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Transformers: It's More Than Meets the Ad

Bob Chipman | 23 Jun 2014 12:00
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But in sitting down for a re-watch, you can see pretty quickly why the series caught on the way that it did. It's a sort of accidental alchemy; a fusion of positive elements that coalesced just often enough to overwhelm the goofy, junky rest of it. There's a hard to define "it" that makes something like this endearing in spite of itself, and while for the longest time I was willing to chalk it up to mere nostalgia one thing I've realized in revisiting Transformers over the last few years is how little of it I had actually seen -- a handful of episodes (and not great ones, for the most part) and the movie -- to the point of being able to form memories. The fact is, the series worked... even if it seemed to do so often by accident.

For example, taken separately anything related to the characters looks like a mess: Their personalities are thinly sketched (usually a stock-type vaguely associated with their vehicle mode and a cartoony/affected voice) and their actual designs are a clunky mix of boxy robot shapes and floppy animated pantomime. They don't so much "develop" as eventually find a function within the narrative and perform it until their toy stopped selling. And yet... there's an endearing quality to them when you put all that together with the spectacle of a bunch of robots made out of car parts having (budget saving) stationary conversations about battle strategy and the nature of good and evil.

The animation and artwork, particularly early on, were spotty as hell -- combining the worst elements of low frame-count Anime with Western cartoons' tendency toward rubbery weightlessness. But the characters' stiff mechanical designs actually lent themselves to the limited animation, and the action beats have a weirdly dynamic quality that wasn't quite like anything else happening in cartoons at the time. It also helps, it must be said, that 80s broadcast-standards holding that more violence could be done to robots than humans/animals allowed Transformers to boast easily the most viscerally-exciting action scenes of the adver-toon pack: Every episode seems to include at least one scene where the Autobots and Decepticons unload a massive volley of laser fire on one another until everyone is close enough to either start punching or switching to car-mode to crash into each other.

The series' voice cast is, of course, famous in its own right -- and it also featured that signature sound design (whoever worked out the "transforming sound" probably did more to cement the franchise in the minds of a generation than anybody) plus Johnny Douglas and Robert J. Walsh's iconic musical score. But, honestly... and you can laugh this off if you like, I think the main reason Transformers lodged itself so firmly in pop-culture's craw was that it told good stories.

transfores decepticon

Yeah, yeah. Cue record-skipping sound-effect (does that gag even have real meaning to anyone under 30?). Look: I'm not going to try and claim that Transformers had "good scripts." It really didn't, and even if any of its scripts started-out objectively "good" they wouldn't have arrived onscreen as such after the production-speed and "just get the damn lines out!" voice-recordings got through with them.

But what it did have was good stories. Ridiculous, preposterous stories, granted... but good versions thereof. The basic backstory (previously established in comic books) setting up the gimmick i.e. the robots being a pair of warring alien factions who turn into Earth vehicles for disguise obviously exists to justify the gimmick of the toys, but it's also a solid pulp-scifi premise one could easily imagine sharing space in the 50s genre magazines alongside the early works of Ellison or Asimov. "Pulp" is about the level that Transformers' storytelling would occupy for most of its run, but it occupied it admirably; mixing basic good/evil battle romps with "big idea" scifi digressions about other bio-mechanical civilizations and the bizarre mythos of the Transformers themselves.

Supposedly, the newest Transformers movie is to be a more "serious" take on the material from the previous trilogy, jettisoning the youth-targeted human co-stars and military hero-worship from the first three in favor of a new setup involving a down-on-his-luck dad and government conspiracy. Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen. If so, it'll be right in line with the way this whole franchise started -- playing an innately silly premise (mostly) serious is almost always going to be more amusing than just going for the jokes, and a (perhaps accidental) understanding of just that has a lot to do with why people are still talking about Transformers today.

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