A war has been waging on the planet Cybertron for millennia. The Autobots, led by the heroic Optimus Prime, prepare to make a daring attempt to retake their planet from the evil of Megatron and the Decepticons. Unknown to both sides, a menacing is heading their way - Unicron, a planet that devours everything in its path. The only hope of stopping Unicron lies within the Matrix of Leadership and the Autobot who can rise up and use its power to light their darkest hour. Will the Autobots be able to save their home world from destruction or will the Decepticons reign supreme?
The all-star cast of voice talent includes Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Orson Welles, Scatman Crothers, Casey Kasem and Leonard Nimoy.
"Such heroic nonsense."
Three decades on, the animated 'Transformers: The Movie' (technically 'The Transformers: The Movie', though I've never heard anyone actually use the first "The") continues to exert an almost unreasonable nostalgic hold over the now middle-aged adults (myself included) it first traumatized back in 1986. I can offer no compelling rationalization for the feelings I still have for it. Viewed with a clear head, the film is kind of a mess on every artistic, narrative and dramatic level. Nonetheless, as Stan Bush's cheesy power anthem "The Touch" blares for the first time near the beginning of the picture, my heart swells. It does so again when the song is reprised later. Love need not be explained or justified.
During its original release, 'Transformers: The Movie' was hardly viewed as a classic for the ages. It opened to scathing reviews and was in fact a box office bomb that nearly brought down the entire 'Transformers' franchise. (Its failure even derailed the following year's 'G.I. Joe: The Movie', which was planned as a theatrical feature but got redirected straight to video instead.) Parents balked at the idea of paying movie theater prices to let their kids see a cartoon they already watched on TV every afternoon for free – and Mom and Dad damn sure weren't going to sit through it with them. The adult film critics tasked with rating the movie despite having no familiarity with its source material were left utterly perplexed by a product that was in no way made for them. Even the kids in the target audience – the few of them who made it to the theater – were shocked and heartbroken when this epic theatrical expansion of their beloved cartoon quickly and ruthlessly killed off many of their favorite characters in order to shift the series' focus to a new batch of plastic toys to sell.
Forgive the plot spoiler, but I have to assume that anyone reading a Blu-ray review of 'Transformers: The Movie' thirty years later is almost certainly already a fan of the film and very well knows that lead character Optimus Prime is killed off in the first act. Most of you, I'm sure, also know that he was brought back in the following season of the TV show anyway. In addition to Prime, a number of other important supporting players get bumped off as well. The villainous Megatron is also written out and reincarnated as a new character, Galvatron, who looks completely different and is played by a new celebrity voice actor (Leonard Nimoy).
I've watched 'Transformers: The Movie' innumerable times over the years, far more than is probably healthy for a middle-aged man to admit. What strikes me in his latest viewing is less the shock value of all these character deaths than the utterly dismissive way the movie handles most of them. Characters who'd survived numerous laser battles in the past with nary a ding are suddenly terrible shots (even in close-quarters combat, seasoned warrior Ironhide can't hit any of the numerous targets standing directly in front of him) and get taken out en masse by single-shot kills. The majority of these deaths are given little dramatic weight and are never mentioned again, depriving young viewers who actually care about those characters of any sort of catharsis or grieving process. In these scenes, the movie shamelessly clears the slate to move old toy products out of the way so that (mostly uninteresting) new ones can take over the spotlight.
The only death that truly registers is Optimus Prime's, which, to its credit, the movie treats with an appropriate amount of reverence and respect. He's granted a proper send-off with enough screen time for kids to process the magnitude of the loss, and his absence casts a pall of over the rest of the picture. Prime's death is so emotionally devastating that it's likely the first thing anyone ever remembers about the movie, and its weight continues to be felt long after the rest of the plot details fade from memory. That scene is both the most upsetting thing about the film and also the main reason fans continue to hold it so dearly in their hearts.
Among other observations I made during this watch, I'm greatly amused by the fact that not only is the movie itself 30-years-old now, even the story's setting in the far-flung distant future year of 2005 is more than a decade in our rearview mirror. Sadly, the moon bases and rocket-powered hoverboards never came to pass, nor did those totally rad monogrammed jumpsuits ever become the fashion trend of choice among all human Earthlings. On the other hand, I'm relieved that we've moved beyond audio cassette tapes.
The movie has a number of neat ideas that mostly get glossed over in the rush from one frantic action sequence to the next. I like the concept of the Junkions, a race of trash-pickers who speak almost entirely in TV catchphrases they picked up from old Earth broadcast signals, but they're totally inconsequential to the plot and the weird audio filter used on Eric Idle's voice is pretty annoying.
