|By Joshua Zyber
May 6, 1999
I must begin by stating for the record that I was a huge fan of The Transformers when I was a child. I owned dozens of the toys and watched the cartoon every day after school, even after I hit an age where it was no longer "cool" to do so. When Transformers: The Movie was released, I saw it in the theater and was traumatized by the deaths of several of my favorite characters yet cathartically relieved to see a new generation of Autobots take on the old struggle against the Decepticons.
Of course, with time all such childish infatuations fade, or at least most of them. By high school the social pressure to move on to "older" things like video games, cars, and yes even girls caught up with me so I boxed up all of my old toys and stopped watching cartoons. These days, I have grown up to the point where it is all right to play with my toys again. The release of this movie on laserdisc at this particular point in time seems like it was specially designed with me in mind, as I suspect it will seem to many others from my age group.
I had not seen Transformers: The Movie since that first time in the theater and had long since forgotten it, so I should probably start with my impressions of the movie itself.
The first thing that struck me upon rewatching the movie was how little logic is applied to the characters' special transforming abilities. It would seem that the whole point of robots transforming into cars, planes, and various pieces of earthly equipment should be to disguise themselves in human society, to blend in with the other machines on the planet or hide from their enemies. Yet there is no hiding involved in TheTransformers. Every character already knows exactly who the others are in all of their modes of transformation, and human beings play such a small part in the story that the only two human characters are already affiliated with the Autobots. While it is true that sometimes special capabilities are used by transforming (the Autobots can travel faster as cars, for instance) more often than not the robots transform from one mode to another and back again for no apparent reason other than to show off the ability.
The other problem that has always bothered me about The Transformers, even when I was a child, was the lack of a consistent sense of scale. In their robot forms, most of the characters fall into an approximately logical scale. Some are taller than others, some shorter, some thicker, but there is a believable sense of variety. Yet when they transform, the smallest robot (like Bumblebee, who is practically the size of a human) will turn into a full size car, or the largest (like Soundwave) will shrink down into a human-scale tape deck. The use of weapons is also inconsistent. Many robots use laser rifles or in fact have them built into their bodies, yet the amount of damage these weapons cause will vary radically depending on the convenience of the scene. Sometimes one shot from a small gun will kill a character, but other times a hundred blasts from a high powered rifle will barely make a dent.
The deaths of Autobot characters so early in the film, which horrified me as a child, I see now as entirely pointless. There is no purpose to killing off those characters other than to make room for the new batch of toys to promote, and their final confrontation is laughably executed. There is much shooting involved in very close quarters, yet the Autobots can never seem to hit a target while the Decepticons lay waste to them very easily, all played to the tune of a very bad 80's rock song. In fact, one of the few consistencies the movie does hold is that no matter what the scene involves the music will be terrible. From the opening theme song (“Autobots wage their battle / to de-feat / the evil / forces of / the Decep-ti-cons”), which is sung much worse here than it ever was on the original cartoon, to the godawful You've Got The Touch anthem that is played a dozen times in the movie, the soundtrack is filled with some of the very worst 80's pop music I've ever heard.
Little did the producers of this children's cartoon realize, but You've Got The Touch would be put to much better ironic use a decade later as part of Paul Thomas Anderson's porn-industry opus Boogie Nights.
Now, having said all that I must admit that I had a fantastic time watching this movie. The overwhelming sense of nostalgia that it brought on was very satisfying, and in fact the kitsch appeal of all that lousy music was quite a kick. The basic story is serviceable enough, with solid moral lessons for the kiddies (take responsibility for your actions, respect your elders), and enough action to keep the whole thing flowing along until the end. Of course there is also the knock-down, drag-out, ultimate fight to the death between everyone's favorite hero, Optimus Prime, and most despised of villains, Megatron. The death of Prime, with his literal passing of the torch to the new generation, is still as powerfully done as I remembered it.
There are even some interesting new characters added to the mix of returning familiar faces. Yes, there are some truly annoying new characters, like the ever-so-bland Hot Rod or the irritating Wheelie, whose squeaky voice can send a person into convulsions. Of much more interest is the grizzled war veteran Kup with a thousand old battle stories he's dying to tell, the hyperactive Blurr who just can't stop moving, or Ultra Magnus who wants so desperately to live up to the burden of leadership but just wasn't cut out for it.
And then there is Unicron.
Not only do we have a civil war raging on a planet full of transforming robots, but on top of that we have a new planet which is itself the largest, most dangerous Transformer of all, and easily the movie's greatest invention.
