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Transformers: The Movie - Reconstructed
Forgive me if I keep the movie review portion of this article short. I've twice before reviewed Transformers: The Movie for separate sources, and frankly there are only so many new and exciting things to say about the same movie. Also, I figure that most people reading this review of the British import "Reconstructed" edition of the film are probably already familiar with the movie's content and are primarily hoping to find out how this restoration compares to previous video editions. I'll get to that shortly.
What I will say is that the Transformers were a huge part of my childhood, and even though the cartoon series and movie were essentially just glorified product commercials cynically designed to coerce children to buy plastic toys, they were nonetheless fun and exciting, and will hold a special place in the heart of any boy who grew up in the 1980s. Sure, looked at objectively from an adult perspective, Transformers: The Movie is not exactly "good", per se. But it is a total blast of kitschy retro fun filled with hilariously corny dialogue (listen to dimwit dinosaur Grimlock ask to be told a story about "petro-rabbits", a deliberate allusion to Of Mice and Men of all things), a plot with more holes than robot Swiss cheese (there's a robot equivalent of everything, as any Transformers fan knows), and the absolutely perfect soundtrack of cheesy soft-rock obscurities. What other movie would feature an important action scene set to the tune of Weird Al's "Dare to be Stupid"? And how much fun is it, as an adult, to realize that the inspirational anthem "You've Got the Touch" would later be used as a major story point in Boogie Nights? Awesome.
Plus, just look at the all-star cast. We've got Brat-Packer Judd Nelson, that Unsolved Mysteries guy Robert Stack, Monty Python's own Eric Idle, Mr. Spock himself Leonard Nimoy, and even Orson Welles providing the voices here. That's right, Citizen frickin' Kane is in this movie! Eat that, elitist movie snobs! Transformers rock!
Transformers: The Movie has had a complicated history on home video. The picture was made as a theatrical production, but it bombed at the box office with such intensity that it created a massive swirling vortex that sucked down the scheduled but unreleased G.I. Joe: The Movie with it. Both went quickly into TV syndication and appeared on VHS soon thereafter. Transformers had some edits made in the process, including replacing the Superman-like opening credits with a Star Wars-style prologue scroll and removing a prominent line of profanity ("Oh shit! What're we gonna do?"). The original theatrical cut was finally restored for the DVD release from Rhino Home Video in 2000, but that disc featured a controversial full-screen picture transfer and a screwy 5.1 audio remix that misdirected dialogue to the rear speakers.
So, now here we are in 2005, that same distant future year in which the movie's story is set (funny how not everyone wears those totally rad jumpsuits with their initials monogrammed on the front, but whatever), and a company called Metrodome out of the UK has attempted to put together an ultimate fan package under the title Transformers: The Movie – Reconstructed. That name is actually rather misleading, as it implies that missing footage has been restored to the picture, when in fact they are presenting the exact same theatrical cut as found on the old Rhino disc. What Metrodome has tried to do, however, is clean up the presentation and right all of the previous wrongs that fans have had to suffer with. The big question, of course, is how well they've succeeded.
The answer is that this DVD is truly astounding. It is an astounding example of why well-meaning but basically clueless fanboys should never, ever be allowed to make technical or artistic decisions regarding the presentation of their favorite movies. The disc is, simply put, an atrocity. Every single decision regarding the video transfer is completely wrongheaded. I hardly know where to begin.
To deconstruct this "Reconstructed" edition, let's start with the choice of aspect ratio. As mentioned earlier, Transformers: The Movie was made as a theatrical production and played in theaters at a ratio of 1.85:1. Yet it was also made with the knowledge that it would probably have a longer shelf-life on home video and TV. Previous video editions have all presented the movie in 4:3 full-screen, which actually isn't far off from how the animation was originally drawn. However, fans have clamored for years to see a theatrical widescreen presentation of the movie. Rhino Home Video claimed that they explored this option before releasing their DVD but couldn't locate any proper widescreen source elements. Many arguments have ensued throughout the fan community about what is truly the Original Aspect Ratio for the film. Is it the 1.85:1 ratio it played at in theaters, the 4:3 ratio it played on in television, or something in between?
