11.16.2006

TFTM 20th

For two days I have been ten years old again. For two days, I've had some very specific ‘80s rock bouncing around inside my brain. And for two days, I've been considering how to review the 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of The Transformers The Movie without regressing and coming across as the same complete loser I was in the fifth grade. I don't think it's possible. Some people are passionate about Star Wars® or Star Trek or Xbox or Heavy Metal, and my primary weakness was Transformers. I can trace so many things about who I am back to some Japanese toys and the toy commercials disguised as a half hour cartoon that I took as seriously as many kids my age. It's why I started drawing, why I started collecting comics, and unfortunately why a girl I liked in elementary school eventually stopped calling me. I may lose some readers with the subsequent nerdgasm, but I must press on and get it out of my system.

Other than Beast Wars, Beast Machines, and a few Dreamwave comics, I honestly hadn't kept up with the modern revivals too much, though I was excited when I first heard about plans for a new live-action movie. It was Kev Bayer who first brought it to my attention that a new DVD was coming out and, after comparing notes with some other sources, I decided I would be purchasing my favorite childhood movie for a third time. I bought it once as a VHS tape in a clamshell package. I bought it a second time when Rhino released it on DVD. Was it really worth buying a third time? Could I be that much of a geek? If your answer is “no”, how are you enjoying the first post you've ever read on this site so far?

The Rhino edition of the DVD was a full-screen version, with no commentary and the barest of special features, an interview with the film's composer. The Sony Special Edition includes that version of the film on a second disc, but the primary disc contains a widescreen version that has been completely remastered. Tuesday night I watched the movie as I've never seen it before, at least since my parents took me to the theater. The saturation was bumped up on the colors. The glowing eyes and lasers were vivid. There was no distortion, and portions cropped out were visible for the first time in years. Small animation errors and glitches have been corrected, and even the audio was richer, especially the electronic distortion over the already skilled vocal talents of veteran voice actors like Peter Cullen and the incomparable Frank Welker. I've seen this movie many times, but this was the first time in years that the same youthful excitement bubbled to the surface.

The film includes a commentary by Flint Dille, story consultant for the film and writer of many episodes for the series, Susan Blu, voice of Arcee, and Nelson Shin, director of the film and producer of many episodes. Transformers was a job for them, one among many, and something they admitted they didn't expect to still be talking about twenty years after the fact. I design catalogs for a living, issues that go to over 130,000 people 19 times a year, and I never give it a second thought, mostly because I know how little the junk mail I personally receive affects me. In the same way, other professionals might reach many lives without considering it. Dille admits that when he wrote in a lot of the shocking deaths in the movie, he never expected kids would react the way they did. “We didn't know Optimus Prime was such an icon.” Hopefully after all these years, I'm not spoiling anything by mentioning the historic death of the heroic Autobot leader. The main reason Prime dies is because they weren't making his toy anymore. Dille explains that all the deaths in the film were to wipe out the 1984 line, to make room for new characters to sell new figures. Stories of kids crying(right here), and one boy who locked himself in his room(not me), surprised them. You never know how the things you do might affect other people's lives.

Also included on the disc is Scramble City, a Japanese episode of the cartoon that has never aired in the United States. Set between the second season and the movie, it introduced Ultra Magnus. Most fans saw Magnus, voiced by Robert Stack, for the first time in the movie, so it was odd when Prime passes leadership on to a character they had just met rather than other candidates. Scramble City revolves around the construction of the Autobot City and massive Transformer Metroplex, even as the Decepticons attack. The episode includes every gestalt at the time, smaller teams of robots with the ability to merge into one giant robot. The toys were set up in such a way that the leader figure would form the core while the other four formed his arms and legs. These pieces were interchangeable with each other and other gestalts, but the only time this was depicted in the cartoon was the Scramble City episode, hence the “scramble” portion of the title. At one point, one of the Stunticons breaks away from the larger Menasor and attaches to the Aerialbot gestalt Superion, shorting out his circuitry as he struggles with the foreign limb.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, for after Metroplex rises to fend off the Decepticon gestalts, Megatron reveals a Decepticon secret weapon, a giant base of their own that transformed into the robot t-rex Trypticon. Unlike the American commercials, the Japanese commercials often directly tied in to storylines in the series and crossed over, and the episode was concluded using stop animation and the actual toys. Several of these Japanese commercials are included on the DVDs, some as Easter eggs, as well as many of the American ads. The quality isn't great, and rights issues probably explain why all the kids' faces in the commercials are blurred out. Still, it's a nice mix of nostalgia and spots seen for the first time.

Initially, I was concerned that Scramble City had a fan commentary rather than dubbing or subtitles. If I want to hear nerds argue about Transformers, I can talk to myself out loud. But when I listened to the film commentary with the professionals, I realized that the fans knew more, because this trivial thing meant so much more to them and they've studied for two decades. Susan Blu mentioned that Arcee was the first female Autobot, and I was ashamed to know she was wrong about that. I don't want to be the guy in that SNL sketch who knows episode numbers and alien races, whom even William Shatner asks, “Have you ever kissed a girl?” Just the other day someone made fun of me for knowing which issue of The Amazing Spider-Man featured the first full appearance of Venom as he grew that horrific mouth for the first time(#299). Some facts should stay in my brain, or at the very least on a blog.

The DVD includes a few deleted scenes, some in the form of storyboards, as well as a few featurettes. The crew share memories of Orson Welles, who died within weeks of recording his dialogue as the film's central threat, the planet-eating behemoth Unicron. For better or for worse, celebrities didn't do much voice acting prior to 1986. Now it's much more common, even expected, but then the inclusion of Welles, Stack, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Lionel Stander, John Moschitta and Eric Idle was unprecedented. One of the regular cast, Casey Kasem, Cliffjumper, was already something of a celebrity as both a radio DJ and the definitive voice of Norville “Shaggy” Rogers. Flint Dille recalls one conflict during the regular series in which Kasem, of Middle Eastern descent, objected to a recurring villain clearly based on Muammar al-Gaddafi. Dille told him that when Gaddafi behaved, they'd stop spoofing him with the dicatator of “Carbombya”.

And so, I now own the ultimate The Transformers the Movie, at least until someone releases another version in HD-DVD, or Blu-ray, or whichever format is eventually victorious. The timing of this release makes sense, and I'm filled with anticipation by the inclusion of the trailer for next year's live action movie as well as new interviews with Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay. There are even a few minutes of sneak peaks at the new film, and I cannot wait. If you're a fan or a kid at heart like me, this is a must-own, and if you even have a casual appreciation of Japanese animation or kids of your own, you might want to pick it up as well.

It's certainly more than meets the eye.

3 Comments:

Blogger Lyndon said...

Just bought the DVD yesterday and I'm definitely not disappointed.

I don't think I'll be able to say the same thing when the live action movie gets released though.

11/16/2006 6:48 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

I always like your passionate posts. If I read enough I know I'm going to have a composit picture of ther eal unvarnished MCF

11/16/2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger Kev said...

Optimus Prime dies in the movie?!?
Noooooooooo!!!!!!!

Kidding.

I've got to pick up a copy soon as well. Interesting thing about the fan commentary: one of the commentators runs the fan site TFW2005.com (TransformersWorld2005). If you like techno, he has really neat TF techno tunes that use many soundbites from the various series.

11/16/2006 5:39 PM  

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