The Transformers: The Movie
The Transformers: The Movie is a 1986 animated film based on the Transformers television series. It was released in North America on August 8, 1986, and in the United Kingdom on December 12, 1986. It was co-produced and directed by Nelson Shin, who also produced the television series. The screenplay was written by Ron Friedman, who created The Bionic Six a year later.
|The Transformers: The Movie|
|Directed by||Nelson Shin|
|Screenplay by||Ron Friedman|
|Based on||The Transformers|
by Hasbro and Takara
|Narrated by||Victor Caroli|
|Edited by||David Hankins|
|Music by||Vince DiCola|
|Distributed by||De Laurentiis Entertainment Group|
|Budget||$6 million or $5 million|
|Box office||$5.8 million (US) or $2.6 million (North America)|
The film features the voices of Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Casey Kasem, Robert Stack, Lionel Stander, John Moschitta Jr., Peter Cullen, and Frank Welker, and saw the final film roles for Orson Welles who died before the films release and Scatman Crothers who died after the release of the film. The soundtrack comprises electronic music composed by Vince DiCola and songs from rock and heavy metal acts including Stan Bush and "Weird Al" Yankovic.
The story is set in 2005, 20 years after the TV series' second season. After a Decepticon assault devastates Autobot City, Optimus Prime wins a deadly one-on-one duel with Megatron, but ultimately sustains fatal injuries in the encounter. With Megatron gravely injured, the Decepticons are forced to retreat, saving the Autobots. The Autobots are hunted across the galaxy by Unicron, a planet-sized transformer intending to consume Cybertron and who transfigures Megatron to become the enslaved Galvatron.
Hasbro's exclusively toy-focused agenda demanded a product refresh, to be contrived by the on-screen extermination of starring characters, at the protest of some creators of the film and TV series. The slaughter of characters, especially Optimus Prime, inadvertently upset the young audience.
The film was a box office failure, having been released in a season crowded with hit films, and having a failing young distribution company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG). Contemporary critics were generally negative, perceiving a thin plot made of blatant advertising and violent action appealing only to children. The film gained cult classic status decades later with many home re-releases and theatrical screenings, especially coinciding with Michael Bay's live-action remakes in the 2000s. Several critics greatly favor the original over the remakes; Den of Geek remembered it as "The Great Toy Massacre of 1986" which "traumatized a generation of kids with a string of startling deaths", and as "a milestone in animation history".
In 2005, the evil Decepticons have conquered the Autobots' home planet of Cybertron. The heroic Autobots, operating from Cybertron's two moons, prepare a counter-offensive. Autobot leader Optimus Prime sends a shuttle to Autobot City on Earth for supplies. However, their plan is discovered by the Decepticons, who kill the crew (Ironhide, Prowl, Ratchet, Brawn) and hijack the ship. In Autobot City, Hot Rod, relaxing with Daniel Witwicky (son of Spike Witwicky) spots the hijacked shuttle and a deadly battle breaks out. Optimus arrives with reinforcements just as the Decepticons are near victory. Optimus defeats many of them and then engages Megatron in brutal combat, leaving both mortally wounded. On his deathbed, Optimus passes the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus, telling him that its power will light the Autobots' darkest hour. It drops from Optimus's hands and is caught by Hot Rod, who hands it to Ultra Magnus. Optimus Prime's body loses color as he dies.
The Decepticons withdraw from Autobot City within Astrotrain. To conserve fuel on return to Cybertron, they jettison their wounded, and Megatron is discarded by his treacherous second-in-command Starscream. Drifting in space, the wounded are found by Unicron, a sentient planet who consumes other worlds. Unicron offers Megatron a new body in exchange for destroying the Matrix, which has the power to destroy Unicron. Megatron reluctantly agrees and is remade into Galvatron, while the corpses of other jettisoned Decepticons are converted into his new troops: Cyclonus, Scourge, and the Sweeps. On Cybertron, Galvatron disrupts Starscream's coronation as Decepticon leader and kills him. Unicron then consumes the moons of Cybertron including the secret bases with Autobots and Spike. Retaking command of the Decepticons, Galvatron leads his forces to seek out Ultra Magnus at the ruined Autobot City.
