Part 2: Six Reasons the Old School Transformers Cartoon is Better than the Movies.
The stage was set for the long awaited live action version of Transformers with Michael Bay calling the shots. Were some of my opinions going into this thing steeped in nostalgia? Sure. Was my lingering hard on for the original Transformers aggrandized by years and years of anticipation? Maybe a little. But all I wanted was for my childhood diversion to be translated to the big screen with some semblance of the qualities that had made the originals so very appealing in the first place; not some soulless cash cow or entity analogous only in name. Part of me knew that some of these endearing elements wouldn’t make it through. What could the G1 cartoon possibly offer over the high-budgeted live action films?
“We sure hope we get some screen time in that new movie, The Adventures of Sam Witwicky. Let’s shoot up some fine ass Cybertronian cocaine and act like jittery assholes and our wish will surely come true!”
1. Focus is on… the actual Transformers; not annoying as shit humans.
Last time I checked these movies were called Transformers, right? Not Quirky Human Pals, or Superfluous Multitudes of Military Guys, or Odd Couples: Unrealistically Spastic People . . . and oh yeah, some Transformers too? Good. That means the only humans I really need to see are those whose bodies lay mangled and embedded within craters after getting their shit stomped in by enormous mechanized feet.
Obvious hyperbole, but still: this isn’t some Shia LeBouf reality show or an extended episode of Even Stevens; I don’t need to be force fed every minute aspect of Sam’s daily routine including the trials and tribulations of every single job interview in succession or how many times he shakes after peeing.
Fancy CGI stuff costs money. Maybe the idea was that the less you actually show of the Transformers, the more thrilled the crowd would be when they are finally seen in all their mechanical splendor. But what do we get as filler in between 90 second glimpses of our titular heroes? Sam’s mom stumbling around campus high on pot brownies dry humping students or people tazering each other with their pants down and thirty five closeups of Sam’s contradictorily sized dogs buttfucking. Megan Fox’s character was done right, but that’s only because her role as lip-pursing softcore porn starlet who fixes motorcycles through the art of dryhumping all while the camera hovers at inexplicably advantageous upskirt angles is done without a hint of shame or subtlety.
“Optimus Prime just got savagely murdered while trying to save us and the Decepticons are aiming gargantuan human-sized cannons at our faces. What in God’s name are we gonna do now?”
“I don’t know, Sam…. but there’s a motorcycle seat over there that I can contort upon in an extremely impractical manner. Will that help?”
In the original series, the human characters were really no less annoying than the movie versions. In fact, they sucked just as badly. There was “Sparkplug,” a burly construction worker father and his son Spike, a thinner, nasally-voiced replica of his dad, the latter of whom befriended the Autobots when they crash landed on Earth. Then you had Spike’s forgettable girlfriend Carly, and some bespectacled guy in a wheelchair that came around every once in a while, doing stereotypical nerdy stuff like pushing his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose with one finger and saying “Well, technically,” and “hypothesis” a lot. That being said however, the writers of the original did know the humans’ proper place: in the background. That is, they don’t try to steal the spotlight or get in the way and detract from what everyone really wants to see: The Transformers themselves.
Sure, there was some emphasis placed on them because they were needed for the audience to further identify with our Cybertronian amigos, but at best they were auxiliary; characters helping the robots acclimate to the new world. This gave reason for the writers to develop the actual Transformers themselves, to show how they reacted in certain situations, how their demeanor played off that of their teammates, and the synergism of the Transformer characters as a whole. Instead of just saying “Yeah, well we’ll bring in a few fighter jets in this part that will finish off that bad guy or just have a previously unseen offshore aircraft carrier fire off some railgun shots and blow that bad guy to smithereens. Instead of throwing John Malkovich into the film for no reason whatsoever (besides name value alone) the Transformers were given distinctive traits and characteristics, hell… personalities. Which brings me to my next point:
2. Characters that resonate with the fans
What can remedy a movie with a tenuous plot or lack of budget? Richly developed characters to whom the audience can feel some sort of emotional connection or interest for. This is where the original series has an advantage over the three films. For the longest time, this was my Battle of Saratoga, Gettysburg, and Midway all amalgamated into one:
I remember leaping up from my seat when I first saw such a retributive scene. To me Optimus Prime was everything that constituted a hero, so when he died in the animated film, I was naturally heartbroken. Don’t just take my pathetic word for it though: the movie theaters were filled with throngs of children sobbing inconsolably. Impassioned letters of protest (presumably written in Crayola crayon) were sent, and kids were subsequently locking themselves in their rooms, ready to slit their own throats with the tail end of their beloved action figures.
[Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime]… stated that he had no idea of Prime’s popularity until the character’s controversial death in the 1986 animated film, as the studio had never given him fan letters from children addressed to Optimus. The public backlash over Optimus’ death surprised producers greatly. Children were leaving the theaters because of the character’s death.
So here you have little kids so traumatized by a character’s death that they’re seeking therapy. Sure, little kids have weird emotional attachments. I cried when I was eight and my hamster died and my parents told me beforehand that the thing’s lifespans were shorter than some of my dad’s lingering farts. But was anyone even mildly disturbed by a character’s death in the Bay films? Probably not.
How are we supposed to be impelled emotionally in any way when the vapid characters from the film we see dying have hardly done anything at all or been given little more than one or two speaking lines? There is just not enough to care about when it comes to the movie versions.
Of course characters in a multi-episodic series have been given more time to develop than those in a trilogy of 2 hour movies, but that’s really no excuse; there are plenty of movies where a cast of characters (human and non-human) equal to or larger than that of the Transformers films have been created where the audience has no choice but to feel some sense of connection or emotional attachment.
What do we learn about the movie Transformers’ backgrounds? Do they ever mention what it was like back on Cybertron as opposed to Earth or what their feelings are about the war they’re fighting? Are we given any insight into the relationships they have with one another? Not really. Things got a little bit better with the third movie with the introduction of Sentinel Prime (who brings a little bit of backstory into the films) but one of the major problem with the Transformers movies is that only a few of the characters (the majority human) are developed and the rest are left in the dark.
For instance movie Ironhide is introduced as a “weapons expert,” but do we ever see him examining any sort of weaponry or maybe enthusiastically swabbing down a diverse selection of Cybertronian rifles while rattling off esoteric knowledge and technical specifications about each one or displaying even a semblance of weapon knowledge that would differentiate him from the rest of the Autobots (besides pulling their triggers, which everyone does) at one point during his three film tenure? Nope. Movie Ratchet is supposed to be a medical officer of some sort but is he ever seen making any boast of scientific prowess besides a cheap joke about Shia Lebouf wanting to bone Megan Fox? Nope. You get the point.
The reason why the characters from the original series are so well rounded is because they are actually given time to interact with one another and display different facets of their personality. We are not just told that a character is such and such but are shown it as well. Watch the following video:
You’ve got the little red Autobot Cliffjumper being an accusatory jerk, Optimus Prime trying to be the fair and impartial judicator, Ratchet shown actually fixing somebody (!) and the best part: it’s all done in about 5 minutes. Just imagine had they decided to implement something similar with the movie versions instead of force feeding us another fart joke (I only use one in this article) or a mother implying that her son would have no success with interpersonal relationships unless the penis which she once nurtured within her very womb was sizeable.
Check out this clip too while you’re at it:
Holy shit. Is that… more pertinent interaction between the titular robots? Optimus Prime refers to Ironhide as “old buddy.” (Although we’re not sure how many kids missed the vaguely homoerotic “I think my linkage is busted,” comment made in response). The Autobots actually show urgency and concern for each other in the face of danger. If you ignore the common 80s staple of canned laughter at the episode’s end, there’s actually some pretty decent character interaction and development going on. We can relate to wanting to help our friends out of a dangerous situation or feeling angry that one of our friends has betrayed ourselves and others or feeling proud when accomplishing a task with the help of another.
It’s sad because it’s not as if there is lack of material for the movie Transformers to explore. But of course, you’re only given a glimpse of that “unimportant” character development stuff if you, wait for it… buy more stuff! The Wikipedia article for the film states:
To market the film, IDW Publishing published Transformers: Movie Prequel. The comic expanded upon Optimus Prime’s referral to Megatron as “brother”, revealing they co-ruled Cybertron before Megatron’s corruption. Furthermore, Optimus sent the Allspark into space in a last-ditch attempt to defeat Megatron. Megatron is responsible for Bumblebee’s muteness in the film, as a direct result of distracting him from the Allspark’s launch. Alan Dean Foster also wrote the prequel novelTransformers: Ghosts of Yesterday. The novel shows that Starscream hated Megatron and wanted him to never be found, so he could remain as leader, explaining Megatron’s line in the film: “You failed me, yet again, Starscream.” Blackout is also depicted as deeply loyal to Megatron, explaining his line ‘All hail Megatron!’ However, the novel contradicts the film with Megatron’s body moved into the Hoover Dam in 1969, instead of the 1930s. IDW plans to continue the film’s fictional universe with additional prequels and sequels.
Well, those certainly sound like elements that could have actually been conducive to the plot and further develop the characters in the movie, don’t they? No wonder they didn’t make it in.
