The classic, and often controversial, theatrical special of the original Transformers cartoon is now 30 years old and Manga have released the restored version on Blu-ray, but does the film still have the touch? Does it still have the poweeerrrrrr? (Sorry, couldn’t help it…)
Before anyone wonders why it’s being reviewed here on Anime UK News, it’s simple: it was written by the American cartoon team, but it was animated by Toei Animation in Japan, which includes the cinematography. Rule of thumb is if it’s animated in Japan, it’s an anime, if it’s animated in the US, it’s a cartoon, but let’s not go down the route, that way lies madness…
So the plot is quite… odd. It’s set a full 20 years after the end of Season 2 of the TV series, and the war on Cybertron isn’t going well for the Autobots. In fact the Decepticons have conquered the planet, leaving Optimus and co. hiding out on the planet’s two moons, as well as their old Earth base. The obnoxious little boy Spike Witwicky is now an adult and working with the Autobots on one of the afore-mentioned moons, but … ahem… luckily, his son is about the same age as he was back in the day and is on Earth, so… thank goodness for that, nearly didn’t have an obnoxious kid in an 80s animated property for a second there!
Here is where things get unexpectedly dark. Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, after over 20 years of constant war (and never-ending retreats where nothing gets accomplished) finally realises that a good way to win a war is to kill your enemy. I’m talking Megatron and co. arriving on an Autobot shuttle, Megatron declaring he’s going to kill them, and then transforming into his gun form followed by four friendly Autobots being gunned down and killed. That’s only the beginning! The Decepticons soon arrive on the Earth base and so begins a would-be-bloody-if-they-weren’t-robots war where several characters on all sides either die or are near death, including a fated showdown between Optimus Prime and Megatron, where instead of one standing while one falls, it ends in pretty much a draw, with Optimus dying (spoiler! … for a 30-year-old film…) and Megatron being all but dead. This is all pretty shocking coming off of a “nobody is killed, let’s not even mention the words kill or die” cartoon.
Newly introduced Autobot Hotrod is to blame for Optimus Prime’s death, getting involved with the fated duel and getting Optimus shot several times in his bungled attempt at help. It’s actually quite amazing that beyond having a “cool” flame paintjob, Hotrod is a pretty bad attempt at creating a new lead character, which is what it was all about. Anyway, as if things couldn’t get any worse, a giant sentient transforming planet named Unicron arrives and is disturbed by the “Matrix of Leadership” that Optimus once held, that was then passed to the dull-as-dishwater Ultra Magnus. He sees the object as the one thing that could defeat him, and so regenerates Megatron and a few other near-dead Decepticons that had been thrown into space by their new “brave” leader Starscream, and uses his immense power to force them to hunt down and destroy the Matrix.
This sets up the rest of the film, where the remaining Autobots are chased around several newly introduced planets by Galvatron (the new Megatron) and eventually have to rally to defeat Unicron before he destroys Cybertron. I could go on for many more paragraphs about some of these characters, planets and a certain universal greeting, but I’ll leave it there on the off-chance you haven’t actually seen the film already (and for the sake of review length!)
On to some other points. Firstly, the soundtrack. If you like 80s power ballads and rock, it’s great. Hell, even if you don’t I’d like to see you not get a little more excited and invested into the film when “The Touch” or “Dare” comes on in the background. Even the moody (and synth-filled!) music that plays when Unicron is introduced is great, top marks to composer Vince DiCola on that front. There isn’t a mention of whether the audio mix was upgraded along with the picture, but everything was definitely loud and clear on my end. The voicecast is also worth mentioning, the classic cartoon actors return, but are joined by the likes of Leonard Nimoy and… Orson Welles! In his last ever performance… always a weird fact. The animation is often fluid and the art switches between really detailed drawings come to life (particularly the scenes with Unicron devouring planets, so many little lines and bits everywhere) and more simple drawing that’s closer to the TV series. The (4K, although it’s still a standard Blu-ray) restoration is great too, everything is really bright and clear, yet still featuring some film grain for that touch of authenticity.
It’s worth saying that this is the full, unedited version of the film. That means Spike Witwicky exclaims “Oh shit! Whadda we do now?!” when Unicron eats the second moon of Cybertron unaffected by their attempts to blow it up, and there is no “Optimus Prime will return” message at the end that was quickly added after the supremely negative feedback from their decision to kill the character off. I don’t know if this is the first time the unedited version has been released in this country, but the swear word wasn’t on the VHS or DVD version I’ve seen in the past, though I know there have been a few different DVDs, so I can’t say for sure.
It should be noted that this comes in two discs, one labelled “Full Frame” and the other “Widescreen”. Much like most of the films by Toei at this point, it was created using 4:3 animation with the intention of it being zoomed in to fit the cinema’s widescreen. This also meant that the film could be released on VHS and fill up the 4:3 TV screens without the need for black bars. The “Full Frame” version is the full 4:3 version, meaning it’s not zoomed or stretched, but it is a 4:3 box in the middle of your now standard 16:9 screen, and the “Widescreen” version is the cinematic version and therefore fills your screen, but you lose some of the top and bottom, but that was always taken into account when it was created anyway and is therefore the more authentic way to view it. What’s nice is that the full compliment of extras is on both discs, meaning whichever way you choose to watch you won’t have to switch discs to watch the extras.
As for the extras, they include a well-made and interesting Making Of Documentary titled “Til’ All Are One”, Audio Commentary on the film with Director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and star Susan Blu, a few featurettes, storyboards and trailers (both cinematic and TV). It’s a good chunk of extras, that’s for sure, and again they’re all on both discs.
So should you buy this? Well… yeah. I mean, if you grew up with the film like myself, or you’ve come to like it, or even if you want to try it out, there is no better version of it out there, picture, audio and extras-wise. Hell, the steelbook box is nice as well, by the looks of it. If you have no intention of watching an 85 minute 80s-fest based on a cartoon that’s being more and more lost due to never-ending Michael Bay-created films, then that’s a shame, because to answer my question from earlier, this film does indeed still have the touch… and the poweeeerrrr