Blu-ray Review: The Transformers: The Movie 35th Anniversary 4K Edition

It’s safe to say that The Transformers: The Movie gets a lot more love today than it did back in 1986. At the time, it wasn’t just a critical and commercial failure. It also infamously traumatized kids by killing off their cartoon toy hero, Optimus Prime. Both Hasbro and the animators had woefully overlooked the degree to which Peter Cullen’s vocals as the robot truck elevated the Transformers cartoon above lazier competitors. To them, he seemed like just another toy, easily replaceable. And if nothing else, the movie did set the stage for the next season of the animated series, which continued to promote new toys.

Yes, there’s a certain cynicism in the movie’s creation, as the plot specifically wiped out all of the older toy characters to make way for new ones. But that wasn’t all there was. Adult critics at the time overreacted in the wrong direction, in part because of the toy tie-ins, but also due to animation snobbery. Even more so than now, a strong perception remained that all animation should be Disney, family friendly and reaching a certain large-budget level of craftsmanship. An animated movie with no cute animals, a cast of robots, and a soundtrack of power-ballads was never going to play with academic Baby Boomers.

Indeed, while critics of the Michael Bay movies now extol the 1986 movie as the superior film, contemporaneous critiques were almost the same. Parents claimed they couldn’t tell the characters apart or make heads or tails of the plot. Truthfully, though, they didn’t care enough to try and engage the material.

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Perhaps viewers do need an inherent love for Optimus Prime and company to really take it all in. But surely even an untrained eye could notice how above and beyond most of the TV episodes it went. Using more shadows, onscreen particles, and possibly some rotoscoping, it may not have equaled a Disney budget. But with backdrops and environments that drew from classic sci-fi novel cover art and more kid-friendly takes on Heavy Metal magazine, epic scenes of destruction, and celebrity guests who committed to the roles, it’s not disposable nonsense either. Plus it takes a certain level of meta-humor to turn Orson Welles into a robot planet who very literally chews up all the scenery.

Set in the then far-flung future year of 2005, The Transformers: The Movie mostly moves the action away from Earth. The Decepticons have reclaimed Cybertron, and the Autobots look to liberate their homeworld. But the Decepticons discover their plot, counterattack first, and before long every kid’s 1985 figures get massacred. It’s not necessarily the nightmare fuel it sounds — playtime scenarios usually feature characters shooting each other dead. And kids know it’s unrealistic to have constant firefights in a TV show with nobody getting hit. Stakes are good. But when Optimus dies slowly from a mortal wound, then turns gray as his head falls to the side…that hurts. And because Cullen plays it like a serious death scene, it still has power.

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Then the real story begins, as Cybertron faces the looming threat of planet-eating Unicron. En route to save their homeworld, the Autobots make a couple of forced stops to set up new characters. On one planet, they meet the TV-obsessed Junkions. On another, the kangaroo court of the five-faced Quintessons. Both serve more to set up future episodes of the series than anything in the Unicron storyline However, they also have the feel of epic journey poems like The Odyssey, and the various side-missions such classical heroes encounter on the way home.

There aren’t enough minutes in the movie for every character’s arc to fully develop or resolve, but that only makes the move feel less conventional and safe. The battle at hand comes to a satisfying conclusion, even as viewers know — and likely knew then — the story is never over.

As for the soundtrack, though many would dismiss it as cheeseball at the time, it’s nothing if not (a) utterly sincere and (b) totally ’80s. Paul Thomas Anderson’s later use of “The Touch” in Boogie Nights proved that even Gen X’s most artful auteurs weren’t immune to its charms. The extended end-credits version of the Transformers theme song, by Lion, remains the very best version. And it’s a damn shame none of the live-action movies to date have utilized it. Although Bumblebee briefly used “The Touch” in a major crowd-pleasing moment.

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The previous Blu-ray featured intense colors and blacks, with the contrast levels arguably up too high. The new 4K transfer mutes things a bit to show a wider range of shades, and help viewers appreciate the detailed linework on both the spaceships and the backgrounds. One or two early shots of Hot Rod seem out of focus, and there’s some grain visible in the Unicron cold open. It won’t ever look as clean as more modern cartoons made for HD, but it preserves the look that kids of the era remember. And makes it look as least as good as most recollections of it. Most importantly, the 4K is widescreen, while the Blu-ray is full-frame.

Much debate rages among fans over which, if either, counts as the “true” version. And that discussion could make for a whole other column. But widescreen comes closer to what screened in theaters, and full-frame shows more image.

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Most of the extras return from previous anniversary editions, with the addition of Stan Bush playing his two songs acoustically. Audiences saw this at 30th anniversary Fathom Events screenings, but never on disc before. The biggest new extra appeals strictly to hardcore animation production nerds — a full-length version of the film entirely in black and white storyboards and script pages. Set to the original audio, it also includes deleted and extended “scenes” (read: stills). These can also play separately as a bonus feature. Most simply include additional characters involving themselves in simpler fight sequences, and getting eliminated. Fun to look at for a moment, they’re a lot to take in for the full running time.

Four mini lobby cards also come in a black envelope, depicting Optimus, Megatron, Hot Rod, and…the severed head of Unicron. Spoilers to a 35 year-old movie likely to be bought only by fans seem like no big deal, but that one’s a little shocking.

Notable to modern audiences is the fact that none of the original voice actors get opening credits billing. This only goes to celebrity guests, like Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, and in his animation debut, Robert Stack. Press releases accompanying the new disc refer to an all-star cast and include the likes of Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, and Chris Latta among them. It’s a testament to the fact that, all these years later, what those original voices did mattered. The most moving performance in the movie, indisputably, comes from Cullen. And even when Welker’s Megatron becomes Nimoy’s Galvatron, the Star Trek icon is clearly doing his best to emulate the veteran animation performer.

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Sure, the movie first and foremost exists to sell toys. But unlike many other competitors at the time, it didn’t simply rest on that notion and trust the brand to do all the work. Those involved clearly, genuinely wanted to go above and beyond. And that’s probably why this one keeps getting re-released, rather than, say, He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword. Mattel seemed just fine with a re-edit of TV episodes. Hasbro took the time to do something better. And it still resonates for those who were there, and plays as a unique time capsule to those who weren’t.

Grade: 4/5

The Transformers: The Movie 35th Anniversary Edition comes out this week on 4K UHD.

Recommended Reading: The Transformers: The IDW Collection Vol. 1

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