“I may have neglected the death of my teammates and been an awkward and terrible leader… but at least the writers had enough sense to make me actually prove it to you!”
3. Transformers vs. Humans: Who ya got?
I don’t need to see Transformers walking around shrugging off nukes or toppling cities with a hearty chortle and a waggle of their fingers but at what point exactly did it become a good idea to make these technologically superior alien demigods the equivalent of osteoporosis ridden robot grandpas, being torn apart by a few machine gun rounds (Blackout in TF1) or punched to fucking death by a human wearing a glorified Nintendo Power Glove?
Sure, the human characters that are being paid exorbitant amounts of cash to be in the film need something to do, but that doesn’t mean I want to see them performing one miraculous fucking feat after the other and ultimately making the durability of the Transformers about as consistent as New England weather. Maybe Bay is just a man intent on remedying his toy deprived childhood (where apparently the GI Joes would have always won) and got it out in cathartic fashion through the three films. Or perhaps we’ve all just been bamboozled: maybe the Bayformer movies are really meant to be seen as sad farces of slasher flicks, only with the Transformers in place of the dimwitted campers that find themselves slaughtered in increasingly embarrassing ways.
At some points the Transformers films are like thinly disguised military recruitment videos, what with how many cut away scenes are to flips being switched in aircraft carriers or jets taking off or soldiers playfully calling each other various synonyms for a woman’s labia. Hell, I’m as patriotic as the next dude. I just don’t need to be reminded of that shit in a Transformers movie every five seconds.
Whatever happened to the reverence displayed by humans when in the presence of gigantic metamorphosing automatons? Back in the cartoon days, the typical battle between a Transformer (even the smallest ones) and a human being kinda went like this:
It should have stayed that way. Human hos get kept in line with bitchsmacks. Instead, we get instances like movie Devastator, whose transformation scene is twice as long as it takes for a few railgun shots to take him out, rendering the character anticlimactic and utterly useless.
“Hey human sliding around on pieces of scrap metal on the ground and other assorted humans with deathwishes trying to take on 50 foot tall robots, step the fuck aside and let us do our jobs!”
4. No Skids or Mudflap
Unfortunately, no Bayformers discussion is complete without discussing the oft loathed twins. Some have likened them to “Transformers in blackface.” Others as reprehensible racial stereotypes that are reason enough to boycott the movie. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times said that “the characters . . . indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas.” Critic Scott Mendelson said, “To say that these two are the most astonishingly racist caricatures that I’ve ever seen in a mainstream motion picture would be an understatement.” Harry Knowles, founder of Ain’t It Cool News, went further, asking his readers “not to support this film” because “You’ll be taking [your children] to see a film with the lowest forms of humor, stereotypes and racism around.“
But how bad are they really? “Racist caricatures” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days in regards to movies. Maybe a bit too often. The question is, did Michael Bay purposely and maliciously make the peculiarly named Skids and Mudflap in an attempt to set back race relations ten years as all the critics seem to think? No, and the guy doesn’t deserve to be vilified or demonized over the whole thing either. Afterall, he’s just trying to get a few cheap laughs or institute what is his interpretation of fun: “It’s done in fun,” [Bay] said in an interview. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes – they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”
One of the voice actors for the twins is Sponge Bob and the other guy is a black dude. I could better understand the claims for racism if the voice actors behind the scenes were two conical-hat wearing Klansmen making frequent references to stealing televisions or how they only got into Transformer college because they played basketball, but Mudflap and Skids? Not that racist. Horrible decisions overall and annoying characters that the majority of the non hearing imparied community wanted to see killed off? You betcha. The whole bickering sibling thing I get. People can relate to that, kids think it’s funny. But instead of going the route of bickering sibling Wayans Brothers model circa Scary Movie, it’s more like they went bickering sibling model Wayans Brothers circa Wayans Brothers on the WB Network. How poor of a decision was it?
Actor Reno Wilson, who is black, voices Mudflap… he said that he never imagined viewers might consider the twins to be racial caricatures. When he took the role, he was told that the alien robots learned about human culture through the Web and that the twins were ‘wannabe gangster types.’ … It’s not fair to assume the characters are black… [it] could easily be a Transformer that uploaded Kevin Federline data… they were just like posers to me.
