Shout! Factory // 2010 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // December 6th, 2011
"I recommend dissection, the smaller the pieces, the better!"
The ongoing success of Transformers is proof that a franchise can apparently live forever, despite being built around what is in truth a simple concept. The "robots in disguise" played a significant part in my own childhood, and, thanks in no small part to the slew of videogame adaptations -- not to mention Michael Bay's blockbuster movies -- seem more popular now than ever. Of course, popularity is no reliable marker of quality (as the box office of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen proves), and not all iterations of Transformers are created equally. Thankfully, the contents of Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising suggests this latest animated series has the potential to be considered amongst the very best the franchise has to offer.
Despite having enjoyed years of peace since the disappearance of Megatron (Frank Welker), Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and his team of Autobots have remained vigilant for the inevitable return of the Decepticons. When Cliffjumper (Dwayne Johnson) is killed on a seemingly routine reconnaissance mission, Optimus Prime's suspicions are raised.
Soon Megatron has made his return, with a dastardly scheme involving the use of Dark Energon to raise an army of undead robot soldiers to first defeat the Autobots, and then destroy mankind. Aided by his loyal companions, Bumblebee, Acree (Sumalee Montano), Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs), and Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson), and joined by three feisty children, Optimus Prime leads his troops into battle once more.
This DVD release of Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising seamlessly edits the five episode miniseries that appeared before the first full season into a single movie. As usual, the story still revolves around the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. As ever, Optimus Prime leads out the Autobots, whilst his eternal nemesis, Megatron, controls the villainous Decepticons. Thanks to a markedly darker tone, and some excellent writing that takes the series in some interesting directions, Transformers Prime still manages to feel fresh.
The central premise of the miniseries revolves around Megatron's plans to raise an army of undead robots. That's right, for only the second time ever, I get to raise a fist in the air triumphantly at the sight of freakin' techno-zombies! Beyond the immediately cool concept, this helps inform the tone of the series, which as already noted is darker than fans of the Transformers may be accustomed to. This leads to scenes of perennial bad guy Starscream interrogating Autobot-friendly humans, and scenes of mass devastation (complete with screaming women running through war-torn cities).
The human characters introduced in Transformers Prime, on the surface at least, appear a little contrived. We get the twelve-year-old computer geek, "Raf" Esquivel, who is squarely aimed at the younger viewer; rock chick Miko, who it appears is intended to bring more female viewers to the series; and finally Jack Darby, the cool teenager. This argument can also be extended to the Transformers themselves, with the introduction of Acree, the first female robot to be featured prominently, suggesting a show looking to cater for everyone. If you put the cynicism to one side, and these characters -- particularly Acree -- prove to be an appealing bunch, and each adds something to the show as a whole.
Of course, a big draw of Transformers has always been the sight of giant robots smacking the bejesus out of each other, and Transformers Prime really shines in this respect. A final showdown between Optimus Prime and Megatron, though short, carries all the weight such a clash should, while a battle against an undead Decepticon army sees all kinds of hell break loose.
This voice cast is arguably the best seen in any of the animated Transformers shows. Along with Transformers stalwarts Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, the series brings in the likes of Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Jeffrey Combs Re-Animator), and even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Faster) in a small, but pivotal role. Combs, who plays Ratchet, delivers a reading that renders all previous versions of the character void. He brings that extra little something to the role that makes the viewer fully understand why he is Optimus Prime's right-hand man; his grouchy demeanor ("Optimus, if you leave me stranded on a planet teeming with humans, I may never forgive you!") is also captured perfectly in Combs' reading of the character.
Visually, Transformers Prime offers a near-perfect mix of each of the previous iterations of the Transformers, including the live action movies, to deliver an extremely appealing aesthetic which veers ever so slightly toward anime. Shout! Factory's DVD presentation ensures the show looks fantastic. Colors are bold, with excellent levels of detail even during darker scenes. Small details, like the reflection on the metallic shells of the robots, are clear, and are complemented by the deep black levels. The 5.1 soundtrack packs quite a wallop, with action scenes really benefiting from the expansive mix.
Extras for this release are a little disappointing. "A Look at Character Design" reveals several characters at each stage of development, from initial sketches to final computer renderings. "A Look at Set Design" is essentially the same as the previous featurette, but this time concerned solely with set design. Finally there is an animatic for episode one of the miniseries. Much like the previous two features it's not a bad addition to the package, but it would have been nice to get something a little more substantial (interviews, commentary, etc.).
Fast-paced, faithful, and fun, Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising is a must-see for fans of the Transformers, and -- if my eldest son is any indication -- an excellent way to bring new fans to the franchise.
Review content copyright © 2011 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site