The Transformers franchise has been in shambles lately, thanks in no small part to the crude machinations of poop-flinging man child Michael Bay. We’re all familiar with the universally reviled film Revenge of the Fallen, which reduced the rich mythos of Transformers to an endless string of racist caricatures and scatological humor. Hasbro is equally concerned about the future of their flagship toy franchise, as evidenced by their willingness to take a more hands-on approach in recent years. Although they can’t stop Michael Bay from making yet another disastrous film, they can forge an entirely new continuity to carry the franchise into the next decade and beyond. And with the help of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers who successfully rebooted Star Trek, they’ve created what may be the best American giant robot cartoon since the legendary Beast Wars.
Prepare to be blown away by Transformers Prime.
With Cybertron rendered uninhabitable by centuries of civil war, Optimus Prime and his five remaining Autobots have settled on Earth, protecting it from the Decepticons who seek to exploit its rich Energon deposits. Although Megatron has long since vanished into the depths of space, Starscream still commands an army of Eradicon drones and a powerful warship. But even this ruthless killer may not be the greatest threat to the Autobots, as Megatron’s travels have lead to the discovery of a powerful substance able to control life itself: the blood of Unicron, also known as Dark Energon.
What I Liked
Fantastic CGI and directing: Transformers has always been about badass giant robots beating up each other in destructively epic battles. Sadly, the incompetent directing of Michael Bay took what SHOULD have been awesome and made it a confused jumble of overdesigned CGI, jump cuts and shakeycam. Transformers Prime, on the other hand, does everything right. The robots’ designs are simple and distinctive, making it easy to tell them apart during the action scenes. The directing is surprisingly skillful, conveying a real sense of intensity during the battles. One scene in episode three really stands out: a massive Autobot melee is shown from the perspective of three human bystanders, and manages to be both chaotic and exhilarating. We get a visceral sense of danger that’s never really been present in Transformers before. For the first time, these metal titans have real impact.
Likable characters: One common complaint about Transformers is the characters. Often times, the robots’ personalities are so quirky, they become annoying. Those of you who have seen the classic 80s film will recall Wheelie, the gratingly high-pitched Autobot who spoke entirely in rhyme. Even the much-vaunted Beast Wars had Waspinator, the utterly incompetent cannon-fodder Predacon who talked to himself in the third person. These insufferable characters, much like the infamous Jar Jar, were included to appeal to the franchise’s younger demographic, but they often impeded any attempt at serious storytelling. Prime does away with all that; every bot, from the lunkheaded Bulkhead to the redshirt Eradicons, displays a startling amount of competence. Even the three human characters are refreshingly likable, especially when compared to some of the Autobot’s previous human allies. The most annoying character of the bunch is probably the requisite schoolgirl Miko, but her energetic naivete is portrayed as a crippling character flaw which causes no end of problems for the others.
Well-grounded story: Hasbro intends for this particular incarnation of Transformers to last well into the next decade, unlike the near-constant reboots of the 2000s. That’s why they’ve taken great pains to flesh out the continuity and mythos, and it really shows. The story isn’t overly ambitious, and plays to some common tropes… but it does them WELL. With how frequently I throw around the word “cliche,” you may think I hate anything that isn’t completely groundbreaking. But I appreciate a good trope when it’s used effectively; even something as predictable as Megatron and Starcream quarreling can be entertaining if it’s solidly written and well acted.
Voice acting: There’s some real star power behind Transformers Prime. Optimus and Megatron are voiced by Peter Cullen and Frank Welker respectively, reprising their roles from the original cartoon. Starscream is portrayed by none other than the legendary Steve Blum, who does an absolutely fantastic job. However, the biggest surprise for me was Star Trek alumnus Jeffrey Combs, who creates a word-weary and arcerbic Ratchet that closely resembles Dr. McCoy.
What I Hated
Those weird lipflaps: I understand the rationale behind giving Transformers mouths. After all, they’re characters, and need some way to express emotion. But the mouths in Prime just look weird. Starscream, in particular, can’t figure out whether he wants to smirk or frown. I even noticed his facial expression conflicting with the emotional tone of Steve Blum’s voice acting on more than one occasion. And somehow, Optimus just doesn’t seem as heroic when he has an oddly fleshy orifice shooting the breeze. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll keep his faceplate on for the rest of the show.
Preach the word, Reverend Prime! I know Optimus is supposed to be this archetypal, heroic figure… but this incarnation seems oddly preachy. He has a penchant for dramatic, flowery prose that just seems out of place. He’s always spewing dramatically overwrought lines like this one.
Hear me, Agent Fowler. We are your best, possibly your only defense against the Decepticon threat. Military involvement will only result in catastrophe. Perhaps you can condone widespread human casualties, Agent Fowler. I, however, cannot.
Optimus seems to have forgotten that brevity is the soul of wit. Perhaps he could benefit from a good copy editor? Agent Fowler has some similarly campy lines. He actually says “Right after you eat my star spangled shorts!” at one point. It’s kinda jarring to hear this kind of Adam West dialogue in a show that’s otherwise extremely well-written.
Transformers Prime brings to the franchise something that has been sorely lacking since the days of Beast Wars: good storytelling. Hasbro has cast aside the childish quirkiness and vulgar immaturity of previous adaptations, and crafted a show that will appeal to both younger and older fans alike. The writing could use a bit of spit and polish, and the CGI faces need work, but these flaws are only minor distractions. This is the Transformers we’ve been waiting for, and I couldn’t be happier.