The biggest question mark is in the look of the thing. Supervising director Matt Youngberg previously worked on "The Batman" and the equally sleek-looking, anime-inspired "Teen Titans," brings a similar look here, which is totally unexpected. We're used to seeing our cartoon robots looking like, well, robots. But in this show, the robots bend and twist and move in ways metal probably shouldn't, and there's a roundness to the designs that highlight the point that these are cartoon characters, completely separated from the slightest reality. Robot faces are given an animated simplicity that give them a "Pokémon" vibe.
For those of us who grew up with the Transformers of the 1980s, this can be a bit off-putting. In the movie-length pilot "Transform and Roll Out" (later divided into three episodes when rerun as part of the show's first season), the producers take a playful jab at nostalgic viewers by opening with fuzzy footage from the classic series, only to reveal it to be a video of "ancient history."
The new look and snappier attitude reminds us that, hey, this is a show aimed squarely at kids, and all the mythology that was piling up over the past two decades had gotten way too cluttered and fanboyish and unnecessary, so let's dump all that, start all over, and give the tykes what they want: giant talking robots shooting at each other.
The revamped backstory, as seen in the pilot movie: The war between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons is long over, so much so that the villains have since vanished from the galaxy. An Autobot patrol ship - with recent Academy graduate Optimus Prime, brash young Bumblebee, and grizzled veteran Ratchet among the crew - stumbles upon what they quickly realize to be the All Spark, the mysterious source of all Transformer life (an item cribbed from the Michael Bay movie, although tweaked here to also resemble, thematically if not visually, the Matrix of Leadership from the 1986 animated film). Problem is, those missing Decepticons have spent the last few thousand years looking for it; the Autobots, who aren't built for battle, barely manage to stop the dastardly Megatron and wind up falling through a space wormhole, crashing to Earth.
Fast forward to the year 2060, as the Autobots wake up in a Detroit of the future (and see their non-robot forms revamped as Earth vehicles). Bumblebee is befriended by Sari, the curious, mischievous daughter of Professor Sumdac - this friendship would become the core of the series, as Sari teaches the Autobots about life on a tech-heavy Earth where robots are commonplace. Ah, but Megatron and his cronies have arrived, once again looking for that All Spark. Can the Autobots protect their new home?
The producers make some interesting choices here, such as making Optimus Prime a rookie struggling with new responsibility (here, Ultra Magnus, not Prime, is the head honcho of the good guys), and there are plenty of nice attempts to please older fans (Tom Kenny's performance as Starscream is a fun throwback to Chris Lotta's memorable voice work on the classic series), but overall, the simplification of the story goes a bit too far. The story's too uninvolving, opting for brightly colored action sequences with a lot of zing but not much else. Kids might appreciate the broad comedy on display, but parents' eyes will roll. More attention is paid to a giant insect monster than to the robot villains, which, for a show about robots, it a little weird. And despite the efforts to make each character more unique (the funny one, the tough one, the big oaf, and so on), nobody's really all that memorable. (I suppose the same could be said of the 80s cartoon, too, which, nostalgia aside, was pretty dopey and very one-dimensional.)
Considering that "The Batman" also suffered from a shaky introduction, only to work out the kinks and become a thrilling series for young and old alike, I'm interested in seeing how "Transformers Animated" pans out. There's definitely the groundwork here for some entertaining stories. But as a standalone adventure, "Transform and Roll Out" never quite gels.
Paramount has released "Transform and Roll Out" as a single-disc release. The pilot is presented in movie form as originally broadcast (although considering the script problems, you can easily tell where the three episodes are intended to be split); total running time is 68 minutes.
UPDATE 7/12/08: The original post of this review had a lengthy rant about how Paramount is releasing a full season set next month, so why bother picking up this pilot if you can wait a few weeks and get the whole season instead? But! It's been brought to my attention that my whole whine about the upcoming season set was for nothing - the set will not include "Transform and Roll Out." At all. As far as we now know, this will be the only release of the pilot in any form. Accordingly, I've upgraded the final rating below (although I'm still not enthusiastic enough to completely recommend the thing). Thanks to forum member "Damned" for setting me straight.
Video & Audio
Cartoon Network's original programming has always been spectacular visually, and this presentation of "Transform and Roll Out" is no exception. Colors are bold and lively, lines are clean, digital artifacts are absent. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format, this one's just gorgeous.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack sounds on par with your standard broadcast mix, with effects (and a rockin' remake of the vintage theme song) never overwhelming the dialogue. A Spanish stereo dub is provided. The disc does not include subtitles, although it is coded for closed captioning.
I'm not sure if these were made for broadcast, the web, or this release, but two brief (two-minute) cartoon shorts are included. Both are comical in nature, and the one where Prime takes questions from a gang of noisy kids ("Where does your trailer go when you transform? Where does your head go when you're a fire truck?!") is brilliant, perhaps a good sign of series improvement.
"Transform and Roll Out" is an iffy, uneven introduction, although curious fans might want to give it a glance. Rent It.