In terms of animation, the quality of the movie varies from the blandness and cost-cutting of its afterschool TV origins (the first robot to transform in the movie does so off screen) to some very nice anime-style battle sequences. Overall a decent balance is met, but never does it live up to the vividness or striking imagery of, say, a Disney production. Not that it was meant to, of course, but for a feature film one might hope for a significant leap in production values over the television series. I am told by those who might know that the original color palette used for the movie was richer and deeper than that used for the TV series, but if that is true it is hardly evident on this laserdisc.
The laserdisc, available only as a Japanese import, was apparently mastered from a television print of the film. One notable line of profanity (“Oh shit!”) has been excised so as not to damage young ears (though You've Got The Touch still contains a verse with the lyric "When all hell's breaking loose."), and the opening prologue text has been revised to imitate a Star Wars-style scroll. The movie is presented in full-frame format, which I'm guessing isn't far off from how it was originally drawn. There are a few brief scenes visibly missing picture information from the sides, but such cases are rare. A slight matting (of maybe 1.66:1 or so) on the top and bottom might have given the film a sense of deliberate composition that it is pretty much lacking at this point. The picture transfer is solid and reasonably sharp with only brief instances of noise or distortion, but the colors are dull and often bleed. Again, the movie just doesn't have the polished sheen of the very best Disney animated product released on laserdisc. It looks very much like the TV cartoon did, and no better.
The most disappointing aspect of this disc is, sadly, the audio. The movie was originally released on laser in Japan several years ago in Dolby stereo as it was presented in theaters. I have never seen that disc and so cannot comment on either its picture or sound quality, but the new disc is strictly mono and significantly lacking in the audio fidelity department.
Because this is a Japanese release the disc is bilingual, but fortunately there are no subtitles on screen. The primary digital tracks contain a Japanese dubbed language track while the analog tracks have a noticeably weaker English mix. Right from the opening scene, when the movie should really kick you with the force of Unicron tearing apart an entire planet, the soundtrack wusses out with muffled sound effects and a practically non-existent musical presence. Throughout the movie, whenever that bad pop score starts up and you get the feeling that it should really start rocking, the music just fades away into the background. This poor audio is truly irritating given how important the sound effects are to the film. Can anyone who has ever seen a Transformers cartoon forget the sound that Optimus Prime's laser rifle makes? Specific sounds, whether of weapons or transformation, are very much associated with many characters in the film. To suck the life out of them as this disc does is a crime.
The poor audio is also unfortunate given that some of the movie's biggest surprises come from the celebrity guest voices. Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, and (can it be true?) Orson Welles in his last film work are among the recognizable voices in the cast. Casting Welles as Unicron was a significant coup of the filmmakers, but unfortunately he died midway through production and it sounds like Nimoy may have had to take over some of his lines. Regardless, the audio is so muffled here that it is nearly impossible to tell the two actors apart anyway. Particularly hurt is the vocal work of Eric Idle, who gave quite an amusing and memorable performance as the TV cliché-spewing Wreck-Garr, but who is so shrill and distorted now that you can hardly tell what he is saying without deliberate concentration.
A direct comparison to the digital tracks reveals that they are clearer and stronger, but still lacking in presence or fidelity. The voices recorded for the Japanese dubbing often sound more appropriate to the characters than the American cast, and it can actually be rather enjoyable to take the movie as a strictly visceral experience by watching it in Japanese once you have tired of the plot and some of the worst dialogue passages ("Bring on those Decepti-creeps"). Maybe this is just me but I find it highly amusing to listen to the Japanese pronunciation of "Transfoaaam!" That alone can carry me though large chunks of the movie. I have also noticed in several instances, most notably the opening scene, that the Japanese tracks have more dialogue coming from characters whose faces are off-camera.
These caveats aside, I still found this laserdisc to be
a terrific addition to my collection. Maybe my expectations were just low
from the start, but I have not been sufficiently put off by any of the
disc's (or the movie's) flaws to prevent me from rewatching it several
times since I bought it. I should also mention that it comes in a nicely
designed jacket with some very striking black & white cover art (seen
above) and has a full color pamphlet inside with stills from the film and
the credits listed in Japanese text. There is also an amusing theatrical
trailer from 1985 following the feature which calls the movie "The greatest
rock & roll adventure of all time" (I thought that was
Fire!) and pushes the presence of Orson Welles in the cast as if the
10 year olds they were marketing to would actually care.
In December of 2000, Kid Rhino Video released a remastered
DVD edition of Transformers: The Movie in its original theatrical
cut. The picture transfer is much improved over this laserdisc, though
the packaging artwork is rather horrible. For the complete details, I refer
readers to my review at DVDFile.
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