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Transformers: The Movie — 30th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

8 Sep, 2016 By: John Latchem

Street 9/13/16
Shout! Factory
$14.93 DVD, $29.93 Blu-ray, $34.99 BD Steelbook
Rated ‘PG’
Voices of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Lionel Stander, Eric Idle, Orson Welles, Susan Blu, Neil Ross, John Moschitta Jr., Gregg Berger, Corey Burton, Frank Welker, Peter Cullen.

In two seasons of the original “Transformers” cartoon based on the popular Hasbro toy line, none of the characters ever died as a result of the never-ending war between the Autobots and Decepticons. They could be severely damaged, but were quickly repaired. At the end of the first season, the entire Decepticon faction fell into a pit of lava, only to be back at full strength without explanation at the start of the next season.

Suffice it to say, storytelling sophistication isn’t one of the prime requirements for a show designed to showcase toys to kids, even though the adventures seemed like fantastic entertainment to their core audience.

So it was quite a shock when The Transformers: The Movie hit theaters in 1986, and spent the first third of its running time wiping out most of the original toy line. In fact, some kids were absolutely traumatized by the infamous death of the beloved Autobot leader Optimus Prime, so much so that Hasbro and Sunbow Productions had to revise plans in the following year’s G.I. Joe: The Movie to kill off Duke (a plot point not enacted on screen until 2013’s live-action G.I. Joe: Retaliation).

By eliminating its older characters to introduce characters from the new toy line, The Transformers: The Movie essentially serves a pilot for the show’s third season, which kicked off about a month after the film hit theaters. The story is simple enough to provide for some glorious battles to provide for the high casualty count, as the new crew has to contend with Unicron, a planet-consuming menace that threatens the Transformers' homeworld, while also coping with the loss of Optimus Prime.

As obvious as the commercial reasons were for swapping out the characters, the fact that a kid’s show was willing to brutally kill off so much of its cast on-screen, including its most popular character, actually made it seem edgy. Contributing to this reputation is the fact that this is an animated movie in which several characters use swear words in a way the show would never have gotten away with.

On top of that, the animation is beautiful, a budgetary step up from a cartoon series that was already visually distinctive. It’s easy to see why the animated movie remains a favorite among “Transformers” in an era of live-action adaptations that seem to sideline the characters in favor of relentless action scenes.

The Transformers: The Movie has received several home video releases through the years, but this is the first release from Shout! Factory, which finally obtained the rights despite the company having released all the “Transformers” TV shows on DVD the past few years. It’s a good thing, too, since the movie was sorely lacking a Blu-ray release in the United States, while internationally released Blu-rays having been known to fetch hundreds of dollars on the secondary market.

Shout! Factory’s version offers a new, pristine 4K transfer of the film, which is absolutely a definitive presentation of the film. While there are some flaws in the print, it’s clear these are the result of the original animation and film elements, and not part of the remastering process (though high-def tends to make them a bit more noticeable).

The remastering process gets a closer look in the Blu-ray’s seven-minute “Transformers: The Restoration” featurette, which offers comparisons to the unenhanced image. The movie was previously remastered for earlier DVDs, but that was for lower-resolution presentations, so this new HD upgrade is quite a revelation that should excite fans.

Shout! Factory’s package includes two discs, both of which contain the same bonus features. The key difference is that one disc offers the film in the 1.85:1 widescreen ratio common to movie theaters and HDTVs, and the other disc has the film in the 4:3 format of old televisions.

The film was actually animated with television in mind and then cropped for movie theaters, so the 4:3 presentation actually provides more of the overall image, though it’s not as if anything important was cropped out.

The movie is rather notorious for being the final film recorded by Orson Welles, who died five days after his final voice session (and about 10 months before the film’s debut), after complaining to his biographer that he was "playing a toy in a movie about toys who do horrible things to each other." Only the delayed release of 1987's Someone to Love (filmed prior to Transformers) prevents Transformers from serving as a proper bookend to the career that started with Citizen Kane.

Welles played Unicron, the planet-sized Transformer now considered a seminal figure in “Transformers” lore and the bad guy everyone keeps waiting for in the Michael Bay movies. (And to Welles’ point about playing a toy, the planned Unicron movie toy was canceled due to cost and production issues, and the character wouldn’t have a toy released at retail until 2003).

While the film is better known for its association with Welles, it was also the final film for Scatman Crothers, who voiced Autobot Jazz throughout the show’s run. (Interestingly enough, while Jazz is one of the few original characters to survive this film, he’s actually the only Autobot who doesn’t survive the first movie of Michael Bay’s live-action franchise that debuted in 2007.)

The other major contribution to the film’s legacy is its music: Vince DiCola provides the score following his work on Rocky IV, while Stan Bush’s song “The Touch” (originally written for the movie Cobra) has practically become an anthem for the franchise (even if, as with Unicron, it has yet to appear in the Michael Bay canon).

Non-“Transformers” fans might recognize “The Touch” as the song mangled by Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character in Boogie Nights that he records for his attempted post-porn career debut album (and possibly implied, within the world of the film, to have been written by John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild character, mentioned early in the film to be an aspiring songwriter). Yes, that's the same Mark Wahlberg now headlining the Michael Bay "Transformers" movies.

DiCola and Bush are among the many talking heads reflecting on the film in “’Til All Are One,” the Blu-ray’s outstanding new retrospective documentary that runs a shade over 45 minutes. The piece also includes fascinating anecdotes from several of the film’s voice cast and production team, who are quite up front about the series’ origins as a not-to-subtle toy commercial.

Another new extra is “Rolling Out the New Cover,” a five-minute interview with “Transformers” comic book artist Livio Ramondelli (who is also featured in the main documentary) about what the franchise means to him and his process for creating the box art for the new Blu-ray.

Carried over from the Sony BMG 20th anniversary DVD are the feature commentary with director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and voice actress Susan Blu (Arcee); and the featurettes “The Death of Optimus Prime,” “The Cast & Characters” and “Transformers Q&A.”

The Blu-ray also includes previously released trailers, TV spots and animated storyboards, though takes it a step further by creating an extended version of the battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron by adding storyboards of deleted segments back into where they would have fit.


About the Author: John Latchem

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