Transformers: What The Movies Don't Capture But The Cartoons Do
With the recent release of Transformers: The Last Knight there are now five films in Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, with a sixth on the way next year. The franchise has been jaw-droppingly successful, bringing in audiences in huge numbers across the world and earning millions for DreamWorks and Paramount. The movies are, however, almost universally regarded as terrible. Visually repellent, insultingly dumb, chock full of crude racist and sexist humor, and utterly lacking in anything even approaching characterization, these movies absolutely deserve their typical Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15 – 20%.
We could talk about why it is these films are successful even though they're dreadful, but I fear that the answer might be that audiences sometimes just want to watch something loud and explodey without caring much about the content. Instead, I'd like to talk about what the Transformers movies could have been. Of all the franchises built up out of nostalgia properties, I'd argue that the original Transformers cartoons do actually deserve their hallowed place in the collective memory of my generation. They might have been silly kids' cartoons that were essentially commercials for toys, but they achieved a level of emotional appeal and originality in their storytelling that the Bay movies never even came close to.
Robots As The Focus
The first issue I have with the films is their insistence on focusing on the 'relatable' human characters. The Transformers are treated as background or as side characters in their own films, in order to give more screen time to Shia Le Beouf's dull college dude and his romantic troubles, or Mark Wahlberg's overprotective dad schtick. While I could excuse this in an introductory film, it has been a problem throughout all of the movies.
Only someone who holds sci-fi in general, and transformers in particular, in disdain could possibly think that whether or not some guy is going to hook up with his high school crush is more interesting to an audience than the experiences and worldviews of giant futuristic alien robots which transform into vehicles. Especially because Transformers aren't like other alien or robot characters who are too remote or different from humans to be relatable: they have personalities, they can emote, they have distinct wishes and desires. They are characters in their own right whose motivations should be central to the story.
In the cartoons, from G1 to Beast Wars to Prime, the Transformers remained the focus. The conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons was the driving force of the story and the philosophies of the robot factions were at the heart of the narrative. The occasional human character was there as an audience surrogate, but they were never the primary character of the show. One feels that Michael Bay would have been happier making pro-military action films without any of this silly robot business distracting from what he is apparently interested in.
The Robot Designs
Ask anyone who watched Transformers as a kid what sticks with them most about the cartoons, and they'll probably mention the robot designs pretty quickly. The original G1 Transformers designs were brightly colored, simple, and distinctly blocky. Admittedly, this owed more to the mechanics of making a toy that transformed than it did to adherence to a particular style, but the results are still memorable and distinctive. The earliest Transformer designs strongly recall the Japanese mecha tradition (which makes sense, given that is what the toys were originally based on), with their giant size and strong, bold outlines.
Over the years, the designs have changed for each cartoon, but they have always been instantly recognizable. You could hold up a Transformers toy and easily identify which character it was from across the room, thanks to the bright and fun colors and shapes.
The Bay Transformers, in contrast, look like jagged, gray, disproportionate blobs. Every character has a flat, boring color palate, and the 'transformations' look more like a swarm of nanobots moving together and apart than they do a physical machine with two distinct states. These hideous designs are not helped by Bay's habit of shooting the robots very close up and of constantly cutting away every few sections in action scenes so that all you see is a choppy mess of whirring gray pieces as opposed to a distinctive robot shape.
For the sake of visual comparison, think about Pacific Rim's gorgeous, sweeping shots showing giant mechs fighting from a medium distance: the scale of the mechs compared to the cityscapes they were shot in looks stunning. If the camera had been pulled right up close and kept cutting from one shot to another, you'd lose all sense of scale and the visual impact.
The robot designs are just the tip of the Transformers' visual language. The cartoons in general, and the 80s cult classic Transformers: The Movie in particular, are full of pulp sci-fi imagery and cyber-futuristic styling. The nearest visual equivalent of the early cartoons might be the wild, colorful, creative works of Jack Kirby and his ground-breaking comic art. It might be bizarre, but unlike Bay's drab palette of grays, it was never boring.
These Robots Do Actually Mean Something
But these complaints are taking the whole Transformers business too seriously, right? After all, it was just some dumb cartoons to sell toys, who cares if the movies adaptations are bad? Well, I'd actually disagree. However cynical or ridiculous their origin as toy commercials, I'd argue that the reason that Transformers has stayed lodged in the collective consciousness in a way that, say, He-Man or Dino Riders did not, is that the cartoons really did hit achieve solid narrative and characterization goals.
Optimus Prime became a cultural icon for a generation not just because he was a giant robot who could transform into a truck (though that is undeniably awesome), but because he was a compassionate, thoughtful leader who respected all beings and frequently pondered the line between his pacifist principals and the need to use violence to protect the innocent. There is a reason that he has frequently albeit jokingly been compared to Jesus. Throughout all his struggles leading the Autobots against the Decepticons, he never stopped hoping for peace and extending compassion even to his enemies.
Conversely, the evil Decepticons and in particular the treacherous Starscream hit all the aspects of classic villainy you could hope for: betrayal, unchecked ambition, aggression, and distrust of others are their key character beats. We are invited to view the Decepticons not just as a collection of those who had been born bad, but rather as a group who came together due to a shared might-makes-right philosophy that is always ultimately their downfall.
Perhaps Optimus' most famous quote, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” is a genuinely important Humanistic statement. It is made all the more meaningful by the fact is concerns 'beings', not only humans, and allows for the possibility of intelligent and precious life being possible in non-human forms. As we slowly begin to contemplate a future where an artificial intelligence could be granted the same ethical status as a human – think of Ex Machina, Her, or WALL-E – this theme becomes more relevant than ever.
So yes, however transparently commercial the Transformers cartoons might have been, I'd argue that they reached a level of ethical philosophy and emotional depth which earned them their place in the collective memory. The death of Optimus Prime shook a generation of children not just because they liked their toys, but because they had formed a genuine attachment to this universe and to the characters within it. Can anyone say the same of the Michael Bay movies?