We let Judge Kerry Birmingham take the new model of Autobots out for a test drive.
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.
Facts of the Case
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
• Return of the Headmaster
• Mission Accomplished
• Garbage In, Garbage Out
• Rise of the Constructicons
• A Fistful of Energon
• S.U.V.-Society of Ultimate Villainy
• Autoboot Camp
• Black Friday
• Sari, No One's Home
• A Bridge Too Close, Part One
• A Bridge Too Close, Part Two
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
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.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Episode Commentaries
Review content copyright © 2009 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.