Shout! Factory // 1984 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // June 16th, 2009
"We can't stand by and watch the destruction of this beautiful planet." -- Optimus Prime
They don't make children's toys like they used to, and they certainly don't make marketing-driven-cartoon-tie-in shows like they used to either. While The Transformers wasn't a huge influence on my childhood like G.I. Joe was, I still had the toys, loved the movie, and watched the cartoon along with The Gobots (I practiced equal-opportunity transforming robot appreciation). Revisiting the show today, with this 25th Anniversary release, is quite the nostalgic road trip.
The planet of Cybertron is caught in an epic struggle between its robotic inhabitants: the Autobots and the Decepticons. While the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), are peace-loving four-wheelers, the Decepticons are a bunch of vicious planes and guns commanded by Megatron (Frank Welker).
In the midst of brutal war, the Autobots and Decepticons crash land on Earth. They awake millions of years later to find themselves on a planet rich in natural energy. If the Decepticons can extract this energy, in the form of Energon Cubes, they'll be able to rule Cybertron. Earth would be destroyed in the process, of course, so the Autobots vow to protect the planet from the Decepticons at all costs.
The Transformers cartoon originally debuted back in 1984, around the same time as a Marvel comic book series and a Hasbro toy line.
The Transformers is still the same colorful, iconic cartoon that I remember from my youth. For my money, Sunbow cartoons were top-notch, and The Transformers is no different. The voice work by folks like Peter Cullen (who voices Optimus Prime in both the cartoon and the Michael Bay films) and Chris Latta (voice of Starscream and G.I. Joe's Cobra Commander) is handled with an almost Shakespearean sense of drama. This show is nothing short of a soap opera for kids -- a soap opera that's also trying to sell toys. It's like The Young and the Restless selling Victor dolls.
The first season of The Transformers kicks off with a well paced three-parter called "More Than Meets the Eye," which introduces all the characters and gets the robots from Cybertron to Earth. Turns out these robots want to take all of the Earth's energy back to Cybertron -- a kick to the pants of humans who just got over that energy crisis of the 1970s! The mini-series does a great job of introducing everyone to the franchise, the characters, and the mythology behind the Autobots and the Decepticons. Plus, you get to meet Spike and Sparkplug Witwicky, the Autobots' human allies, who help defeat the Decepticons ensuring a long and fruitful television series.
The rest of the season plays out much like any other children's cartoon. In each episode, the Decepticons, led by Megatron (the one that turns into a gun) and his second-in-command, Starscream, hatch a new scheme to steal energy from the Earth. Good thing the Transformers, led by Optimus Prime, as well as Bumblebee and other four-wheeled soldiers, are so good at ruining Megatron's plans. Occasionally there are new characters (read: toys) introduced, including the Dinobots, the Insecticons, and the Constructicons, which add to the ever growing cast.
These generic episodes are entertaining for the most part. However, things can feel a little repetitious after a while. The main problem is the setting for many of the episodes: exceptions aside, a lot of the Transformer battles take place in a barren, rocky desert. Sometimes they go to Antarctica and fight in a barren, snowy wasteland; or a barren jungle; or a barren military base -- but generally there isn't much to look at aside from the hulking robots. The animation, while fairly choppy, can be pretty impressive at times, especially during the transformation and fight sequences. Like G.I. Joe, everyone's shooting lasers and no one gets killed; but since they're robots, the characters take quite the beating. It seemed like Optimus is dying every other episode.
The Transformers is a very fun, mid-80s cartoon that is definitely worth revisiting (or discovering). Thanks to Shout! Factory, it's easy to do just that. Previously, this series was lost in a legal maze after Rhino shut its doors and discontinued its DVD line. Shout! has not only recovered the Sunbow cartoons, but has restored missing footage found on the original master tapes. This footage, which was added back into each episode, looks rougher than the rest of the cartoon, but is a welcomed addition -- as are the commercial breaks in each episode, ushered in by the devilish voice of Victor Caroli. The sound in the series fares a tad better than the video, but the audio still has that muffling '80s fog about it. The audio is a new stereo soundtrack that was mastered from the original tapes, so this is about as good as it gets.
The three-disc set includes all 16 episodes from the first season, as well as a disc full of bonus material. The bonus disc's main draw is an informative documentary on the series titled Triple Changer. The video features interviews with the original creators of the series, and traces the Transformers from their origins as a Japanese toy line to American pop culture staple. Also included are some super-creepy archival Hasbro toy commercials -- they're only creepy because the children's faces are blurred out for the DVD release -- and one of the PSAs from the show. As an added bonus, they've thrown in a PDF of the script for the episode "Transport to Oblivion" and a sweet Autobots magnet. Overall it's a very impressive set of extras.
Not to detract from this very fun series, but revisiting the show brought about a flood of questions. Specifically, why would robots living on a planet comprised totally of robots need to disguise themselves? Who would they ever need to hide from? Why would they be able to transform into things only invented on Earth, when they haven't really been to Earth prior to their creation -- not to mention that when they actually get to Earth, it's the Stone Age?
Oh, wait, it's a children's show to sell toys...never mind.
The Transformers is a classic animated series that managed to rise above its marketing mission and actually provide meaningful entertainment. If you grew up on these kinds of Sunbow cartoons, you owe it to yourself to pick this up. The show has aged well, and Shout! Factory has done an incredible job putting everything together for this 25th anniversary release.
I can't, however, testify that this release is better or worse than the original Rhino release -- although the added footage does give it a leg up. The good news is that this first season isn't nearly as expensive as the discontinued Rhino DVDs, so picking it up a second time may be worth it.
Not guilty. Roll out.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Printable Script
* Hasbro Commercials
* Autobot Magnet
* DVD Verdict audio interview with Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime)