Thursday, August 17, 2006

THE STRANGE CHARM OF TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE: Is there a more inexplicable actual good movie than this? It's not a great film. It would be deeply silly to consider it a great film. But three out of four stars? 7 out of 10 on the IMDB scale? Yeah, that's about right. It's energetic. It's hyperviolent. There's graphic robot death. The voice cast is superb. Orson Welles' presence lends it a weird credibility. It's definitely not--not, not, a thousand times not--a flawed masterpiece like many of Welles' films ended up being. But does it deserve its place in the cult film pantheon? Oh yes.

My theory is that this film is the grafting of Heavy Metal onto an 80s children's cartoon. Unlike the other megapopular Hasbro property of the 80s, G.I. Joe, Transformers had a mostly robot cast. And as is true with Saturday morning cartoons to this day, you can kill all the robots you wants and rating boards won't care. Heavy Metal was still state-of-the-art (North) American animation back in '86 (or so my theory goes.) Or, its aesthetic was, bleak and bloody and vaguely realistic. American animators were no longer trying to be Disney, and it was still pre-Akira, so they weren't trying to be Japanese--it was the Heavy Metal interregnum.

So you have this dark aesthetic. You have a cast full of robots that you know you can get away with killing. So you--you being the Sunbow braintrust who came up with this thing, in whose mouths I am putting words--say to yourself, "Hey--let's have Starscream blasted into ash! Let's melt down robots in a acid pit while they scream in pain! Let's kill off a whole planet populated by robots--and we'll show some robot children about to be sucked away just to drive the point home! It's ok--they're robots!" It's dark science fantasy as applied to a children's cartoon. It's bold what they did, and I'm amazed Hasbro agreed to it (and think it more likely they didn't know what was going on.) And I think it's why it's sustained itself for so long as a memorable film, but it's also why it died at the box office--kids are not amused by robots being fed to robot sharks, nor parents by having to explain why Optimus Prime had to die (a complete different kind of explanation than--say--why Bambi's mom had to die, something American parents are a little more prepared for.)

Yeah. It's a cult film with an especially vocal cult, but most cult films do deserve a portion of their worship.

EDIT: Oh, I forgot the other Heavy Metal connection: the very long-haired, leather-pants-wearing soundtrack, performed by 80s bands who weren't even one-hit wonders. Not that the Heavy Metal soundtrack was like that, but it's another way Transformers is a juvenile interpretation of Heavy Metal. I mean, it even has Weird Al's Devo tribute 'Dare To Be Stupid' as a major song (Devo being one of the Heavy Metal bands.)

EDIT 2: The always reliable Wikipedia: Welles hated the film. Shortly before he died, he told his biographer, Barbara Leaming, that he had spent the day "playing a toy" in a movie about toys who "do horrible things to each other." He could not remember the name of the film and referred to it as a movie about a line of toys from Japan. Toys doing horrible things to other toys! Welles got it.

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