Still the reigning, undefeated, and undisputed movie champion of the Transformers franchise (sorry Michael Bay), The Transformers: The Movie blew the little minds of Transformer fans across the country. Come with us as we celebrate six things that made Nelson Shin’s 1986 feature film so epic.
1) WTF is an Anime?
I know, I know. Some of you cool kids had been watching GoShogun and Robotech on the Betamax long before us noobs ever heard the word “anime,” but for many of us, this was our first foray into the darker, much more grown-up style of animation. That isn’t to say The Transformers featured the same quality of animation as other ‘80s anime classics like Akira, Heavy Metal, or Vampire Hunter D; Toei Animation, who had done the animation for the TV series, has always had a bit of a bad rep for producing cheap-and-it-shows animation.
However, janky-ass artwork notwithstanding, The Transformers was distinctly different than any of the Saturday morning comic book/toy line adaptations. It was visually rich, emotionally challenging, tenaciously paced. It showed a lot of us that mainstream animated feature films could exist outside of Disney-fied musicals in which animals sang and wore hats.
2) I Recognize That Voice …
Obviously the film producers cut some major costs on the animation front, so why not blow some of Hasbro’s money on big name actors? Years before celebrities flocked to voice animated characters for Disney and Pixar, Transformers drew some big (well, big for the time at least) Hollywood names. Joining original animated series voice actors Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Casey Kasem, and the legendary Scatman Crothers, the project featured Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, Robert “Unsolved Mysteries” Stack as Ultra Magnus, Lionel Stander as Kup, Monty Python alum Eric Idle as Wreck-Gar, and the ailing Orson Welles in his final role as world-gobbling planet transformer Unicron. Some of the youngsters won’t remember, but Judd Nelson, fresh off of St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, was a legit A-List star and a huge get as Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime.
3) Bitching Tunes, Bro
From Lion’s epic title song remix packing Satriani-esque guitar licks into composer Vince DiCola’s score, The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack was jammed with Aqua Net scented ‘80s glam-metal greatness. (Look, the link’s right there; you should probably use it as the soundtrack for the rest of this story.) Instruments Of Destruction by N.R.G., Hunger by Spectre General, are legit heavy metal bangers. “Weird Al” Yankovich credited the success of his studio album Dare to Be Stupid to the title track’s inclusion. Stan Bush’s iconic Touch was so popular, it remained in heavy rotation on MTV for years. Quite frankly if you hear the phrase “Transformers movie” and this song isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, I have nothing but sympathy for you, whippersnapper.
4) I’ll See Your Half-Hour Commercial and Raise You Another 60 Minutes
It’s no secret that many of the great animated TV series of the 1980’s were produced specifically to sell toys. He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers all got shows based on toys. The Transformers: The Movie solidified the idea of turning a full-length theatrical into a glorified commercial (weirdly enough, the first Hasbro/Toei Animation collaboration was the Danny DeVito/Rhea Perlman led My Little Pony film).
While the original Transformers series was really a way for Hasbro to package an amalgamation of a couple different Japanese toy lines, the full-length movie was the platform that successfully launched a generation of original Transformers characters. And while the line went on a hiatus in the 1990s, the movie helped ensure that the multiple variations of the franchise — toys, TV series, and (unfortunately movies) would continue over the next three decades. The $1.3 billion-and-counting Michael Bay live-action flicks owe a great debt to the piddly $5.8 million the animated film pulled out of piggy banks in the ‘80s.
5) Rated PG for Sentient Robot Uber-Violence
For all of the over-the-top CGI death and destruction of the Michael Bay films, the carnage in the 1986 animated version was truly shocking. Those 1980s cartoons had always hewed to one immobile rule: no matter how violent things got, no one ever died. Even when it came to giant talking robots, there were scrapes, there were bumps, and there were bruises, but characters always came back by the end.
But when you need to make room for that second-gen toy line, the hell with convention and childhood sensitivities, amirite?
The opening scene was literally Unicron committing robot genocide on a race of unwitting cyber people. Within 10 minutes, shell-shocked children across the country watched in horror as Deceptions hopped on the Autobots’ ship and straight-up murked five stalwarts from the animated TV series, including Ironhide and Ratchet. From there, many of us watched in horror as pretty much all of our favorite Autobots were unceremoniously massacred in the Battle of Autobot City: Wheeljack, Mirage, Brawn, Prowl, Windcharger, Trailbreaker, Red Alert — pretty much everyone but Bumble Bee and Jazz — all ended up as scrap metal with little-to-no fanfare.
Everyone knew the Deceptions were bad guys, but this was the first time those of us who didn’t rock with the Marvel comics got to see Deceptions as cold-blooded killers. The first half of the movie saw Megatron and his boys go from ill-tempered, but mostly harmless comic relief to the animated equivalent of Tarantino villains finding the most fucked-up ways to slaughter your childhood. These thugs were slagging your actual toybox. And while it was traumatic as fuck for just about every 6-to-12-year-old at the time, almost 30 years later, tell me Optimus Prime’s gut-wrenching death scene still doesn’t make you want to pour a little Pennzoil out for the big homey.
Horrifyingly, the final version of the movie was actually toned way down for younger audiences; the original story boards show that Ultra Magnus was literally supposed to be drawn and quartered by Galvatron and the Sweeps.
Ice cold, man.
6) The Power of Nostalgia
Working with a paltry $6 million budget (here’s where I take the high road and don’t make a Judd Nelson/coke trailer joke), Shin and team were able to crank out that Transformers flick in less than a year. That in and of itself is a minor miracle considering it took the production team about three months to complete each 30-minute TV episode.
And while the film served its purpose, hawking second-gen action figures, at the time the movie was considered a flop by just about every metric. The critics panned it for being “too adult” and let’s face it, the animation really was choppy kludge. Even with such a small budget, the film ended up losing Hasbro money at the box office, effectively guaranteeing any other feature-length toy ads would go straight to TV.
But nostalgia is a funny thing: for many us in the 30-and-over Transformers fan club, that first movie was an integral part of our childhood. The hell with what the reviews said — the O.G. Transformers movie rocked our collective worlds. There was so much love there, Hollywood dropped $250 million on Michael Bay to get us a live-action remake. 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.