The anecdote that I think most faultlessly sums up everything there is to say about The Transformers: The Movie, a 1986 feature cartoon adapted from a television series based upon a toy line, is that the Hasbro toy company executives who paid for it and were very excited to see it usher in a new product line were completely unprepared for the outrageous backlash from upset fans and their parents when the series’ main character, a space robot who turns into a semi truck, was killed at the break between the first and second acts (the parents also had a separate backlash, when a film that could not possibly be more narrowly aimed at the 10-and-under set, in addition to killing off a beloved character, had another character yell “oh, shit!”). This tells us the two most important things: first, obviously, that the Hasbro people had absolutely no interest in this film as anything whatsover other than product. It has been noted many times that American children’s television animation in the 1980s, much more that at any other period in history, was dominated by advertisements: many of the best-loved cartoon series were thinly-veiled toy commercials and sometimes “thinly-veiled” would be paying them a compliment. The Transformers, which aired 98 episodes between 1984 and 1987 (the film was released, and took place, between the second and third seasons), is not the most egregious of these, though it may be the most recognisable, and certainly has had the longest cultural footprint.
None of which should distract from the point: it is a toy commercial, and anything else it might do was a second-order priority in comparison. For Hasbro and their Japanese partners at Takara, the reason to do a movie was less for the sake of the movie, than for having a grand-scale clearance event ushering out the old toys and announcing the even better new toys that you could go right to the store and buy on your way home from the theater. That anybody would care about this toy commercial enough to bother having a backlash at all was simply not part of their calculation. So that’s what we’re dealing with: not merely a product for which artistry wasn’t expected, it is maybe fair to call it a product from which artistry was deliberately banished.
The other thing the anecdote tells is that, despite, this, people did care, and there was a backlash because of just how much people cared. So surely there must be something going on here.
And for sure, there’s definitely something. I’m not going to pretend that The Transformers: The Movie isn’t precisely what it is: it’s selling a product. One cannot help but notice the way that every character is referred to by their given name repeatedly, especially when we’re meeting them for the first time, the better to remember which one is which when Mom is helping you look on the higher store shelves. Not to mention that the new toys are all introduced, while the old toys simply show up as though we’ll know exactly who they are. Having long since mislaid the ancient memories that would tell me exactly who they are, I confess to finding much of The Transformers almost mystifying in how damn little sense it makes; it’s a constant barrage of visual, auditory, and narrative information that feels like it’s sweeping us away on a tidal wave more than presenting a chain of events for us to follow. In principle this must work out properly, since I’m certain that this didn’t bother me as a five-year-old, but all these years into adulthood, I am more just kind of stunned and dazzled – not even in a bad way – by the unrelenting speed with which the 84-minute feature races through plot points and new narrative sequences.
So while I can say that the story (credited to only one writer, Ron Friedman, but clearly this must have been the work of many notes from many executives in boardrooms on both sides of the Pacific) broadly describes how the Autobots, the good alien robots that mostly transform into land vehicles, are forced to temporarily pause their war with the Decepticons, the bad alien robots that mostly transform into air vehicles, because of the arrival of a robot that transforms into a planet that eats other planets, I am not completely certain that I could tell you how every single piece of the film fits into that arc. I can at least tell you that it does so without belaboring itself, which is why this is still an improvement over the series of similarly hectic but also achingly long movies directed by Michael Bay starting in 2007 with Transformers and ending ten years later with Transformers: The Last Knight (though I would put it below 2018’s prologue/coda Bumblebee). Plus, The Transformers: The Movie generally has clear visuals showcasing its robot-on-robot action, which is another reason to push it above the Bay movies.
