Paramount // 2008 // 297 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // January 7th, 2009
Transform and roll out!
...and like that, the Transformers are back. Not that they were ever really gone: from the heights of their '80s ubiquity, the Transformers have stayed in the zeitgeist in one form or another through various animated revamps, toys, and an especially rabid fanbase. The epitome of the cartoon-as-toy-commercial, the simple/kewl premise of Transformers -- giant robots from outer space wage war with each other on Earth, all the while disguised as common vehicles-has proved to have surprising endurance. 2007's blockbuster movie adaptation reaffirmed the popularity of the "Robots in Disguise," making a new iteration of the animated series not only tenable, but inevitable. The decades-long ride of the Transformers continues in this anime-influenced new take on the characters.
Taking its cues from the movie, features two warring groups of Transformers-valiant Autobots and evil Decepticons-feuding over the Allspark, the source of a Transformer's life force. The Autobots, lead by Optimus Prime, make their home in a near-future version of Detroit, where robotics expert Dr. Isaac Sumdac has stocked the city with robots to do menial jobs-and has inadvertently reactivated the Decepticon leader, Megatron.
As Season Two begins, Dr. Sumdac has been abducted by Megatron, leaving Sumdac's 8-year-old daughter, Sari, in charge of his company and under the care of the Autobots. The Allspark, shattered at the end of last season, is in splinters around the city and causing all kinds of complications for the already beleaguered Autobots.
The 13 episodes of the Cartoon Network-produced Transformers: Animated second season include:
* The Elite Guard
The Autobots' superiors, the Elite Guard, come to Earth and are displeased to see the Allspark destroyed, much to the chagrin of the Elite Guardsman-and Optimus Prime's old rival-Sentinel Prime.
* Return of the Headmaster
The robot-hijacking Headmaster is hired as a scientist at Sumdac Systems even as Sari is shown the door, but he's up to old tricks. Old, robot-beheading tricks.
* Mission Accomplished
The Autobots are scheduled to return to Cybertron with the apparent disappearance of the Decepticons, but there's a threat that neither group thought they'd have to contend with: the return of Starscream.
* Garbage In, Garbage Out
A contract dispute between Sumdac and the city leaves Detroit facing a garbage strike. As the Autobots help with the messy clean-up, the unique circumstances lead to the creation of Wreck-Gar, whose naïve confusion leads to some unexpected problems.
The presence of illegal, pay-per-view street racing in Detroit brings out Bumblebee's competitive side and causes him to question: Who is the Blue Racer?
* Rise of the Constructicons
An accident with a fragment of the Allspark brings a pair of vehicles to life on a construction site, birthing Mix Master and Scrapper, a pair of transformers who just want to party and tip back the oil with their unexpected new friend-Bulkhead.
* A Fistful of Energon
A heavily modified Prowl teams up with the rogue bounty hunter, Lockdown, to bring Starscream to justice and claim the substantial reward.
* S.U.V.-Society of Ultimate Villainy
Some of Detroit's more outrageous human supervillains team up to take down their hated enemies, the Autobots, but a too-good-to-be-true offer from a sneaky Decepticon may turn the tables.
* Autoboot Camp
On news that the Autobot traitor, Wasp, has escaped from his Cybertronian prison, Bumblebee recollects his days at Autobot boot camp and how he befriended Bulkhead.
* Black Friday
The Dinobots' strange behavior can be linked back to Blackarachnia, who yearns to rid her robot body of its organic elements. To that end, she frees the mad scientist Meltdown from his prison cell and blackmails Optimus Prime to do her bidding.
* Sari, No One's Home
Left behind by the Autobots at headquarters, Sari finds herself without any giant-robot help when the Constructicons come by looking for trouble.
* A Bridge Too Close, Part One
Megatron's plan to construct a galaxy-spanning space bridge comes to fruition, but his mission to invade Cybertron can only happen with the help of one of the universe's foremost space bridge experts-who happens to be right here on Earth.
* A Bridge Too Close, Part Two
It's chaos at the site of the Decepticon space bridge as battle breaks out on three fronts, with the fate of Cybertron hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Ratchet and Sari enlist the aid of a (very) old friend who may just tip the scales in the Autobots' favor.
Like the most appealing of science fiction concepts, there's very little
about the Transformers as a concept or as a group of characters that makes a
lick of sense. The barest scrutiny of the physics-defying robots reveals the
inherent absurdity of the concept, but none of that matters: these are giant,
talking, shape-changing robots who smack each other around and use the city as
their battlefield (as if Detroit didn't have enough to worry about). If that
doesn't appeal to you on some level, you're either dead or weren't a kid in the
'80s. For this reason alone-like G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and
Masters of the Universe -- the Transformers get a pass for being
ridiculous. It's the best possible kind of nonsense.
