Rhino // 1997 // 310 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 15th, 2004
"Die-cast technology...it's a lost art."
Transformers: Beast Wars could be the best animated series ever developed exclusively to market a line of toys...a moot accomplishment if ever there was one. But don't let that little fact deter you. Because within this marketing subgenre wasteland almost guaranteed to be crappy beyond human comprehension, emerges a show that had gripping storylines, groundbreaking animation, and just the right amount of nostalgic flair. Who would've thunk it?
Three hundred years have passed since the original Secret War in 1984 between the Autobots and the Decepticons on planet Earth. Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, has flourished in those years and evolved; the two new dominant species are the Maximals, who rule with fairness and justice, and the Predacons, who are enslaved and subjugated for their ancestral treachery. A renegade Predacon terrorist, taking up the name of legendary Deception warrior Megatron, steals a priceless Cybertron relic called the Golden Disk, and flees into space with a band of villains. The Golden Disk is rumored to contain the location of a massive Energon source, which Transformers use for fuel. With this surplus, he plans on launching an all-out assault on the Maximals, and restoring Cybertron to the ruling hand of the Predacons.
Unfortunately for Megatron, a Maximal exploration ship discovers the escaping anarchists and launches an assault. Hurled through transwarp space, both ships crash-land on a mysterious, primeval planet. The two groups begin conflict with one another, each hoping to destroy the other, and to figure out a way to escape the planet, which, coincidentally, is loaded to the brim with Energon. Thus, the Beast Wars begin...
In this, the second season, things start to heat up for the Transformers. An alien race begins to assault the very planet in an attempt to purge the invaders from its surface. Both the Maximals and the Predacons must deal with the growing alien threat, as well as one another. But most dangerous of all, Megatron has discovered the secret behind the Golden Disks...a secret that has the potential to not only destroy the Maximals for good, but also to rewrite the past, erase the timeline, and change the future forever!
Since the original Transformers went off the air, the franchise has been somewhat stagnant in North America. Toy sales have always been steady enough to justify their continual production, despite having no television show to accompany it. Transformers: Beast Wars, based on a Hasbro toy line, was to be the new show developed in order to promote this modern-day toy line for a new generation. Like the original Transformers series, the show was created by Hasbro, but this time in conjunction with Mainframe Entertainment, the Canadian animation studio that created the groundbreaking series ReBoot. This time, Transformers would be 100% North American-based, unlike the original series, which was written in North America but animated in Japan.
This was to be a challenging endeavor if ever there was one. Would they be able to make a show that would satisfy the pop-culture junkies, the die-hard fans of the show, the pimply-faced teenagers who grew up on a steady diet of Transformers every Saturday morning, without simply remaking the old cartoon itself? This was to be a Transformers for young and old alike, but right off the bat, it had a lot to live up to. No surprise then that the show tried to be as original and unique as possible. For one thing, the show was entirely computer generated, and in 1996, this was something that made it stand out. It gave the show an amazingly fresh and unique look. Secondly, it was decided that, at first, this new Transformers would have little to do with the original show; rather, it would take place hundreds of years in the future, removed from the original storyline. Rather than simply remaking the old Transformers series of yesteryear (like the present-day Transformers cartoons are doing...grumble grumble), the creators of Beast Wars managed to construct a show that had little to do directly with the original series, and yet found clever thematic and conceptual ways to constantly reference it.
The plot premise was as simplistic as it was brilliant: strand a team of bad guys on a deserted planet, along with an equal team of good guys. Suddenly, you have the justification for a never-ending stream of battles, confrontations, shifty alliances, and skirmishes to last for seasons, with nothing to get in the way. Any time a new cast member was added, it dramatically shifted the balance of power and conflict on the show, until reinforcements arrived to fill in the ranks, which gave constant opportunity to expand and modify the cast. This set up premise after premise for unending conflict and tension, with the freedom to develop any long-term plot devices they saw fit. And in the second season of Beast Wars, they came up with some doozies.
