Netflix’s Transformers: War for Cybertron trilogy offers the iteration of Transformers many fans say they want: one with no humans. The robots look like actual digital scans of the toys with metallic texture and cel-shading overlay, plus oddly animated lips. When they transform, they do so exactly like the toys. And the voices, while not A-list, sound enough like the classic actors to pass. Let’s put it this way: Jake Foushee as Optimus Prime sounds more like Peter Cullen than James Arnold Taylor sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Perhaps alone among ’80s cartoons, Transformers has largely avoided characters with horrible fake accents.
But CG is expensive, even if they do somehow save by using Hasbro sculptors’ digital scans. And that limits the number of characters onscreen, making Cybertron seem an awfully small, empty planet even before it’s depopulated. Granted, that’s a conceit of many fantasy cartoons. The battles for the fates of Cybertron, Eternia, Third Earth or whatever planet a given show had usually involved a maximum of ten major characters within maybe ten square miles. They just weren’t quite as obvious about it in 2D.
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The first installment, Siege, played out as most iterations of Transformers do. Planet Cybertron breaks out in civil war when the Decepticons turn on the Autobots. And the end result is the life-giving Allspark being shot into space, to inevitably land on Earth at some point. Earthrise, with a title that spoiled its ending, saw Optimus Prime and his core Autobots attempting to follow the cube, encountering perilous stargates, Quintessons, and Scorponoks. Now the “final” installment — suffice it to say the ending is somewhat open — takes the fight to Earth. An Earth with no humans, because they don’t look great in CG when a show is trying to look realistic on a budget.
Unfortunately, nor do animals. That’s a problem for the Beast Wars characters. Not unlike in the 1986 movie, one of the clear mandates with this show is to sell more toys. To that end, this third part of the trilogy integrates the major characters from that animal-robot iteration of the franchise. And it cheats them. The robot modes still look scanned from the toys, but save for their first appearance, all of their transformations happen off-camera. In one key scene, they’re all kept in shadow so that they don’t require full animation. And some, like Blackarachnia, never show how they transform. This feels like short-changing, because transformation scenes are the money shots of any Transformers tale. It just seems like they ran out of money on this last new batch of characters.
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Obviously, viewers will get the expensive version, complete with humans, in the next live-action movie, Rise of the Beasts. It’s not out of the question that Kingdom‘s creators knew that going in, and had a mandate to reintroduce those characters. But even back in 1996, the now-primitive CG of Beast Wars still had Predacons and Maximals that could transform on-screen.
Without cool shots like that padding out the visuals, Kingdom feels like an overlong story in six episodes that could have been two. The entire trilogy might have made a great two-hour movie, even. There’s some fun time paradox stuff, and even subtle nods to the notion that certain characters may have traversed the multiverse from the 1986 animated film. Did we absolutely need the Beast Wars characters to tell this tale? Not necessarily. But it’s fan service to see tank Megatron and tyrannosaurus Megatron fighting side by side. And since the entire series is fan service, why not?
It would be easier to just accept this kind of thing if Masters of the Universe: Revelation didn’t exist, proving that canon and fan service can be brought forward while adding a compelling new story. Even a show like that has its detractors who just want to see the more traditional He-Man punching stuff. Kingdom offers plenty of 3D animated Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal shooting their lasers at both Megatrons, and that hits a certain sweet spot. But after about an hour and a half of that, the viewer may want more.
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Since Kingdom does theoretically conclude the series, it’s disappointing that more major characters don’t fall in battle. But give it this: the call for unity and a casting aside of faction labels that pervades these six episodes feels very much of the moment. With current political factions in reality looking more divided than ever, the Autobots and Decepticons dare dream of an ideal. And if even a backstabbing, social-climbing coward like Starscream can dream of a truce, who are we to say humans can’t? Maybe we just need something to unite us all.
Our final verdict is that the execution could be a lot tighter. But it’s still a really pretty show to look at.
Transformers: War for Cybertron: Kingdom premieres globally on Netflix on July 29, 2021
Recommended Reading: The Transformers: The IDW Collection Vol. 1