Somehow, Metrodome has managed to go back to the original animation elements and has retransferred them to be shown not at any one particular fixed aspect ratio, but rather presented so that we can see everything that was originally drawn, the entire animation cel, regardless of what ratio it appears in or whether there are shot-to-shot variances throughout the movie. On the one hand, this almost sounds like a noble idea. Without an official word from the film's creators, if the fans can't decide what is the proper ratio why not just show everything that's there? The artwork had to be drawn, after all. This isn't like an open-matte live action movie where a boom microphone might dip into the frame. You'd think that if someone took the time to draw an object it must be important.
The problem comes in exactly how Metrodome displays that artwork. Even though the animation cels themselves vary slightly in width from shot to shot, they average out to a ratio of no greater than 1.4:1, which is only infinitesimally wider than a standard 1.33:1 video frame. Despite this, some bonehead in the studio made an asinine decision to present the movie picture pillarboxed into the center of an anamorphically enhanced 16:9 video frame with empty black bars on the sides.
Why is this a bad thing, you ask? Anamorphic enhancement is good, isn't it? Well, it is when a widescreen movie image fills the width of the frame; in that case the enhancement allows the picture to better exploit the entire resolution of the DVD format in both the horizontal and vertical directions, without wasting pixels on empty letterbox bars on the top and bottom of the screen. But 1.4:1 doesn't qualify as widescreen. In this case, you're using the entire vertical resolution of the DVD, but wasting a huge chunk of horizontal resolution creating useless black pillarbox bars on the sides.
Let's do some very basic math. An NTSC DVD has a resolution of 720x480 pixels (DVD pixels are not square). PAL is 720x540. In either case, the disc's horizontal resolution is 720 pixels. A 1.4:1 image pillarboxed into the center of a 16:9 frame only uses approximately 568 of those pixels, a loss of over 21% horizontal resolution.
If Metrodome had decided instead to encode the DVD in 4:3 format with miniscule letterbox bars at the top and bottom, they could have preserved the 1.4:1 aspect ratio while utilizing the entire 720 pixel horizontal resolution of the disc and only losing a miniscule amount of vertical resolution. The fact is that any movie narrower than a minimum of 1.66:1 does not benefit from anamorphic enhancement; rather, it loses more resolution in the tradeoff than it gains.
Furthermore, by encoding the image this way, viewers watching the DVD on a traditional non-widescreen television are forced to put up with large black bars on all four sides of the frame for no particular reason.
If you can believe it, that's only the first problem with the video transfer. Let's move on to the next issue. In the process of showing us everything that's on the animation cel, they are literally showing us everything on the cel, including raggedy exposed edges that were obviously never meant to be seen. That leaves us with tremendously distracting artifacts such as this one where you can see a straight line down the entire right-hand edge of the opening credits sequence.
Any halfwit should be able to figure out that we were never supposed to see that. It should be perfectly obvious to any thinking being that a small amount of cropping is necessary (at least in some shots) to preserve the actual intent of the image. I mean, seriously, only a complete boob would think it's a good idea to leave all of this exposed!
And was it worth it to go to all this trouble in the first place? The movie's framing has always looked a little tight on the edges in previous video editions, which is what led many fans to assume that it was cropped from a wider original ratio. Now that we can see the entire original artwork, just how much picture is gained? At best, it's a small and insubstantial amount that makes little difference to the compositional intent.
The above comparison also demonstrates another flaw of the "Reconstructed" video transfer, that the picture has been boosted in brightness way too far. The old Rhino disc is arguably a hair too dark, but on balance it has much better contrast and colors than the Metrodome DVD, which looks washed out and dull, especially in the faded space scenes and the blooming overexposed contrasts in explosions and laser blasts. The movie was produced with a much larger budget and drawn in a richer color palette than the TV series and this is reflected in Rhino's transfer, whereas by cranking the brightness Metrodome seems to be trying to match the movie to the blander animation of the low-budget show.
I can tell you which I prefer.
No, we're not done yet. Metrodome is a UK studio and this disc is encoded in the PAL video format. Yet they did not use a true PAL video transfer. Instead, they had the animation transferred to NTSC video and then converted it to PAL. This means that, for all of the disc's other flaws, it doesn't even use all of the PAL format's available vertical resolution either, and the conversion process leaves the image looking soft and lacking in detail. Some judder is evident in panning shots due to the conversion from 60hz NTSC to 50hz PAL. Compression artifacts are also not uncommon.
