First things first: I haven't seen Transformers: The Movie (1986) a thousand times, even though I was enamored with the
toys action figures as a kid. I can't quote any scenes word-for-word, much less the entire movie. I'm still a fan, though, and one that can take this animated adventure with a grain of salt. Strip away the catch-phrases, corny one-liners, oddball characters and cheesy but memorable hair-metal soundtrack...and you've still got a fairly solid tale of good vs. evil, all things considered. The theatrical experience was overwhelming to yours truly at age 7 (due to the death of Optimus Prime, of course), but I wasn't the only youngster emotionally scarred by the assassination. We obviously didn't know it at the time, but Hot Rod's sudden rise to power was simply designed to usher in a new line of action figures.
Oddly enough, the creative team had no idea Optimus was such a beloved icon of Transformers disciples, something they've admitted since then. The unexpected death of Prime---not to mention countless other members of the previous year's product line---made kids the world over recoil in horror, stopping the film's theatrical success dead in its tracks. The subsequent vacuum kept the G.I. Joe animated movie out of theaters (which aired as a five-episode story arc instead), also causing the creative team to soften the story a bit. The planned Jem and the Holograms film was even shelved permanently. Further incarnations of Transformers: The Movie also featured a number or alterations: the VHS release added a Star Wars-style introduction, omitted a dirty word and offered voice-over confirmation before the closing credits that Prime would rise again. We were still crushed, for the time being.
August of 1986 has come and gone---and luckily, the backlash has softened greatly during the past 20 years. Instead of remaining angry at the film for killing off our beloved childhood friends, most of us now marvel at the fact that it actually had the guts to do it. For this reason, Transformers: The Movie has slowly built an army of fans over the last two decades, who now enjoy the film for---you guessed it---the catch-phrases, oddball characters and cheesy but memorable hair-metal soundtrack. Nostalgia sure plays funny tricks, doesn't it?
Still, let's not kid ourselves...Transformers: The Movie can't outrun a few glaring problems, no matter how strong your rose-colored glasses are. To its credit, the film is blessed with an excellent first act: an entire planet gets eaten by a seemingly unstoppable new enemy, there's a fierce battle in Autobot City with plenty of casualties, Megatron and Optimus Prime duel to the death, a new Autobot leader is crowned...and this is all in the first 30 minutes, folks. Unfortunately, this potency tapers off a bit as the story progresses. Several events (including the betrayal of Megatron, his "rebirth" and the brief reign of Starscream) hold our interest, but things really start to unravel as the third act approaches. From here on out, there's simply too many new characters and events to keep the story afloat, aiming the film towards a somewhat confusing and overblown finale. Just like Akira, only with less tentacles.
Even so, Transformers: The Movie is an entertaining ride. Loaded with voice talent (including Frank Welker, Peter Cullen, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack and Susan Blu, among others), it's hard not to spot a familiar voice during the film's 84-minute lifespan. Orson Welles and Scatman Crothers even lend their vocal talents, in what would be their last contributions to the film industry. The soundtrack features classic cuts from "Weird" Al Yankovic, Stan Bush (adapted to comedic perfection by Mark Wahlberg in 1997's Boogie Nights), Vince DiCola, Lion and more, firmly planting this futuristic adventure squarely in the 1980s. Even with its faults, these highlights (and many more) help salvage the film. All things considered, Transformers: The Movie is still an entertaining spectacle in its own right.
The year is 2006. After suffering through two mildly interesting but subpar DVD releases in two different regions, fans have been given a 20th Anniversary Special Edition from Sony/BMG. As with previous discs, the original version of the film has been left intact: the original Superman-style opening credits, Spike's flagrant cussing (as evidenced by chapter 11 on the DVD, handily titled "Swear Word") and the lack of voice-over before the closing credits. Additionally, the film preserves the theatrical 1.78:1 aspect ratio, not to mention the 1.33:1 open matte format most fans have come to know and love. If that weren't enough, this two-disc set also includes a fine collection of bonus features, including two and a half commentaries, a few promo materials and much more. It's certainly taken long enough, but it looks like Transformers: The Movie has finally gotten the domestic release it deserves. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
For the first time ever on DVD, Transformers: The Movie has been presented in both of its "original" aspect ratios: the theatrical 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen format, as well as the open matte 1.33:1 format previously released on VHS and DVD. Outside of the overall compositions, both versions still show noticeable differences when compared. The chief offender is Hot Rod, who appears pink in widescreen and darker red in open matte (though he's been pink before). All other characters look roughly the same in color---and aside from this, the widescreen picture is slightly brighter and higher in contrast. The framing at 1.78:1 may obviously seem a bit tight for those weaned on the open matte transfer, but nothing of major importance seems to have been lost. For a closer look, check out the comparison shots below.
1.78:1 Widesceen vs. 1.33:1 Open Matte Comparisons (20th Anniversary SE):
Fishing with Hot Rod | Galvatron and the Matrix | One Shall Stand...
No matter which aspect ratio you prefer, it's easy to see that this 20th Anniversary Edition is the best that Transformers has ever looked on DVD. Boasting a smoother, more film-like transfer, boldly saturated colors and clearer image than the original Rhino and Region 2 "Reconstructed" versions, only a few minor nitpicks keep this disc from scoring higher. Mild edge enhancement and a few jagged edges can be seen on occasion, while some of the brighter reds and oranges tend to bleed slightly around the edges. Still, it's hard to complain, as the positives far outweigh the negatives. For ever more proof, check out the additional comparisons below; this time, they show the differences between all three currently available DVD versions. Sorry they couldn't be any larger, but the improvements should still be noticeable.