The surviving Autobots escape in separate shuttles, which are shot down by the Decepticons and crash on different planets. Hot Rod and Kup are taken prisoner by the Quintessons, a clutch of tyrants who hold kangaroo courts and execute prisoners by feeding them to the Sharkticons. Hot Rod and Kup learn of Unicron from Kranix, a lone survivor of Lithone, a planet devoured by Unicron at the beginning of the film. After Kranix is executed, Hot Rod and Kup escape, aided by the Dinobots and the small Autobot Wheelie, who helps them find an escape ship.
The other Autobots land on the Planet of Junk where they are attacked by the native Junkions, who then hide from Galvatron's arriving forces. Ultra Magnus secures the remaining Autobots while attempting and failing to release the power of the Matrix. He is destroyed by Galvatron who seizes the Matrix, now intent on using it to control Unicron. The Autobots befriend the local Junkions, led by Wreck-Gar, who rebuild Magnus. They are joined by the Autobots from the planet of the Quintessons. Deducing that Galvatron has the Matrix, the Autobots and Junkions (who have their own ship) fly to Cybertron. Galvatron attempts to threaten Unicron, but like Ultra Magnus, cannot activate the Matrix. In response to Galvatron's threats, Unicron transforms into a colossal robot and begins to dismember Cybertron. When Galvatron attacks him, Unicron swallows him and the Matrix, whole.
The Autobots crash their spaceship outward through Unicron's eye and become disbanded while Unicron continues to battle Decepticons, Junkions, and other defenders of Cybertron. Daniel saves his father Spike from Unicron's digestive system, and the group rescue, Bumblebee. Galvatron attempts to form an alliance with Hot Rod, but Unicron forces him to attack. Hot Rod recovers the Matrix and becomes Rodimus Prime, the new Autobot leader. Rodimus tosses Galvatron into space and uses the Matrix's power to destroy Unicron, then escapes with the other Autobots. With the Decepticons in disarray from Unicron's attack, the Autobots celebrate the war's end and the retaking of their home planet while Unicron's severed head orbits Cybertron.
The Transformers television series began broadcasting in 1984 to promote the Transformers toys by Hasbro; The Transformers: The Movie was conceived as a commercial tie-in to promote the 1986 line of toys. The TV series featured no deaths, and the writers had already deliberately assigned familial identities to characters for young children to associate with; however, Hasbro ordered that the film kill off several existing characters to refresh the cast.
Director Nelson Shin recalled: "[Hasbro] created the story using characters that could best be merchandised for the film. Only with that consideration could I have freedom to change the storyline." Screenwriter Ron Friedman, who had written for the TV series, advised against killing Autobot leader Optimus Prime. He said in a 2013 interview: "To remove Optimus Prime, to physically remove Daddy from the family, that wasn't going to work. I told Hasbro and their lieutenants they would have to bring him back but they said no and had 'great things planned'. In other words, they were going to create new, more expensive toys."
According to the screenwriters, Hasbro underestimated the extent to which Prime's death would shock the young audience. Story consultant Flint Dille said: "We didn't know that he was an icon. It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products. [...] Kids were crying in the theaters. We heard about people leaving the movie. We were getting a lot of nasty notes about it. There was some kid who locked himself in his bedroom for two weeks." Optimus Prime was subsequently revived in the TV series.
A scene in which Ultra Magnus is drawn and quartered was scripted and storyboarded, but replaced with a scene of him being shot. Another unproduced scene would have killed "basically the entire '84 product line" in a charge against the Decepticons.
