Cartoons In Disguise

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Michael Bay’s attempt at directing a live action Transformers movie has had mixed reviews, but I can’t complain about it. Here’s the one sentence spoilerless review: if you remember the Transformers cartoons from when you were a kid in the 1980s, this one’s for you. If you can’t, it’s not.

Let’s face it: despite several limp remake and spin-off series in recent years, Transformers is essentially a phenomenon of the 80s. Anyone too young to have seen the cartoons back when they were cool probably has more affection for later kids’ shows, and anyone who was too old for Transformers when it came out won’t necessarily feel nostalgic about it – especially if they were parents. Those toys were expensive.

Bay has therefore not made a children’s film, and he’s not made a film for a general audience. Instead, he’s made an unabashed nostalgia-fest for the Transformers generation, which relies as much on gentle parody and “hey, remember this from the cartoons?” as it does on CGI special effects and workmanlike acting.

This is a film of many strands which finally come together in the last hour. On one hand, we have the Independence Day rip-off, with the US Secretary of Defence (Jon Voight doing his best Donald Rumsfeld impersonation) desperately trying to identify the mysterious invaders from another world (they’re the Decepticons) and a small unit of US soldiers based in Qatar trying to get the word out after a US base is destroyed by a Decepticon attack. On the other hand, we have a hilarious teen comedy about a teenager who ends up accidentally owning an Autobot, Bumblebee, when he goes out with his dad to buy his first car. Following a few human-vs-robot fights out in the desert and a hilarious sequence where the Autobots are trying to hide in Teenage Protagonist’s back yard, a random government conspiracy rears its ugly head in both plotlines – essentially in order to bring all the human protagonists to the same location. And to have one of its members get pissed on by a giant robot.

Things really pick up once the protagonists are brought together and meet up under the Hoover dam, where the conspiracy has been keeping Megatron and the mother of all Energon Cubes on ice. Naturally, shit gets thawed, and the last hour consists of an enormous robot-vs.-robot brawl which more than makes up for the occasional slowness of the earlier segments. The film ends with the male and female teenage protagonists making out furiously on Bumblebee’s hood, while Optimus Prime lurks in the bushes and watches.

So yes, it’s a nostalgia fest. If names like “Autobots” and “Decepticons” and “Bumblebee” and “Energon Cube” mean anything to you then you’ll probably pick up on a lot of the references to the cartoon nestled away in this film – for example, Bumblebee is a Chevrolet Camero in this version, but first shows up next to a yellow Volkswagen Beetle similar to the original Bumblebee, and in the climactic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, Prime does indeed use the line “One shall stand, one shall fall” from the animated movie. If you get where it’s coming from, Transformers is a fun ride – but if you never caught the Transformers bug from an early age, it might not be for you. It’s essentially an extra-long episode of the cartoon filmed in live action, so if you were never fond of one you won’t like t’other.

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