That’s starting to get us in the direction of what actually does work about the film, which is mostly that director Nelson Shin and Toei’s animation director Morishita Kozo appear to have been fairly unique in that they seem to have taken it seriously. Shin had worked on The Transformers, both with the Korean studio AKOM Production, Ltd, the company he founded, and with the better-heeled Japanese studio Toei Animation, who handled the bulk of the animation on this project, and The Movie was the first time he and AKOM had real money to play with (it had a budget somewhere around six times what it cost to produce the equivalent number of minutes of the show). This means, please understand, that the movie cost in the neighborhood of $5 million, which even in 1986 dollars was a ludicrously tiny amount of cash. But it was a lot for a toy commercial that had all of its production done in Korea and Japan as a money-saving venture, and Shin clearly viewed it as a license to push himself and his animators to the edge of their abilities. The result is surely the best-looking, most ambitious of all the cheap-ass animated features of the 1980s. Certainly, it mops the floor with fellow Hasbro toy adaptations My Little Pony: The Movie (which preceded it into theaters by a couple of months) and G.I. Joe: The Movie (which, in light of the terrible financial losses of both My Little Pony and The Transformers, end up going straight to video in 1987). There’s no obvious reason for this – those two films were mostly made by the same production teams drawn from Toei and AKOM (though My Little Pony was created on an extraordinary time crunch). But they were both directed by Americans, and I wonder if that’s part of the difference: in those films, the animation was clearly just being done to fill an order, whereas with The Transformers, Shin got to have a real creative voice.
A limited creative voice, to be sure (again, toy commercial), but it seems to have been enough. The Transformers: The Movie isn’t the finest work of animation that you could see coming out of East Asia in 1986 (for reference, that was the year that Miyazaki Hayao directed the first Studio Ghibli production, Castle in the Sky), but one gets the sense that Shin and Morishita wanted to create something special. This is a shockingly kinetic film: the virtual camera flings itself through spaces that seem to twist and turn along with our perspective, moving around characters who have been drawn with a startling amount of shading and texturing. Some of these moments are there to add realism; some are there to emphasise the dramatic turns of the story, as one particularly complicated turn that moves down to the ground, and pivots slightly around a character as he makes a decision to movie into the next phase of the action. Sometimes, I assume, it’s just because it looks extremely cool, and allows Shin to show off the giant robots to look as iconic as the comic book superheroes that, in a sense, they were (comics published by Marvel were part of the overall Transformers multimedia empire, and Marvel is in fact a co-producer on this film).
Whatever motivates its, the fact remains that The Transformers: The Movie is the unquestionable high-water mark of visual sophistication and ambition for anything produced by television animation’s Axis of Terror in the 1980s: DIC Entertainment, Filmation, and Sunbow Entertainment (the latter of which handled all of Hasbro’s animated properties, including The Transformers). It invests in creating an elaborate sci-fi world, set in the unimaginable future of 2005, 20 years later than the first two seasons of the show; it treats that world as the backdrop for busy visual setpieces, especially in the first third of the movie or so. It wants to be taken seriously as a science-fiction action epic, bless its dear heart. This explains, I imagine, the elevated stakes involved in straight-up killing the protagonist and introducing swears; and perhaps the wall-to-wall heavy metal and rock soundtrack (some of which has gone on to become a generational touchstone) that frequently threatens to overwhelm the whole movie as some kind of strange music video. It also explains the film’s astonishingly packed cast of famous people who obviously didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. These include Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy (who had the cheesy sci-fi background to kind of know what he was doing, and so he gives by far the best performance of the “names”), and notoriously, as the planet-eating robot himself, Orson Welles, in the final performance of his lifetime, when his voice had become so ravaged that he had to have his performance heavily distorted in post production. Which raises the question of why bothering to hire him at all. Unsurprisingly, the best work is done by actual professional voice actors, notably series mainstays Peter Cullen (who opens the movie by having a conversation with himself, and it’s adorably unconvincing), Frank Welker, and Chris Latta. Cullen’s work as the fatherly robot Optimus Prime is the heart and soul of the whole franchise, and I am sure it’s more due to his rich purring voice than anything else that the character’s death was such a big deal; this isn’t a franchise built to have emotional resonance, and any amount it has comes from that man’s vocal chords.
At any rate, the attempts to “open up” The Transformers: The Movie as an ambitious work of animation clearly didn’t pan out: the film lost money and killed off Sunbow and Hasbro’s dreams of feature films, and you’ve probably never heard about Nelson Shin or his AKOM Production unless you like to watch the end credits of bad-looking episodes ’80s and ’90s American animated television shows. But it’s always a nice treat when something that had no reason to be any good at all puts in that unnecessary effort. Simply put, this looks good, and parts of it are visually exciting, and for a non-Disney animated feature in the mid-1980s, that’s pretty huge.