As far as traumatic childhood moments go, few rank up there with seeing Transformers: The Movie as a child and the death of Optimus Prime.
For those not familiar with The Transformers, they were a cartoon/toyline that offered “Robots in Disguise”. They were basically robots that would transform into everyday objects, cars, cassette players, jets. The Toys actually dated from 1983 and originated from the Japanese manufacturer Takara. They were then licensed by Hasbro who had an animated show created in 1984 to sell these toys to American kids with a storyline built around them -depicting the heroic Autbots who primarily transformed into cars who were battling the evil Decepticons who were the robots who turned into everything that wasn’t a car. Given the combination of robots and just about anything else, it was a no-brainer that these toys began to fill in the void left by George Lucas and Star Wars, that was the previous king of the playgrounds.
I was 11 years-old in Summer of 1986 and Transformers were an integral part of my after school routine. These were toys that I played with daily, talked about incessantly, and raced home after school to watch every day at 4pm on WTAF TV 29. I remember having a Megatron trucker hat I refused to take off, because I was that hardcore, even when my parents took me to the pool; Megatron did not leave my head. When the movie version was announced, like every red-blooded American kid couldn’t wait to watch this feature length version of my favorite cartoon that promised something “ Beyond good. Beyond evil. Beyond your wildest imagination.” What I didn’t know is that the folks at Hasbro were looking to retire our beloved Generation 1 toy line that we had spent the last two years playing with, by simply killing them off in front of us.
Looking back now and watching the plethora of informative behind the scenes material included in this excellent 4K restoration, I can see the logic and business perspective behind this decision. I mean it just makes sense. They had new toys to sell, the old ones were being discontinued, so they had to get the old ones off of screens and the new ones on, and story-wise this was the way to go, according to these adults. But what they didn’t take into consideration was the emotional connection these kids had to these toys and the repercussions these story choices would have on them. While I applaud them for choosing a more complex narrative and talking up rather than talking down to their grade school audience, I think that cinematic death definitely hit my generation particularly hard. That day we learned sometimes a hero had to fall to inspire others to rise up.
If you’ve never seen Transformers: The Movie, the plot is actually surprisingly ambitious. While the Autobots and Decipticons are busy fighting as they tend to do. A monster planet named Unicron, who of course is also a Transformer — voiced by none other than Orson Wells, shows up and starts eating other planets — working his way to the Transformers home-world of Cybertron. The only thing he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, which is the Mcguffin and the only thing that can destroy him before he eats Cybertron.This has Unicron getting involved in the war between the two warring robot factions as the toy company is busy clearing off the proverbial chess board for the new characters who we introduced to for this theatrical outing. Of course good triumphs over evil, but not before literal piles of robots corpses were piled up in front of our little eyes in what would later be known as “The War for Cybertron”. This all plays out to a heavy metal soundtrack that still holds its weight in energon to this day.
While in the poorly animated syndicated cartoon the Transformers fought constantly and damaged one another, death was not really something that happened. I mean this after all was a kids cartoon. In the opening 20 minutes of Transformers: The Movie the tone is set rather shockingly and it’s something that I didn’t expect as a 11 year old kid. A good chunk of the Autobot mainstays are violently gunned down by the Decepticons and their ship hijacked to a song titled “Instruments of Destruction”. After that sequence every kid who was in that theater got real quiet, real quick. This laid the groundwork for the film’s big surprise, while it was in all the marketing that this would be the ultimate showdown between the the two factions leaders the Autobots Optimus Prime and Megatron of the Decepticons. The filmmaker’s big surprise was that they were going to kill off the good guy and rather horrifically, I might add.
To say I wasn’t ready was an understatement. This wasn’t just a toy, but more or less an idea. Optimus Prime was like John Wayne for preteens at that time, he kept the peace and took care of his business and did it the right way. While I found the Decepticons more entertaining, you couldn’t but respect Optimus Prime who in my mind was unkillable because he was the sort of unstoppable force of good, an idea of what should just be. But he did die, and I sat there and cried, while I continued to shovel popcorn into my mouth. It was the first death on screen that really shook me. Two years I spent with this character, and I just watched him die on screen. Needless to say I wasn’t the only kid affected and stories like this were the norm in the day. I mean this was way worse than The Swamp of Sadness Scene in The Neverending Story and the trauma that sequence unleashed.
That being said, over the years I’ve purchased this film in no less than five different formats over the years, each incrementally better in quality than the previous one. My original FYE VHS was replaced by a Japanese Laserdisc, which was replaced by the Rhino DVD edition of the film, followed by the UK only Blu-ray and then the American Blu-ray from Shout. This latest 4K UHD restoration with Dolby Vision HDR is as definitive as you can get. I caught a 35mm screening of an original theatrical print a few years ago and it was nowhere near as crisp, clear or bright as what was contained on this disc. The level of detail here is simply stunning. For this theatrical outing Hasbro spared no expense on the animation and that is something on full display here and you can even tell how some scenes were layered to create the effects. You really get a sense of how some scenes literally came together amongst the dust, dirt and scratches that give the presentation a very organic, hand made feel.
The theatrical widescreen version is on the 4K UHD, the full frame presentation is also included, on the Blu-ray with the extras. Along with the picture quality, which alone makes this a must pick up, you get an archive of the special features that are carried over — with one of the new extras a feature length story board version of the film. While I dug into these a bit on the previous release, Shout really did their due diligence in their work to make a comprehensive package here. One thing you definitely understand from the plethora of interviews with everyone from script writers to voice actors is just how much commerce and not art fueled this production. Thanks to the perspective of time, folks are a little more candid in the approaches painting a what I felt was a rather truthful behind the scenes narrative of how this strange film, and its concept came to be in the hopes of selling a new line of toys to kids.
So firstly I have to applaud Shout for making the jump to 4K with this and thus completing my Transformers 4K collection. Not only does it have the picture quality, it has the extras and is just a comprehensive package all around, just in time for the film’s 35th anniversary. So if you haven’t picked this up and you’re a Transformers fan, what are you doing? They’ve even packaged the film in a gorgeous Steelbook that comes with a set of lobby card reproductions and some great newly commissioned artwork by Matt Ferguson, who’s done comic and some Mondo posters. This is the best this film has ever and will ever look, and thanks to this package will be the final time I need to pick this film up. Here’s hoping.
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