Suffice it to say, the original Transformers play a key role in the storyline, as the two radically different story arcs converge for a brief period, which only heightens the nostalgic pleasure. The finale of the second season ends on the mother of all cliffhangers in a spectacular climax representing some of the finer storyline arcs I have ever witnessed in a children's cartoon. I found myself dejectedly turning over the DVD packaging, hoping in vain that a new, unexplored disc would magically pop out, continuing the third series for my enjoyment...but sadly, it was not to be.
Transformers: Beast Wars: The Complete Second Season contains all thirteen uncut episodes from (you guessed it) the second season of the show. Considering the show was created exclusively to market a new line of Hasbro toys, the show is surprisingly good. Shocking good, even. And yet, the show never seemed to garner the respect it deserved, dismissed casually by young and old alike. Beast Wars had a fantastic premise, and without daring to spoil the intricate nuances of the plotline, found a clever and stylish way of cross-referencing the original Transformers series without ever feeling derivative. But as cool as nostalgia points are, rest assured that Beast Wars could stand on its own, as its own show, on the merits of its animation, its character design and development, and its plot. The nostalgic tie-ins are simply gravy.
The fact that new computer generated cartoons could be pumped out every week was a marvel of production values and animation technology. Of course, compared to the marvels of Pixar, the animation of Beast Wars seems crude, and definitely lacking the subtlety one has come to expect of computer animation; but in 1996, this was cool stuff, especially when it aired every week on TV. At times, the background landscapes and environments could have used the same loving care extolled upon the characters themselves, and occasionally, things would get peculiar and blocky looking, but it is no worse than the occasional jerky animation frame in a hand-drawn cartoon. Ultimately, it is a moot point, for Beast Wars is, above all else, a character-driven show.
Character designs and animations are vibrant and expertly crafted, impressively emotional features with excellent facial response, and each with individual personality being easily identifiable as singularly unique, with amazingly top-notch voice acting. This could be the most important element that makes Beast Wars a superior animation series, for it cannot be understated how important good voice acting can be for an animated cartoon -- especially in a CGI cartoon, where all elements of humanity feel distant and removed. The acting is superb, with a great cast of unique voices and expressive personalities that transfer human personalities incredibly well into cold robotic shells. The characters beg to be loved and adored. Beast Wars has downright enjoyable characters, full of emotion, pathos, and internal conflict; surprisingly well fleshed-out for a weekly cartoon based on toys. I keep mentioning this fact because I find myself so surprised by it on a profound level.
The second thing that Beast Wars did exceptionally well was balancing dark, brooding, dramatic story arcs within the lighthearted spirit of the show. At its core, of course, Beast Wars is a children's show, but as the series progressed, the creators would constantly push towards more mature themes, storylines, and issues within the candy-coated shell of enjoyable, easygoing cartoon fare. Death, destruction, personal sacrifice, guilt, malice, and corruption feel completely at home with explosions, slapstick comedy, bad puns, and other standard cartoon devices in such a skillful and subtle way that one hardly notices the juxtaposition of adult themes into the cartoon.
The image quality on this DVD is, well, complicated. The picture looks sharp, crisp, clean and detailed...at first. I loved the way the light reflected off the Transformers, the luscious colors, the overall clarity of the image; that is, until I caught weird things out of the corner of my eye. Strange little motion blurs. Was I seeing a peculiar softness to the image during certain sequences? Was that just a pixelated block I saw? So, I went in for a closer look. Horrifyingly, zooming the image in reveals a jumbled, pixelated, edge-enhanced Lego-block mess, much worse than one would normally expect from a DVD image, especially a computer-generated DVD image! The horror!