All in all, this disc is a mess. I wouldn't say it's unwatchable. It's mostly just shamefully mediocre, and a slight bit worse than the TV episodes available on DVD (which are also riddled with problems). But for what was intended to be a full-scale restoration effort to return the film to its intended theatrical glory, the disc producers were obviously incompetents who should never have been put in charge of the technical or creative decisions needed in the process.
If I have anything nice to say about the "Reconstructed" DVD, it's that at least the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio remix keeps all of the dialogue in the proper front channels. Rhino's fake 5.1 processing on their DVD couldn't manage that much, and we wound up with dialogue coming out of the surround speakers. Thankfully, Metrodome got that much right. Most sounds do seem to be placed in the correct channels. I might even say that the 5.1 mixing is occasionally effective with a handful of directional effects steered toward discrete rear speakers to match on-screen action.
Also, since this is an NTSC to PAL conversion, there are no speedup problems or unnatural pitch shifts as a native PAL transfer would have. That's a reasonably good thing too, at least as far as the audio is concerned, though it hardly outweighs the video issues.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack still doesn't sound very good. The movie's mix has always had problems where the audio totally wusses out during major action scenes (such as the opening where Unicron destroys a planet). Not much has been done to compensate for that. Bass has been modestly beefed up in some scenes but comes across boomy, and the music sounds over-processed with muddy lyrics.
The biggest problem here comes from the replacement of key sound effects with generic library CD substitutes. This is something that Rhino inflicts on their 5.1 remixes as well. I only found it really objectionable during a scene where the signature sound of Optimus Prime's laser rifle was replaced with a nondescript "boom boom boom", but purists are likely to be annoyed throughout.
A Dolby 2.0 downmix is also available but features the same problems. No subtitle options have been offered.
The best bonus feature appears not on the DVD at all but in the disc case. A booklet with notes on the history of the Transformers cartoon and fan appreciation essays is a really nice touch. There is also an attempt to justify the work done for the "Reconstruction".
On the disc we start with Compare and Contrast clips of the major differences between the theatrical cut of the movie and the old home video cut (here identified as the "UK" version). The opening credits, end credits, and Spike's expletive are each shown both ways. The "UK" clips are awkwardly stretched to a 14:9 ratio.
The Trailers & TV Spots section gives us a US theatrical trailer in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterbox and a cruddy-looking Japanese theatrical trailer. The Japanese piece claims that the movie was "Conceived in the epic tradition of Star Wars" and then proceeds to shamelessly reveal a major plot spoiler. Twelve TV spots of varying quality boast of the "spectacular widescreen animation" and repeatedly tease us with the question, "Does Prime die?"
Below is a framing comparison of a shot in the letterboxed trailer against the same shot from the feature.
Character Bios are separated between "Survivors" and "R.I.P." sections. Some boring Title, Colour & Exposure Tests are presented with no technical explanation for what they are or how they were used.
The most significant supplement is the half-hour premiere episode of the cheesy Takara Headmasters anime series, presented in Japanese with confusingly translated English subtitles. The show has nothing really to do with the movie and is more of an advertisement for Metrodome's DVD box set.
One ROM supplement has been included, a copy of the Movie Script in PDF format.
By clicking on the Autobot logo on the top of the main menu page, you can switch to Decepticon themed menus instead.
Despite enormous potential, Transformers: The Movie – Reconstructed is basically a disaster from start to finish. Those in charge of the restoration effort clearly had no idea what they were doing and made a series of incompetent decisions. The choice of pillarboxing a basically 4:3 image in the center of a 16:9 video frame, the choice of exposing the raggedy edges of the animation cels that were obviously never meant to be seen, the choice of boosting the brightness to obscene levels, and the choice of doing the transfer as an NTSC to PAL conversion for no particular reason all serve to make this new special edition DVD a much worse alternative than the older (also problematic) DVD from Rhino Home Video.
The sound quality is also disappointing. The supplements are mostly fluff. The menus are boring, and the disc has authoring issues that freeze more than one of my DVD players at the copyright screen; the only way around that problem is to hit STOP and then MENU, which will bring you to a supplement screen, from which you have to back out through 4 or 5 other screens to get to the main menu. And even the cover art is the same ugly artwork from the Rhino release.
The booklet in the case is nice, though. I guess that counts for something.
I still consider Transformers: The Movie a terrific guilty pleasure, which really saddens me to advise skipping this wretched DVD. Autobots, transform and roll out!