The most affecting cartoon death of all time doesn’t come from a Disney movie, and the deceased was a giant robot semi-truck. But, the death of Optimus Prime still resonates for one big reason.
No matter how good or bad the various contemporary live-action Transformers films might be, for many, 1986’s animated Transformers: The Movie is still the best. And though you might believe this has something to do with that movie’s essential awesomeness, the real reason is that this movie taught us about death. As movie deaths go, Optimus Prime biting the robot-dust in the first act of the film is really powerful. Here’s why we still care.
There are a lot of reasons a child of the ‘80s will tell you that the 1986 animated feature film Transformers: The Movie totally rocks. In fact, they would probably start by talking about the Rocky-esque ‘80s rock soundtrack, one which famously made Stan Bush’s (a faux-Kenny Loggins) song “The Touch” into an anthem for cool kids, and a hilarious joke in Boogie Nights a decade later. There’s also a great voice cast: Judd Nelson fresh from his Breakfast Club fame plays the pseudo-main character, an Autobot named Hot Rod, whose hero’s journey is so similar to most Chris Pine movies, that you have to wonder if this movie isn’t required viewing among contemporary Hollywood screenwriters. Nelson is joined by a ton of other famous people: Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, Robert Stack as Ultra Magnus, and yes Orson Welles in what ended up being his very last role: the robot planet-eating planet named Unicron. However, none of these facts are why the film is so special. Instead, it’s all about the performance of another voice actor; Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime.
In addition to being the voice of the guy in a ton of movie trailers, Peter Cullen was — and still is — known for his work as Optimus Prime, the wise and father figure of the heroic transforming robots, the Autobots. Prime is beloved because ‘80s kids saw a serious and stern dad in Optimus Prime, but also one who could kick ass if necessary. Optimus Prime is like Gandalf plus Darth Vader, but in this scenario, Darth Vader is still a good guy, he just looks really imposing. Did we trust Optimus Prime because he didn’t have an actual mouth, just that wicked looking robot jaw thing? Maybe. The muffled voice of Cullen’s Prime made kids of the ‘80s feel safe, which is why, when the voice became weak, and Prime’s circuits shorted out, we were devastated.
However, just because the movie killed off a main character (and a beloved toy!) does not prove Transformers: The Movie was super smart. Instead, the reason why the death of Optimus Prime works so well is when it happens in the movie. This isn’t right at the beginning like in The Lion King, or right at the end like when Spock dies in The Wrath of Khan. Instead, Prime dies at the end of the first act, which, for a movie that is only like 90 minutes, feels sort of like the middle when you re-watch it. Sure, the most “important” stuff in the movie happens later, but killing Optimus Prime off at this point is smart because it does what other cartoon deaths had never tried up until that point. It forces the audience to live with the loss in a very real way. Sure, Dumbo’s mom dies early on in that movie, and ditto for Bambi. But, going into those movies, people didn’t have several seasons of a TV show starring Dumbo’s mom or Bambi’s mom rolling around in their head. But, Optimus Prime was the star of the Transformers, so to kill him off when the movie did is made the death feel more real. The character had a full life outside of this movie, and the movie brutally said: guess what, death can happen suddenly and (robot) life for everyone else still goes on. The death of a parent can change your entire life, and for children of the ’80s, Optimus Prime was a pop-culture shadow of that event.
Everything that happens in the movie after Optimus Prime dies is specifically about the void he leaves. And even when Hot Rod grabs the “matrix of leadership” and becomes Rodimus Prime (I mean, that name, come on) no one is really convinced the transforming robot world is really safe again. Nearly every single robot in Transformers comes across as insecure like they all have imposter syndrome. (Which sort of make sense since they are robots that pretend to be cars, planes, and boomboxes.) But Optimus Prime wasn’t like that. He was confident, and as the song claimed, he had “the touch.”
The movie proves that none of that matters and that Optimus Prime’s theme song is actually a lie. “You never get hit when your back’s to the wall!” is what Stan Bush sings in “The Touch.” But, in the movie, the opposite happens. Even if you have the touch, even if you have the power, you can’t escape death.
You can grab Transformers: The Movie on Amazon right here.
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