Some of the new characters are fairly endearing, especially Kup, the grizzled war veteran who has a thousand old battle stories he's dying to tell. He's a worthy addition to the series. However, the ostensible new lead, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson), is far too bland, and his formulaic Hero's Journey from arrogant, hotheaded kid to responsible leader is so transparent and clichéd that even children in the audience can see through it. Even worse is the irritating, infantile Wheelie, whose high-pitched squealing still causes me to wince. He's the Jar Jar Binks of the 'Transformers' universe. Every second of screen time he's given is time wasted.
I could list off dozens of things in the movie that just don't work – most importantly the lame deus ex machina plot contrivance of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a never-before-mentioned mystical talisman that conveniently turns out to be a magical super-weapon of unlimited power. Other aspects of the film work rather differently than originally envisioned, including the aural wallpaper of the soundtrack, a non-stop barrage of corny tunes from obscure metal bands that can only truly be enjoyed ironically.
Ultimately, none of that matters. Children of the 1980s who grew up playing with Transformers toys and watching the TV cartoon after school formed a powerful emotional bond with the property. Despite its flaws (and sometimes because of them), 'Transformers: The Movie' remains a cherished artifact of my childhood. I never tire of watching it.
Over the years, I've owned 'Transformers: The Movie' on VHS, Laserdisc, multiple DVD editions and a foreign Blu-ray. Through all that time and all those viewings, never once until receiving Shout! Factory's new 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray and seeing it printed on the case spine did I realize that the film's proper title is 'The Transformers: The Movie'. The package art for previous video copies typically dropped the first "The," and I apparently never noticed it in the on-screen opening credits either. ('Transformers: The Movie', or even 'The Transformers Movie', would sound a lot less awkward. I default to the former.)
Back in 2007, the film was released on Blu-ray in the UK. However, no domestic version appeared on the format until now. The last North American DVD was the 2006 20th Anniversary Special Edition from Sony BMG. Based on company logos at the start of the new disc, I believe that ownership of the movie currently belongs to Hasbro Studios, from which Shout! Factory has licensed the rights.
The 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is offered in two packaging options, either a standard keepcase with reversible cover art and a slipcover, or a Limited Edition SteelBook. A DVD version is available separately. All of these discs also include a redemption code for a Digital Download copy of the movie, which as far as I can tell is not part of the UltraViolet program.
The Blu-ray is a 2-disc set. Both discs are identical, save for the fact that one has a widescreen 1.85:1 video transfer for the movie while the other has a "Full Frame" 4:3 transfer. Both copies are the original theatrical cut of the film, which features 'Superman'-style opening credits and a gratuitous line of profanity that was included solely to bump the movie's MPAA rating up from G to PG. (The producers believed that a G rating would be viewed as too "kiddie" by the pre-teen target audience.) Prior to its first appearance on DVD, earlier television and home video versions of the movie changed the credits to a 'Star Wars'-like prologue scroll, censored the swearing, and tacked on a reassurance at the end that Optimus Prime would return in the TV cartoon. None of those revisions are present here.
'Transformers: The Movie' has had a long and troubled history on home video. From VHS to Laserdisc to DVD and now Blu-ray, the film's distribution rights have changed hands a number of times, both domestically and abroad. Every new label does a new video transfer for it, and no two have ever looked quite the same, with major variances in aspect ratio and color. A sticker on the slipcover for the new Shout! Factory Blu-ray claims that it comes "from a new 4k transfer." I wish I could say that this was, finally, a definitive restoration for the film. Unfortunately, it's still plagued with issues.
In 1986, 'Transformers: The Movie' was made for theatrical release at an intended projection ratio of 1.85:1. However, the producers fully realized that the film's primary life would be on video and television syndication, the standard for which at the time was 4:3 (1.33:1). The animation's original artwork was drawn at a ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 1.4:1. (The exact width varied slightly from shot to shot.) In theaters, the image was matted on the top and bottom down to 1.85:1, but given that the movie was a flop, most viewers first saw it later in 4:3. Through the years, many fans have argued that 4:3 is the purest version of the movie – the rationale being that if artists took the time to draw extra image at the top and bottom of the frame, it deserves to be seen, regardless of whether it was visible in theaters or not. Others favor a preservation of the theatrical experience, which also happens to fit nicely with the modern HDTV standard.
Early VHS, Laserdisc and DVD editions presented the movie exclusively in 4:3. The first DVD distributor, Rhino Home Video, made an attempt to prepare a widescreen video transfer, but gave up and claimed that no widescreen source elements could be found. Eventually, the 2006 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD from Sony BMG provided two new video transfers on separate discs, one in widescreen and one in Full Frame 4:3. The new Shout! Factory release follows that model.
My preference is for the widescreen framing, so I started there. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1. Almost immediately, my hopes for the quality of the disc sank. Black levels are very elevated and washed-out, which is really problematic for a movie with a lot of scenes in outer space. The image is fairly soft, especially the opening credit text, and the source elements suffer from the appearance of dirt, dust and specks throughout. Some of the physical defects may be embedded in the original photographic composites (certain specific pieces of dirt can be seen on multiple video editions), but that sort of thing could be digitally painted out these days if the studio wanted to make the effort and pay for it.
