Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Outside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion. I never owned the VHS as a child. It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres. My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay. There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall. In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later. So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century? Read on and find out!
It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed. The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth. Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more. However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.
This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time. You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron. To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet! Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them. Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before. The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint. It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped. No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons. It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for. This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem. The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic. It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up. Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note. The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one. Optimus Prime dies. However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone. If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion. This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent. This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.
With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately. I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story. Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor. Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own. The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod. The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.
Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity. And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus. He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack. Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance. He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature. This becomes apparent by the film’s end.
The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast. First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron. After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story. Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully. Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea. However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron. This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance. His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work. Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films. While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable. Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.
With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue. Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans. These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast. They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together. It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie. The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others. The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable. This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.
What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is. There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one. Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it. Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun. There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct. The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting. Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs. They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series. Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot. There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess. Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.
Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes. In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background. The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron. These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other. It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length. Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional. It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid. It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting. This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.
One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today. At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences. The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact. The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty. While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series. This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.
Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack! I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade. I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened. Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time. He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly. Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.” The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down. It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes. This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.
The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing! I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him. However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots. The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this. In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more. That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.
Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence. It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family. Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way. This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments. The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery. You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them. As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene. It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie. At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown. While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise. All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of. While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.