The film's budget was $6 million, six times greater than that of the equivalent 90 minutes of the TV series. Shin's team of almost one hundred personnel normally took three months to make one episode of the series, so the extra budget did not help the considerable time constraints from the concurrent production of both the film and TV series. Shin conceived of Prime's body fading to grey to show that "the spirit was gone from the body".
Toei Animation vice president Kozo Morishita spent one year in the United States during production. He supervised the art direction, insisting the Transformers be given several layers of shading and shadows for a dynamic and detailed appearance.
The Transformers: The Movie is the final film featuring Orson Welles. Welles spent the day of October 5, 1985, performing Unicron's voice on set, and died on October 10. Slate reported that his "voice was apparently so weak by the time he made his recording that technicians needed to run it through a synthesizer to salvage it". Shin stated that Welles had originally been pleased to accept the role after reading the script and had expressed an admiration for animated films. Shortly before his death, Welles told his biographer, Barbara Leaming, "You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen."
Stan Bush's song "The Touch" is prominently featured in the film, having been originally written for the Sylvester Stallone film Cobra (1986). A remix is in the 2012 video game Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, and in the 2018 film Bumblebee. The soundtrack includes "Instruments of Destruction" by NRG, "Dare" by Stan Bush, "Nothin's Gonna Stand in Our Way" and "Hunger" by Kick Axe (credited as Spectre General), "Dare To Be Stupid" by "Weird Al" Yankovic, and a hard rock remake of the Transformers TV theme song by Lion.
The film was released on August 8, 1986 to 990 screens in the United States, grossing US$1,778,559 (equivalent to about $4,199,000 in 2020) on opening weekend. It opened at 14th place behind About Last Night, which had already been in theaters for five weeks. Its final box office gross of $5,849,647 (equivalent to $13,811,000 in 2020) made it the 99th highest-grossing film of 1986. In that year, Hasbro lost a total of $10 million on its two collaborations with the one-year-old and serially failing film distribution company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG): My Little Pony: The Movie and then Transformers: The Movie. Box office returns were booming across the industry, but several other small young distribution companies were similarly failing due to bulk production of many cheap films. Furthermore, Transformers: The Movie was reportedly "lost in an already-crowded summer lineup" including Short Circuit, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Labyrinth, Big Trouble in Little China, The Karate Kid: Part II, Aliens, Howard the Duck, Stand By Me, Flight of the Navigator, and The Fly.
Across the decades, Transformers has become a cult classic, which yielded a remastering, several home media re-releases, and more theatrical screenings. In September 2018, the film was screened for one night in the United States, in 450 (later increased by 300, totaling 750) theaters.
The film was animated in 4:3 "fullscreen" format, and the trailer promises "spectacular widescreen action". The feature was vertically cropped to widescreen dimensions for theatrical showings and released in fullscreen on VHS and DVD. The 20th anniversary DVD released by Sony BMG in 2006 has remastered video, including both the fullscreen and widescreen versions.
The film was originally released in 1987 on VHS,[better source needed] Betamax, and LaserDisc in North America by Family Home Entertainment. The UK version and the 1999 Rhino Films VHS release, have scrolling text and narration at the beginning to replace the cast credits, and an additional closing narration assuring viewers that "Optimus Prime will return."
Metrodome Distribution released an Ultimate Edition of The Transformers: The Movie DVD in June 2007 in the UK (Region 2), one month prior to the release of the live-action Transformers film. Its extras include many from the Remastered edition, plus fan commentary, a fan-made trailer, interviews with Peter Cullen and Flint Dille, and "Scramble City".