The colors in this movie have always been difficult to get right for some reason (likely issues with the animation that were meant to be straightened out in the color timing of the release prints but never were). This is most evident in the character of Hot Rod, who's supposed to be a solid red sports car. Depending on which video copy of the film you watch, he may be orange or purple, or fluctuate wildly from shot-to-shot. In the Shout! Factory transfer, he's a dull pink. In this regard, the Blu-ray matches the Sony BMG DVD, but the color seems really odd and out-of-place for the character.
The second disc in the case contains the "Full Frame" video transfer, pillarboxed in the center of the screen with black bars on the sides. In comparison to the widescreen version, this one has extra picture information at the top and bottom of the frame. Other aspects of the picture quality appear the same, including the black levels, the colors, and all the dirt, but the 4:3 version seems slightly crisper. I assume that only one film scan was performed of the original 1.37:1 camera negative, and the widescreen version was matted down to the wider ratio then zoomed up to fill the width of a 16:9 screen.
For this review, I also pulled out the UK import Blu-ray from 2006 (a 16:9 transfer). Comparing a few scenes suggests that the differences between that one and Shout! Factory's new widescreen version are largely a draw. The old disc is slightly less washed-out and marginally crisper. Colors are better in some scenes, but far more inconsistent. On the import, Hot Rod is mostly purple, but sometimes red or pink or orange. In the Shout! transfer, he's consistently the same ugly pink all the way through, which I guess counts for something.
Make no mistake, any of these Blu-ray discs is still an improvement over DVD (especially over the Sony BMG DVD, which had terrible digital compression problems). Nevertheless, if you were hoping that the new 4k scan would amount to a sparkly and flawless restoration of the movie, prepare to lower your expectations.
The Blu-ray offers the movie's soundtrack in two options, either lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The disc defaults to playback of the 2.0 track unless you manually select otherwise. Both sound like garbage, one slightly less than the other, but I can't blame Shout! Factory for that. 'Transformers: The Movie' has always had a lousy sound mix.
Right from the very first scene, any time the action revs up in the movie, the soundtrack collapses and the volume shrinks down to nothing, as if a very crude dynamic range compression filter were applied. No amount of boosting at your receiver can bring life to it. Fidelity and dynamic range are awful throughout the film. Laser blasts and explosions are often barely audible at all. Even the rockin' tunes on the soundtrack vary in sound quality from (at best) reasonably adequate to strident and weak.
As I said, the movie has always sounded like this, in every video edition I've ever watched. (You'll forgive me if I don't have a clear recollection of what it sounded like in the theater; I was 12-years-old at the time, and I saw it at a mall multiplex that probably played it in mono anyway.)
I suppose that the 2.0 mix is meant to be more faithful to the film's Dolby Stereo theatrical sound format. That's not exactly a virtue in this case. It sounds very dull and flat… Well, both soundtracks sound very dull and flat, but the 2.0 even more so. I can't tell for certain whether the 5.1 track is a new remix or if it's been recycled from a past DVD edition, but it's marginally more satisfying. If nothing else, the bass has been goosed a bit to give it a little more depth. It doesn't help much, but it's something.
With that said, both soundtrack options have an annoying flaw with dialogue being spread to all three front speakers, which can be very distracting during some scenes. It's much more overt in the 5.1 mix. You can literally (and I tried this to verify) unplug the wires from your center channel speaker and not miss a thing with that track. If you do the same with the 2.0 track, the dialogue (although still audible) is decidedly muffled until you plug the center speaker back in.
Even so, my point is that both soundtracks are very poor. On balance, the 5.1 track is slightly less annoyingly poor. Slightly.
For all of its flaws in presentation quality, the saving grace of the Blu-ray is that Shout! Factory has loaded it up with lots of bonus features.
The appeal of 'Transformers: The Movie' (excuse me, 'The Transformers: The Movie') may be limited to a specific generation who grew up watching it and the original TV cartoon. I can't imagine older viewers having any patience for it, and today's kids who know the franchise best from Michael Bay's ongoing series of live-action blockbusters will surely consider it cheesy and corny.
The movie is cheesy and corny, but that's a big part of why fans love it. Even now, as an adult with children of my own, watching it again brings me right back to the days of staging massive battles for control of the universe on my bedroom floor.
The Blu-ray isn't as perfect as I'd like. The video transfer doesn't appear to have had as much work put into it as the restoration featurette on the disc implies, and the movie's soundtrack has inherent problems that may never be fixed. On the other hand, the disc is a decided upgrade from DVD and has some pretty interesting bonus content. If you love this movie as much as I do, it's a worthy purchase.