Thirty years later and Hasbro is still trying to capture the same magic of Transformers: The Movie. In the face of incredible odds, the film continues to overshadow their best efforts to make the definitive Transformers movie. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they might have already made the film fans cherish the most.
Transformers were Japanese toys that were bought by Hasbro in the early eighties. They could transform from a car to a robot and then back again. The concept wasn’t enough to sell the toys though until Hasbro made a TV show that really brought them to life.
Transformers: The Movie was basically a cash-grab by Hasbro to sell more toys in 1986, so it is surprising that it turned out so good. The movie was made off the success of the TV show and it was meant to bridge the gap between the second and third seasons of the hit TV show, removing a lot of what is known as Generation 1 Transformers. Hasbro needed to new robots to sell to their customers of course and what better way to make that happen than a movie event that would effectively kill off many of the Generation 1 Autobots.
No time is wasted setting up high stakes for the Autobots to overcome. They want to reclaim their home planet Cybertron after the Decepticons have conquered it. As they are planning their assault, the Decepticons go on the counter-attack, threatening to wipe out the Autobots. All of this happens within the first thirty minutes of the movie and most of the Autobots are wiped out. Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, challenges Megatron in a climatic battle that leaves both of them close to oblivion. On his death bed, Optimus Prime speaks of a some who can use the “Matrix of Leadership”, a crystal of enormous power, to save the Autobots in their darkest time.
This was extremely heavy stuff for a children’s film. Any child that was at all invested with the Transformers was devastated with the death of Optimus Prime. It was made all the traumatic because as he died, all color washed away from his body. For some children, it was like losing a father figure. Birth Movies Death once overheard someone say, “The first death that really affected me in my life was Optimus Prime. Then later my dog died, too.” Prime’s death would be the one that defined the film for many. Of course it was excessive, but would we still be talking about the film thirty years later without it?
Michael Bay would try to replicate the effects of Optimus Prime being killed. In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Optimus is distracted and is impaled by Megatron. Instead of the Martrix of Leadership being given to another Autobot, continuity is changed so that Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) can use the Matrix to bring Optimus back to life. In that case, Prime’s death held little weight, since he came back by the end of the film. It just didn’t have the same effect.
Outside of Optimus Prime’s death, many people would probably point to the soundtrack having a legacy of its own. Especially for musician Stan Bush, whose whole career (if you could call it that), has been built on the success of “The Touch”. The song is the signature song of perhaps the entire Transformers franchise. He originally didn’t even know what the Transformers were when he wrote the song, instead envisioning it for another project. When talking to Vulture he said, “We wrote the song with the Stallone movie Cobra in mind,” Bush said in his amiable southern drawl, picked up during his childhood in northern Florida. “We wanted to get it on the soundtrack. But the record label, they got it in the Transformers movie instead. We thought, What in the hell is that? An animated movie about robots? Really?” Obviously he didn’t know that his song was going to define a billion dollar franchise.
Stan Bush tried to rekindle the magic of his song. In 2007, he rerecorded The Touch because Paramount and Michael Bay were interested in incorporating it into one of the live-action films. It didn’t work out the first time, but Bush tried another attempt working the song into “Sam’s Theme“, which would accompany Shia’s appearances in Revenge of the Fallen. The call from Paramount to include it in the film never came though.
What other movie can claim to have the last role of Orson Welles? The director of Citizen Kane offered his voice to the film as the antagonist, Unicron. On top of many familiar voices from the television show, including Frank Welker and Peter Cullen, the film also had voices from Leonard Nemoy and Eric Idle. They even had Breakfast Club star, Judd Nelson, voice the new hero of the Autobots, Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime. The cast was certainly up to the task and helped elevate the film beyond the source material.
Thankfully, the Michael Bay films include many of the names from the television show. Peter Cullen has voiced Optimus Prime in all of the live-action films. Interestingly, there was some drama surrounding Frank Welker and his ability to still voice Megatron when it came time to reboot the franchise. Hugo Weaving was cast for the role and played the part for the first three movies. In the Transformers: Age of Extinction, Galvatron takes over the lead villain role and Frank Welker was asked to voice the character.
Transformers: The Movie may be turning thirty years old, but its contributions to the Transformers franchise are still felt. The live-action films continue to take bits and pieces of the film, but they can’t capture the magic from the animated film. Fans can vividly remember the death of Optimus Prime, the catchy song The Touch, and classic voices that brought life to many of their favorite toys. For a movie made to sell toys, Hasbro made a film that outlived their wildest expectations.