Contemporary film critics had a mostly negative tone. Many cynically perceived a thin but darkly violent plot appealing only to children, based on blatant advertisement, unintelligible action, and supposedly lookalike characters. The day after release, Caryn James of The New York Times described the film: "While all this action may captivate young children, the animation is not spectacular enough to dazzle adults, and the Transformers have few truly human elements to lure parents along, even when their voices are supplied by well-known actors." Scott Cain reported a "packed theater", but complained that "as a jaundiced adult", he irritably "never had the slightest clue as to what was taking place" even after consulting several excited children and the irreconcilable four-page studio synopsis. He did not care to identify the voices of famous actors and concluded that "non-stop action is sufficient for kiddie audiences [but] I am offended that The Transformers is a 90-minute toy commercial. Even worse, it paints a future in which war is incessant. The only human child among the characters is in tears almost constantly." Richard Martin said "It's everything you'd expect from a Saturday morning cartoon blown up to feature length and designed to sell more toys to more kids. [... Unicron is] a monster planet that consumes everything in its path, just as the movie seems set to do." Jack Zink said "Dino De Laurentiis has seen the future, and it is spare parts", calling the film "a wall-to-wall demolition derby for kids". As "an animated, heavy-metal comic book [with a] maddeningly simple story", he said "The art and graphics may be substantially more complex than the TV series but the net visual result is less impressive than most viewers have a right to expect. [...] Not bad for what it is, but not much in the face of precedents like Heavy Metal (1986) and Fritz the Cat (1972)." He said most of its characters are descended from Mad Max and Luke Skywalker, and "have learned the art of the civil insult".
The 1987 VHS release remained on the Billboard Top Kid Video Sales top 25 chart for at least 40 weeks.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 62% of the 26 surveyed retrospective critics gave The Transformers: The Movie a positive review, averaging 5.5/10. Critical consensus calls it "a surprisingly dark, emotional, and almost excessively cynical experience for Transformers fans".
In 2007, John Swansburg of Slate wrote, "Though a modest film compared with Michael Bay's blockbuster [2007 Transformers], the original Transformers is the better film ... [T]here's nothing even approaching the original's narrative depth." He recalled the film giving him a new curse word and childhood trauma: "only in our scariest nightmares would we have imagined that a mere 20 minutes into the movie, Optimus Prime, the most beloved of Autobots, would be killed ... It just blew me away. Witnessing death on that scale was [...] every bit as shocking as War of the Worlds had been for Grandma and Grandpa".
Gabe Toro of CinemaBlend wrote in 2014: "...Transformers: The Movie otherwise provides the sort of chase-heavy thrills that comes from robots that can become cars. Contrast that with Michael Bay's vision, where the robots basically abandon their transforming skills to have endless, violent punch-outs that annihilate cities. Bay's films show the action as a junkyard orgy. The '86 offering slows down to allow for actors like Leonard Nimoy and, yes, even Orson Welles to give actual performances. Fans of Michael Bay's Transformers movies are free to enjoy them. But they'll never top the gravity and excitement of The Transformers: The Movie."
Kashann Kilson of Inverse wrote in 2015: "[N]ostalgia is a funny thing: for many of us in the 30-and-over Transformers fan club, that first movie was an integral part of our childhood. To hell with what the reviews said — the O.G. Transformers movie rocked our collective worlds ... We still love the original so much today, part of the fun of watching Bay's explosion-fests is being able to wave our canes at the youngsters and wax poetic about how back in our day, Hollywood knew how to make a real movie about giant, alien robot warriors."
In 2017, film historian Leonard Maltin gave the picture the lowest possible rating in his Movie & Video Guide and wrote, "Little more than an obnoxious, feature-length toy commercial...That deafening rock score certainly doesn't help."
In the late 2010s, Den of Geek published several retrospective reviews focusing on the film's gruesome but quirky tone, and on the traumatic cultural impact of its violence which is heavier than most preceding animated films. In 2018, it said "the shadow of death hung like a black curtain" over the film and called the psychedelic scenes of Unicron's world-eating guts "a futuristic rendering of Dante's Inferno" in "apocalyptic detail". In 2019, the film was called "The Great Toy Massacre of 1986" which "traumatized a generation of kids with a string of startling deaths". It is remembered as "a story about death, transfiguration, guilt, and redemption", and as "a milestone in animation history".
Comic book adaptationsEdit
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