37 Years Ago, The Most Ambitious Toy-Based Movie Ever, Broke Our Hearts
Where were you the day Optimus Prime passed on the matrix of leadership?
Everyone remembers where they were during certain big historical events. But for kids who watched cartoons in the ’80s and played with ’80s toys, the day that Optimus Prime’s circuits stopped working is burned into their memory. It was certainly one of the most traumatic and formative experiences ever. If true believers wept for The Iron Giant in 1999, it was nothing compared to what kids had to deal with in 1986. The ambitious and unique Transformers: The Movie has been remembered for many things. But, the most lasting impression it made on children of the time was taking their existing Transformers toy box, and dumping it in the trash.
On August 8, 1986, Transformers: The Movie took a beloved toy brand and staple of after-school children’s cartoons and turned the whole premise into a sci-fi epic, that sometimes bordered on becoming a rock opera. No one would accuse any one aspect of Transformers: The Movie of being subtle, but that doesn’t mean the story wasn’t complicated. While the film was essentially just a big-screen episode of the existing animated TV series, the status quo was jarringly different. While the series took place in more or less the “present day” of the 1980s, the movie’s opening voiceover told us, “It is the year 2005.” The fact that 2005 is now almost 20 years in the past is not only hilarious, but also, disappointing. For those of us who imagined ourselves growing up to be like the teenager Spike, the 2005 we lived through was conspicuously lacking both hoverboards and regular moon shuttles. (Also, where’s Daniel’s other parent? Was there a mom? Another dad? Someone else? Was Spike a single dad?)
The idea that Transformers audience surrogate of Spike became a dad overnight thanks to an ambitious time jump into 2005, is worth lingering on, because it happens right away, at the start of the movie, and kinda foreshadows all the big shifts that are about to happen. Making Spike a dad, and swapping in a new tween that hangs out with the Autobots (Daniel) is a little like that Ewan McGregor Winnie-the-Pooh movie Christopher Robin where he’s suddenly grown-up. But in this analogy, it would also involve Winnie-the-Pooh getting slaughtered by a Heffalump at the end of the first act. And that’s because the biggest deal of Transformers: The Movie was obviously the end of Optimus Prime’s life.
A beloved robot father figure in his own right, Optimus Prime is taken out in a fatal duel with Megatron, after the banger “You’ve Got the Touch” promises us that Optimus Prime will in fact, never get hit when his back’s to the wall. The mixed message for kids is pretty brilliant: Yes, this is a heroic, over-the-top, badass scene where Prime is kicking a bunch o Decepticon-tail (their phrasing!), but, the stakes are secretly real. Prime has “the Touch,” but not forever. And so, the rest of the movie becomes a story about passing the legacy of the Transformers to a new generation.
Interestingly, Transformers: The Movie gets hardcore a little bit earlier than Prime’s heartbreaking end. When Megatron intercepts the Autobot shuttle, he, Starscream, and others, blow-away a bunch of other first-generation Transformers, including Ironhide who is shot in the face by Megatron. By the end of the movie, other than Bumblebee and a few others, most of the A-squad Autobots (and Decepticons!) are taken out in this movie. Meaning, in theory, all of the Transformers toys that kids had at the time, were, canonically deceased after this movie came out.
Here’s the thing. This was heartbreaking for ‘80s kids, or even ‘90s kids who watched the movie later on VHS. But, these stakes also made the movie feel serious. The gift of Transformers the movie wasn’t just its indulgence in a camp robot space opera for kids, but rather, that the movie emulated the mortal stakes of grown-up adventure stories. Transformers: The Movie was the most mature immature kids movie of the ‘80s, and while those contradictions might not make it a great movie, it was an important one.
The meaning of transformation in the TV show was fairly straightforward: Robots could turn into big trucks or boomboxes. But, after Transformers: The Movie, kids got that transformation meant something else: Growing up.
Transformers: The Movie is streaming to rent on YouTube, Amazon, and elsewhere.
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