What makes this especially problematic, from a reviewer's stance, is that these technical gaffes are hardly noticeable to the naked eye when simply playing the DVD. If one were casually watching, in fact, one would say the image looks pretty good -- I certainly thought so, until I had watched a good ten episodes. You could easily miss the flaws. Only when taking a more critical eye to the picture does one see the lack of fidelity in the image transfer, the strangely ambiguous softness at times, and the motion blurs -- all the tiny technical faults that slowly add up. To be honest, I find myself torn between what I can see with my eyes and what I know, from a technical standpoint, is a lack of image fidelity. Perhaps those with higher end televisions and progressive scan players would instantly quibble about the image quality, but to be honest, they might not. Beast Wars may not look perfect, but by no means should it be considered an outright failure in the image department. It looks good, yes, but there is definitely room for improvement.
In typical Rhino fashion, each episode comes in a Dolby Surround 5.1 mix, as well as a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Each has its individual merits and drawbacks. The Surround mix makes much better use of ambient space and bass, mixing the sounds across the audio spectrum quite efficiently, but suffers a peculiar softness in volume level on the dialogue. Conversely, the stereo mix sounds brighter, less bass-rich, almost rough-sounding, but with a much more aggressive, easy-to-understand dialogue track. Frankly, it is nice to have both, so whichever one strikes your ear as the most pleasant, go with it. Both are excellent mixes with small, subtle differences. In terms of supplementary content, a few scattered pieces of animation test footage are lumped on this DVD, hardly worth exploring. Gone are the crew interviews present on the first season DVD release, which is a shame. If this DVD has a flaw, its lack of supplementary content would definitely be it.
First of all, and perhaps most importantly: a gorilla on a flying snowboard? That's a character design?
Sky-surfing metal gorillas aside -- while the cartoon does the best conceivable job possible of making the best out of a bad situation (let we forget, these were conceived as 22-minute commercials for toys), the show occasionally falls out of its symbiotic balance. As mentioned before, Beast Wars does a fantastic job of balancing itself between its dual nature; being both a new show for young kids, full of wit and charm, and being a nostalgic show for teenagers / immature adults with dark angst-filled storylines and constant references to the 1980s. However, when things do fall out of balance, they tend to fall in favor towards the kid side of things. This is understandable, to a point. Admittedly, I quantify into the teenager / immature adult category, so my opinion is not without a small measure of bias, but in falling toward the immature side, the show feels weaker and less impressive, to me. The darker, complex storylines are downright impressive in their depth and (relative) complexity, all things considering, but the more lighthearted episodes feel thin, detracting slightly from the overall success of the show.
The only other glaring problem with Beast Wars, as a whole, is the music. Irritatingly, every episode has the exact same score, and each character basically has the same bit of entrance music, so after ten episodes or so, your brain has simply had enough of the music. It gets on your nerves the way tiny little elves with pick-axes get on your nerves, by climbing into your ears at night and chopping away at your central nervous system. I swear this happens.
Transformers: Beast Wars was a fantastically underappreciated television show, quickly dismissed by many as being a mere computer-animated gimmick trying to rake in the nostalgic success of a vintage franchise. Now on DVD, the series can achieve the proper recognition it deserves. Everything that the original Transformers series did wrong, Beast Wars does right: great voice acting, solid storylines, engaging character development, and more transforming robot explosions and battle sequences crammed into every episode than you could shake an Energon cube at.
For all the casually curious, Beast Wars could be the answer to the unfilled animation hole deep in your heart. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll get to see gigantic robots duke it out in every episode. For nostalgic Transformers fans, the second season offers the best tie-ins and crossovers to the original show featured throughout the entire series, and represents a show absolutely superior to the original series in every conceivable way.
So either way, it's win-win. And those are the best kind of DVDs to get behind.
Rhino gets a pat on the back for its release of Transformers: Beast Wars on DVD. But hopefully, Rhino will have the foresight to pass on releasing the follow-up series, Transformers: Beast Machines, which was universally regarded as a piece of transforming garbage.
The Beast Wars are where it's at, plain and simple. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 310 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Animation Tests