Original Rhino DVD vs. "Reconstructed" R2 vs. 20th Anniversary SE Comparisons:
The Death of Optimus Prime | Hot Rod in Danger
There's more good news in the audio department, as Transformers: The Movie has been presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround options. The 5.1 mix is tastefully done, anchoring most of the dialogue in the front channels and saving most of the action and music cues for the rear. The 2.0 option is enjoyable as well, keeping things grounded for those with more modest setups. In both cases, dialogue is clear and easily understood (except for Blur and Kup, of course), while optional French and Spanish subtitles are offered for the main feature only. Additionally, Closed Captioning is available if your setup supports it (though, as always, it doesn't work in progressive mode!).
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the main menus are basic but practical, offering a clean layout and easy navigation. Only the main menus are slightly animated, but several sub-menus also feature background music from the film. The 84-minute main feature has been divided into 20 chapters, while no apparent layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc set is housed in a clear, slim-width double keepcase, though the eye-catching lenticular cover artwork is more of a loose novelty than anything else. An insert booklet with a chapter listing and comic book teaser is also tucked inside.
Spread across both discs, the extras for this 20th Anniversary Edition are light but enjoyable. Disc 1 kicks off with a feature-length Audio Commentary featuring director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and voice actress Susan Blu ("Arcee"). The three participants will repeat themselves a bit during other extras, but this track remains entertaining from start to finish. Dille serves as the most frequent contributor, while the less talkative Shin and Blu both manage to recount a few interesting memories. Also included is a Fan Commentary with Paul Hitchens, Rik Alvarez, Alex Weiner and Joe Moore, which seems to be geared for the hardcore fans. More than anything else, these four contributors point out details you might otherwise have missed (and a few glaring errors, of course), but it stand in good contrast to the first track. Additionally, Moore has posted his thoughts on the Fan Commentary experience which can be read here. As a supplement to both commentaries, the "Autobot Matrix of Knowledge" can be displayed during the film as a pop-up trivia track. NOTE: Simultaneously playing the fan commentary and "Matrix of Knowledge" may trigger geek overload.
Next up is a "Video Gallery" containing the film's original Theatrical Trailer (1:28) and a few interesting TV Spots (8 clips, 5:50 total), including plugs for the promotional sweepstakes and multiple action figure tie-ins. Also included here is a Cinex Test (2:53), an early color and exposure check sequence for the opening credits; as well as a viewer-navigated Art Gallery with plenty of character design sketches. Next up is the Japanese-only animated episode "Scramble City" (23:24, below left), presented with non-optional commentary by Alvarez and Weiner. This episode apparently bridges the gap between Season 2 of the Generation 1 animated series with the movie---and while it's a shame the original audio couldn't be used due to clearance issues, the additional fan commentary helps salvage the situation.
Closing out Disc 1 is a collection of Sneak Peaks, including a trailer and featurette for the upcoming live action film, a few DVD spots and (oddly enough) a trailer for this 20th Anniversary release. Also included here is a brief Restoration Comparison for the film (1:02), which strangely presents both screens in different cropped aspect ratios.
Disc 2 kicks off with a trio of brief Featurettes, including "The Death of Optimus Prime (4:59), an interesting look back at the backlash from the destruction of the beloved Autobot leader; "The Cast and Characters" (9:59) recounts a few interesting stories about the voice actors, including Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy and Frank Welker; and a "Transformers Q&A" featuring additional input from members of the cast and crew. All three feature participation from director Nelson Shin, producers Tom Griffin and Joe Bacal, story consultant Flint Dille and voice actress Susan Blu.
Next up is a second Video Gallery with an assortment of Deleted & Alternate Scenes in rough but finished form (5:14), as well as a Promotional Trailer (3:42) with more unused footage. Both feature non-optional audio commentary by Paul Hitchins; this may be due to a lack of original audio, but it's nice to hear someone point out certain details we might otherwise miss. Also in the Video Gallery is a series of Vintage Commercials for the Japanese-only episode "Scramble City" (2:21), as well as a collection of spots promoting the action figure line in America (2:00) and Japan (3:52, above right).
Closing out the extras is a series of self-guiding Animated Storyboard Galleries from four scenes in the film (including an unused segment), as well as a brief collection of DVD-Rom Content. Also found on both discs are a pair of easily-found Easter Eggs, which aren't of major importance but are still nice to have.
All bonus features are presented in aspect ratios of 1.33:1 and approximately 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen (though a few sneak peeks are 16x9 enhanced), and do not include optional subtitles or Closed Captioning. Most vintage clips (including the bonus episode and TV ads) suffer from poor video quality; the latter even blurs a few faces, presumably for clearance reasons. Overall, this is still a well-rounded collection of extras that fans will enjoy; aside from the missing "You've Got the Touch" music video by Stan Bush and a few other tidbits, they've covered the bases well.
It may not quite reach "Holy Grail" status, but there's no doubt that this 20th Anniversary Edition of Transformers: The Movie stands head and shoulders above all previous DVD editions. Boasting a solid technical presentation---which includes both "original" aspect ratios, not to mention two different audio mixes---and a great collection of bonus features, it's a polished two-disc set at a refreshingly affordable price. Though anyone unfamiliar with the Transformers universe probably won't appreciate what this set has to offer, those with fond memories of Optimus Prime and company should enjoy every second. For obvious reasons, this 20th Anniversary Edition comes Highly Recommended.
As a footnote, I'd like to thank fellow reviewer Joshua Zyber for his help with several DVD comparison details.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, juggling knives and writing things in third person.