Note to Reno Wilson: if you want your part in a movie to not suck, don’t emulate Keven Federline. Ever. Or even parody the dude. It took Britney Spears 5 years of detoxing from his pestilential ejaculate to even approach what were previously acknowledged talent levels and clinical sanity. Maybe you should have gone more the route of satirizing why a “poser” like Kevin Federline is ridiculous or made the characters come across as posers in some fashion instead of outright metamorphosing into a bungling idiot, but hey, this is a Michael Bay movie. Despite how entertaining the movies can be, bad decisions made on a whim without thought of the social repercussions are commonplace. Bay probably just figured Skids and Mudflap were “tight” and would be seen as “phat and all that” by the young adult and brain dead demographics. It’s as if there is implanted in his brain a certain “see, this movie is cool come check it out ’cause we got black people stuff in it” quota to fill. He did it with Bernie Mac and Tyrese and that chubby, caterwauling fat black computer nerd in the first one and I guess with the subsequent death of one of those characters in real life he needed something to fill the gap the next time around. “Put some robots in there that say ‘Oh hells to the naw,” alot and have ‘badass bling’ in their teeth and we all set my nizzles.”
5. Rockin’ 80s Soundtrack
Transformers: The Animated Movie pretty much epitomizes the 80s and the soundtrack is a big contributor to that, what with the rock version of the Transformers theme song, “The Touch” during Optimus Prime’s heroic charge in Autobot City, and even Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid.” Although the songs in description alone sound like a contrived jumble of melodies thrown together with very little rhyme or reason, they come across more as a reasonable selection from a set of diverse genres; memorable and never forced or inappropriate to what is transpiring on screen.
Check out the first few minutes of this scene again or just listen to the “Touch,” with the proper conception of its supplemental value in mind. (Optimus Prime whipping ass, not Marky Mark fondling his own genitalia):
The songs from the live-action films on the other hand are entirely forgettable. Little more than [insert popular band here’s] latest commercialized tie in to a movie which the song has entirely no relation to. Except maybe that they share the words “the,” or “and.” The rest of the score done by Steve Jablonsky is by no means terrible, but didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as the 80’s version. Then again, going up against “The Touch,” isn’t very fair in the first place.
6. Diverse array of characters easily discernible from one another
Admittedly, I wasn’t too crazy about the movie designs upon first glance. I mean, I wasn’t leaving my pants in shartsplashed shambles from the sheer rage of their being so drastically different from the originals but I wasn’t embracing them either. Michael Bay’s explanation for wanting to change the look of the characters so drastically wouldn’t hold water in a debate between two kindergartners scrabbling beneath the monkey bars at recess, (Bay stated, “I just didn’t want to make the boxy characters. It’s boring and it would look fake. By adding more doo-dads and stuff on the robots, more car parts, you can just make it more real.” Yes, he used the word “doo-dads” to advocate realism), but naturally the guy has to implement his own style and vision so as to differentiate his versions from the 80s counterparts; to appeal to new fans/the masses at the same time (and not just placate pathetic overgrown manchildren like myself). I wasn’t hoping for carbon copies of the originals, but there is still a lingering feeling of that “just not right” when watching the Bayformers. Sure they look great and all when they’re flying around all nimbly bimbly over the screen, but they had the template for some of the coolest looking and most recognizable characters ever just sitting there staring them in the face and this was the best they could muster?
Half of the Decepticons are indiscernible from one another and the Transformers overall are a bit too organic looking. (Especially the little ones made on Earth by the All-Spark that convey little indecipherable bestial grunts despite the fact that they’re robots and the “hatchlings” just chilling there on the moon). They appear similar to what the T-1000 would have looked like immediately after being chewed up and shit out of a Gobot’s ass. Megatron looks like some convolute hodgepodge of really sharp radiator pipes with a vagina dentata (look it up) for a mouth; Soundwave a derelict tin cap sculpture tacked together by some junkyard enthusiast; Optimus Prime has fucking flames going down his sides? Can you imagine the brainstorming session for that?
Random Douchebag Designer: Optimus Prime is iconic and looks pretty awesome and has noncoincidentally remained largely unaltered in his myriad forms for over thirty years now. I think we should just leave –
Michael Bay: Yeah G money, but you know what would make him look even… awesomer, holmes? Flames! Really big ones! Shit’s cash, homey nizzle balla.
RDD: You’re a white guy with a mullet, why are you talking like that? And I don’t think… I mean, just simply adding flames to something doesn’t make it bet-
Bay: Yo doggy, get them flames all sparkin’ and cracklin’ all down his sides and shit! *Clapping noises* But seriously, let’s expedite the work that requires completion regarding those flames now, or your ass is fired. Michael Bay has spoken. Now what is the appropriate response to me at all times?
Douchebag Designer: … Yes, master.
RDD: Yes master… Bay.
I became more acclimated to the designs as the movies went on, but they didn’t feel “Tranformer-y” enough to me.
NEXT: Where did the Transformers live action actually go right? Keep reading.