson as Hot Rod, the character who does the whole Luke Skywalker journey of self-discovery across its compact 86-minute duration. Its cues from both Star Wars and Star Trek are brazenly worn on its sleeve, especially in the case of the former franchise - The Movie features a planet-shaped baddie destroying other worlds; the cast includes a single female character with metal buns on her head alongside very Han Solo-like, bold but conscientious newcomer; and there's 'lightsaber' training while on a spaceship, for goodness sake. This movie's makers had seen George Lucas's work, alright.
The action in The Movie is breathless, and unlike the live-action films this is all about the conflict between the robotic factions. There are two human characters - Spike, known to viewers of the TV cartoon, and his son Daniel. There is a sub-plot of sorts about them reconnecting, as Spike has been stationed alongside the perennially popular Bumblebee on one of Cybertron's moons, while Daniel stays at the Autobots' Earth base with Hot Rod; but there's no real attempt made to have kids see this story through the eyes of the teenager. And there's no need for that kind of 'in' - few who came to enjoy this film were not familiar with its core cast of clunk-clacking converta-bots, and so there was little reason to ease audiences in gently. Hence the head-spinningly wild rush of its first half-hour.
Inevitably, this saw pace, this noise, critics of the mid-1980s lost, grasping for a storyline straw, any kind of background context to what the heck was going on. On some releases of The Movie, a Star Wars-style opening crawl laid out what had happened in the time between the TV show's contemporaneous '80s setting and The Movie's depiction of 2005. It helped, but, really, what is there to know here beyond good continues to fight bad, while something even more evil is approaching. Take The Transformers: The Movie as a film that exists only to show that elemental struggle in an entertaining, always-moving, oddly charming, visually quite beautiful and occasionally marginally moving way and... Yeah, it's a good film. I said it.
There are fine performances to note, too. Sadly not from the genuine cinematic legend Orson Welles as Unicron, who was nearing the end of his life and whose vocals are heavily altered for the final movie. But Leonard Nimoy is exceptionally wicked as Galvatron, all cackles and chaos, and while he never reprised the role in the live-action series before his passing, he did voice the turncoat Sentinel Prime in 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The Untouchables star Robert Stack brings genuine gravitas to Ultra Magnus, an Autobot who briefly fills the leadership void left by Optimus Prime. And Monty Python's own Eric Idle offers some levity from all the metallic carnage as a transforming biker guy from a planet made of junk, who talks exclusively in television quotes. The TV cast all put in best-ever shifts, especially Peter Cullen as Prime who, despite (or perhaps because of) knowing his character's about to be taken out of the action, instils his every line with greater weight and resonance than fans had heard before.
But there's something else here, something unspoken, something that can't be added to a Wiki page or discussed effectively in a DVD-extra documentary. In the 35 years since The Transformers: The Movie came out - and yes, a special 35th anniversary edition is imminent - I've never quite been able to put my finger on it. But if you know, you know. The combination of the choreography, so expertly synced to that hard-rock soundtrack, continues to quicken the pulse, just a bit. The complexity of the transformations, especially the enormous Unicron who reveals his demonic robotic form for the film's final act, astounds and delights. The glow of the lighting, the sparkle of the laser blasts. The scraping of Galvatron's metal fingers on the MacGuffin of the Matrix as he attempts to bend Unicron to his will (bad idea that, Leonard mate). It's not one thing, but a cluster of components, of interconnected parts and pumps and wires and tendons, that elevates this... this... this horribly cynical advertisement for toys to something that, damn it, is good. This is a good movie. I can say that now, without embarrassment. Finally. Not amazing. Not essential. But definitely good.
And I'm not the only person to think this, I swear. Here's Chris Stuckmann in 2017 reviewing The Transformers: The Movie and calling it "perfectly enjoyable" and "a fun action movie" while celebrating the anime-inspired animation. Here's Moviebob in the same year delivering a thousand-words-per-second verdict that, yes, The Transformers: The Movie is really that good. (That's well worth a watch if you have an hour to spare.) Here's Brandon Tenold calling The Transformers: The Movie a "ballsy" production "full of crazy sh*t" - and yes, it is. Its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes sits at 88% - six percent higher than the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, and three percent above 2007's Transformers, which has gone down as the best one of the live-action releases (at least until Bumblebee, although that sits lower at 74%).
So hey, why not put some respect on the movie, on The Movie, that started all this. Get excited for the Rise of the Beasts, if that's your Transformers brand of choice; but let's please acknowledge that it's the continuing love for a big-budget toy commercial that ultimately got Transformers to the point where it could even return in the first place. The Transformers: The Movie is the one and only tie-in animated film of the 1980s that, just like Optimus Prime, stubbornly refuses to die - and frankly, I'm pretty sure I'll be writing this piece again for its 50th anniversary.
Featured Image Credit: Hasbro, Marvel Productions, Sunbow Productions
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