If the original '80s cartoon gets a pass on novelty and nostalgia, the two factors that elevate virtually all TV animation of the past, Transformers: Animated suffers in comparison. Adopting the anime influence of shows like Teen Titans (and using some of its voice cast), this version of the Transformers is the most kid-friendly yet, featuring broad, comically exaggerated portrayals of the main Autobots and Decepticons that make them seem more cuddly than mechanical. The "Generation 1" cartoon was often just as chintzy as its Saturday morning counterparts, but everything had a certain gravitas no matter how silly the plot or poor the animation; here, the destruction of private property and what is essentially the alien occupation of Earth is treated as a springboard for slapstick and fish-out-of-water shtick. The stakes are about as real as the endless lasers flying across the screen that never seemed to hit anyone on G.I. Joe. The threat of annihilation is just a segue to wacky mayhem.
That's not entirely fair, though to place it in a continuum of its predecessors can't be avoided . Taken on its own, there's plenty to enjoy here. Once the anime styling and more light-hearted tone are accepted, the universe created in Transformers: Animated -- a creaky, illogical, feverishly cartoonish universe-is actually pretty entertaining. The stand-alone episodes touch on many corners of the collective Transformers mythology (Dinobots! Constructicons!), with human villains in costumes picking up the slack where Megatron, holed up in his lair, seems to have taken the hands-off approach to villainy, orchestrating his plans in hiding (indeed, we don't even see him directly engage the Autobots until a pivotal moment in "A Bridge Too Close," the two-part season finale). That the human villains-the Angry Archer, Meltdown, Professor Princess, Nanosec-are a threat to these bipedal metal death machines is probably more a testament to the popularity of superheroes than a shot at enriching the dense mythos of the Transformers.
It's silly, it's juvenile, it's practically a sitcom at points-but the stories add up in a pleasant manner. Among the standouts are "Autoboot Camp," with a flashback to Bumblebee's recruitment and what amounts to military hazing, and "A Bridge Too Close," which satisfyingly brings together many disparate elements from throughout the season-Sumdac's abduction, Starscream's plotting, the ambiguous loyalties of the Constructicons, the improvement in medic Ratchet's bedside manner-in a slam-bang finale. The episodes aren't all keepers, but they each successfully tell a stand-alone story while advancing the larger plotlines, a delicate balancing act in a serial medium and doubly so when dealing with something as complicated as the Transformers universe.
A fun and versatile cast of regulars and guest stars make things more interesting. Lance Henriksen (Millennium) and Fred Willard (A Mighty Wind) lend their distinct voices to bounty hunter Lockdown and smarmy Swindle, respectively; even the guy from the old "Micro Machines" ads reprises his '80s role as fast-talking Blurr. A lot of it falls flat-one can only take so many auto parts-based puns and gross denials of physics-but for the right age group, or for the wrong age group willing to overlook it, this umpteenth reconfiguration of Optimus Prime and pals can offer more characterization, humor, and general fealty to the concept than the movie which sparked its revival in the first place.
The bonus features include a gallery of character portraits and biographies, showcasing many characters who don't even appear in the episodes provided (and spoil a few of the season's episodes for those who haven't watched them already). There are two brief, poorly animated shorts focusing on the Decepticons that amount to little more than bad punchlines. Commentary on two episodes, "Mission Accomplished" and "Garbage In, Garbage Out," is handled by a whole gaggle of the show's production staff, including, tellingly and appropriately, one of the toy executives. The commentaries are good-natured and familial, with the commentators doling out production trivia, Transformers lore, and proving themselves to be both fans of the material they've revamped and formidable geeks in themselves (Monty Python and Jack Kirby get name-dropped, while guest star "Weird Al" Yankovic is referred to as "a living legend").
While certainly not as good as the series that ignited the franchise in America decades ago, Transformers: Animated has some charms of its own, among them a faith in its own goofiness and a giddy embrace of its anime influences. Older fans may have trouble reconciling the variations on beloved characters in Transformers: Animated, and even movie converts may have trouble, but it succeeds as children's entertainment and adequately represents a hybrid movie-anime Transformers. This is not a definitive take on these characters and will likely recede with the movie franchise, but until then Transformers: Animated works as an agreeable continuation of the franchise. Enjoy it with a kid who's playing with an Optimus Prime toy as you watch.
As a mere organic, I am probably unqualified to judge these creatures.
Transformers: Animated will be shipped to Cybertron to await trial
pending further consultation and a conference with Ultra Magnus.
Review content copyright © 2009 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 297 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Picture Gallery
* Animated Shorts
* Official Site