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Transformers: It's More Than Meets the Ad

Bob Chipman | 23 Jun 2014 12:00
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The 80s Transformers cartoon manages to succeed in spite of itself.

On Friday, audiences around the world will pack movie theaters to watch what is, effectively, a commercial. Granted, the line between what is and isn't an advertisement has blurred considerably in recent years as more and more features are adaptations of other media properties. Iis Iron Man 3 "promoting" the Iron Man comics, or is it the other way around? And if it's both, does it at that point become neither?). But the case of Transformers: Age of Extinction would seem to be pretty clear cut: It's an advertisement for a line of Hasbro robot toys, the most recent evolution of an entire franchise of narrative ads for the same brand of toys launched alongside countless others when the Reagan Administration deregulated longstanding U.S. laws against producing marketing in the guise of children's entertainment.

To be sure, the Transformers movies aren't regarded as being particularly good. Longtime fans of the characters railed against their "butchering" in the original film at a still-legendary pitch, and the disastrously bad (largely a casualty of a Hollywood writer's strike) sequel spurred mainstream critics (who'd mainly dismissed the original with a "well, what'd you expect?" shrug) to join in on the bashfest -- which by then had grown to encompass a more general backlash against the action aesthetic of Michael Bay. And while most agreed that the third installment was some sort of improvement, a strong vein of dismissal and disdain continued to permeate.

It's easy to see why even the most forgiving film/TV aficionados would prefer to write Transformers off as worthless junk -- particularly when Michael Bay has made it so easy to do so for at least three feature films (as of this writing, I've not seen the fourth.) People who regard a medium as art -- or at least capable of producing art -- even when it's also a business, tend to draw rigid boundaries in every conceivable way they can to segregate that which is "only" commercial, even when it doesn't make sense. That's how you get to the place where especially well-directed music videos (aka advertisements for singles and albums) get to also be short-films while equally well-directed ads for everything else are still just ads.

This has always felt a little bit arbitrary to me, though I'd be the first to acknowledge that that might have something to do with having grown up right in the middle of it -- born in 1981, I've never known a world where the bulk of kid's TV wasn't trying to sell its audience something. Even as I recognized when I was being spoken to as a consumer moreso than a viewer, the Transformers cartoon nudging me to buy action figures didn't seem all that dissimilar from LeVar burton nudging me to read books.

Still, where I come down is that 99% of the time the "intent" behind the making of a TV series means very little compared to whether or not it "works" narratively, artistically, etc. The implicit "catch" to using a series to move a product line is that the series has to actually draw and maintain an audience for that to work. And that Transformers is the sole member of the 80s toy-toon club to have remained a thriving franchise as opposed to a memetic joke (Masters of The Universe) or a series of diminishing returns (G.I. Joe) would suggest that the original 80s series that started the ball rolling (Generation One or G1 in fandom parlance) must have been working on a significantly higher level than its immediate peers.

In my estimation? It was. Mostly.

Make no mistake: For the most part Transformers was as dumb (and cheap, and tacky) as the rest of its ilk. Characters and animation are both wildly inconsistent, dialogue is 90% perfunctory and despite the many glowing documentaries produced over the years bending over backwards to highlight the positives of the production there's very little to suggest the folks in charge had any real goal beyond delivering the "advertainment" Hasbro had contracted them for.

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