1986 in Film – The Transformers: The Movie

Release Date: August 8th
Box Office: $5,849,647

It doesn’t need to be reiterated but the 80s really were a glorious time. This was especially true for kids, there was a multitude of products aimed at them from video games to cereals. And most of these were wrapped around a Saturday morning cartoon.

Whereas most of the Reagan era financial reforms did major damage to the world, one of them had a major positive effect on the decade; in 1981 he appointed Mark Fowler as commissioner of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Like Reagan he was a man who didn’t like regulation getting in the way of business so he promptly abolished most of the advertising regulations, which included how much advertising could be shown in children’s programming.

This had been a hot topic with action groups formed trying to get advertising in children’s programming banned in its entirety. To Fowler, it would be the free market that would decide this. This deregulation didn’t change things straight away, it took until September 1982 for Pac Man to reach the air. This was a licensed show based on the video game character that would foreshadow what was to come.

And that was He-Man and The Masters of The Universe, the first show based on a toy line. It was a huge, massive success that changed everything.

And it took, as usual, the Japanese to come in and do things properly.

Since 1974 Takara had been producing the Microman toy line, initially based on the 12″ inch GI Joe which was then reduced to 3.75″ due to the oil crisis in the 70s. They were popular, coming to the US under the Micronauts brand. By 1980 a spin off series was produced called Diaclonewhich had even smaller 1″ figures sitting in vehicles that would transform into robots. This then had a subseries called MicroChange which had things like cassettes and guns that would transform into robots.

Someone from Hasbro saw these at a toy show and a light bulb went off. In 1983 they had launched an updated GI Joe toy line where they had teamed up with Marvel for a comic version and also Marvel’s cartoon production company for a five part TV special. It was a success, and something that could work again.

The toys were brought to Marvel who had some of their editors and writers throw together a backstory for everything, a TV series was put in to production and the whole thing was renamed The Transformers.

To say it was a bit popular is an understatement. It wasn’t like it was a new idea, it just built on what had come before: He-Man proved there was a market for this, GI Joe worked as a proof of concept and Transformers created the final template. The comic was a huge success, the toys were huger and the TV show was instrumental in all this.

That was three medias conquered, how about another? How about a film?

At one point in the early 80s this would have been a Very Bad Idea; a combination of penny pinching at Disney after Walt’s death and the popularity of TV had seen animated features become less and less of a draw. It was The Care Bears Movie (1985) of all things that started to turn things around. He-Man and The Secret of The Sword (1985) followed however that was little more than a compilation of TV episodes. My Little Pony The Movie (1986) hadn’t been the biggest success but this was The Transformers, it was bound to work.

Transformers The Movie (1986) was born.

Problems started right away. The budget was around $6m however the TV series was still being produced at the same time, both headed up by Nelson Shin. Hasbro were looking to refresh the toy line between series 2 and 3 of the TV show so were discontinuing several of the toys, so they were to be killed off in the film.

The film, as usual for the franchise, centres around the battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, who at the start of the film make an effort to wipe out their enemies on Earth. The conflict then escalates as a planet sized Transformer called Unicron shows up and starts threatening the Transformer’s home planet of Cybertron.

It isn’t exactly the most amazing story in the world however it’s the shift in tone that interesting. In that opening battle beloved characters get wiped out left right and centre, including Optimus Prime. This was a huge decision, given how central he was to the franchise but Hasbro wanted him dead so he was killed. Death wasn’t something that really existed in the TV show, hell it didn’t really exist in most other kids TV shows. And here we have what can only be described as a massacre carried out with children’s playthings.

The film also had a list of famous people thrown in to perform the voice acting: Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, even Orson Welles in what would be his last film role.

Orson Welles as Unicron. Jesus.

They do their job, no one lets the side down. They’re aided by animation that’s much superior to the TV show, which given the budget and the timescales they had to make it is very impressive. The only one who sounds like he’s really having fun is Nimoy as Galvatron, you can almost hear him chewing the scenery during some of his scenes.

Problem is, it was still essentially a kids TV show being stretched over 85 minutes which was fine for the kids but not so much for the parents being dragged along. The film received a tepid critical response and a similar one from the box office as well.

Was this down to the tone of the film? Certainly the death of Optimus Prime didn’t help given the furore this would raise. The negative reaction was so great that it affected the development of GI Joe: The Movie (1987); it was the decision to kill off central character Duke in the writing of that film that led to Prime being killed. When the feedback hit Hasbro quickly changed tack and Duke lived via a redubbed line in the film.

Also, GI Joe: The Movie was supposed to have been released close to Transformers but due to delays was put back to the following year. Tat films tepid box office then bumped it from the Joes from cinema to direct to video.

This was part of a wider trend. Whilst Transformers The Movie should have been a high point it marked the start of a decline: the third series of the TV show dropped in the ratings and was cancelled in the West; toy sales declined; in the wider market the toy led cartoon series began to fall in popularity as well.

Parent groups were on the rise across America arguing against seemingly everything from rap music to Dungeons & Dragons. Shows like Transformers became flagged as little more than twenty minute toy adverts directed at kids.

The regulations that were removed at the start of the 80s were put back into place which restricted advertising during kids shows and forced companies to produce more educational work. At the same time Disney was moving back into the animated TV field and with shows like DuckTales would move the industry away from the toy focussed franchises. And behind all this was the rise of cable channels dedicated to kids TV that would eventually do away with kids shows on Saturday morning TV completely.

It’s natural then that Transformers The Movie became a cult hit. The show was loved by a generation of kids who would remember what it was like to see Optimus Prime die, to listen to that synth rock soundtrack whilst clutching the characters that were on screen in their own hands. It stands as a last hurrah for a whole industry built around advertising toys that would never be the same again.

From a boy who grew up with Transformers wallpaper and bed spreads, it’s something I’m glad I experienced and sad that there’s been nothing quite like it for my own son.

Basically, fuck Michael Bay.

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