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Transformers: The Movie: 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD Review

Transformers: The Movie: 20th Anniversary Special Edition

November 17, 2006

Director: Nelson Shin,
Starring: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Orson Welles, Scatman Crothers, Casey Kasem, Leonard Nimoy, Lionel Stander, John Moschitta, Don Messick,

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DVD Review

For those of us who grew up watching the Transformers cartoon every day after school in the early 1980s, the movie came as quite a shock. Most of us, at that early, impressionable age, were unprepared for the much darker tone and the increased level of violence, including some of the show’s most popular and beloved characters getting quickly killed off in the first few opening scenes. Transformers: The Movie (1986) was a commercial and critical failure but went on to develop a strong cult following among fans. Various incarnations of the movie have been released on DVD in various regions but this latest one, timed to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary (has it been that long?), promises to be the definitive edition.

It is 20 years into the future and the war between the Autobots (a race of good transformable robots) and the Decepticons (their evil counterparts) continues to rage. The Decepticons have taken control of the Transformers’ home world, Cybertron. The Autobots are planning to retake the planet but need to get more energy from Earth in order to do so. Unfortunately, the Decepticons learn of these plans and their leader Megatron intercepts the ship headed for Earth with the intention of launching a sneak attack on the Autobot’s base. Unbeknownst to the Autobots and the Decepticons, a planet-sized Transformer named Unicron is devouring entire planets to feed its insatiable desire for energy. Only the Matrix of Leadership, housed in Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, can stop him.

One of the most memorable moments of the movie that dates it instantly (in a good way) is the ultra-cheesy soundtrack of hairspray heavy metal music, including such “gems” as Stan Bush’s “The Touch” (covered so memorably in Boogie Nights) and Lion’s cover of the Transformer’s theme song. The one song that acts as a crazy counterpoint to this bloated arena rock is Weird Al Yankovic’s theme for the Junkions, “Dare to Be Stupid.” His goofy, non-sensical lyrics (anticipating Beck by a few years) are perfect for this absurdist, almost Dada-esque race of Transformers.

Another memorable aspect of the movie is the scope of it. Where the television show’s action was largely confined to Earth, the movie opens things up by introducing other worlds and races (even if they are all Transformers). And so we are presented with the Planet of Junk inhabited by the Junkions and their leader Wreck-Gar who speaks in T.V. clichés mainly derived from advertisements. He is voiced by Monty Python alumni Eric Idle (inspired bit of casting) who injects some much-needed humour into the film. The battles are also bigger and more intense as Unicron transforms into an enormous robot that attacks Cybertron but this pales in comparison to the intensity of the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron that left many fans shocked at its outcome. No one was prepared for what went down and the film never quite recovers from this moment.

The film’s pacing is fast and furious with never a dull moment – perfect for kids with short attention spans and actually works in its favour as any narrative fat is trimmed, packing a lot into its running time. The transfer for the movie is clean and crisp with no artifacting. The colours are so vibrant that they jump off the screen. I daresay the film has never looked or sounded better. Transformers: The Movie probably won’t convert any new fans but for those of us who remember seeing it when it first came out, this DVD is a wonderful trip down memory lane and a chance to relive a piece of our childhood once again.

Special Features:

On the first disc the film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio.

The “Autobot Matrix of Knowledge” allows you to watch the entire movie with the occasional factoid or bit of trivia appearing on the screen. These scraps of info, the DVD proudly proclaims, were “supplied by the fans for the fans.”

There is an audio commentary by director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and the voice of Arcee Susan Blu. Dille admits that Starscream is his favourite Transformer because he is “such a treacherous swine.” Shin tends to state what we are seeing but thankfully Dille and, to a lesser degree, Blu tend to dominate. They talk about the effect the death of Optimus Prime had on its fans back then and still 20 years later. Dille also recounts anecdotes about the various celebrities they got to do voices, including Orson Welles whom he describes as a nice, charismatic guy. Dille was worried that the legendary filmmaker would be a problem (he had a reputation for being difficult) but he apparently this was not the case aside from his rapidly deteriorating health. This is an engaging trip down memory lane for all involved.

The second commentary is by fans (and webmasters of Transformers fan sites) Rik Alvarez, Paul Hitchens, Joe Moore and Alex Weiner. They take us through the movie, recounting their experiences of when they saw it for the first time while also pointing out little details. One of them constantly refers to the screenplay and points out the differences from what we are seeing. These guys certainly know a lot about this movie (maybe too much) but their passion for it comes through loud and clear and this makes it a must-listen for any dedicated fan.

There is a theatrical trailer and eight T.V. spots. It is a lot of fun to watch these vintage ads, including the toys that were made at the time.

“Cinex and Credit Test” features colour and exposure tests for the movie’s opening credits.

The “Photo Gallery” includes sketches and profiles of various characters. Also included are various designs for the Matrix.

Finally, there is “Scramble City with commentary” as a couple of the guys from the fan commentary return to talk about this episode that only aired in Japan before the movie and that actually introduced several characters who went on to appear in it. It would have been nice to have been able to watch this without the accompanying commentary but this is a minor quibble.

The second disc presents the film in its full screen aspect ratio which it was actually filmed in so you actually see more information. It is nice that we get a choice between both aspect ratios.

“The Death of Optimus Prime” takes a look at the demise of one of the most important characters in the series. The creators considered Transformers to be just a toy show and his death was merely a way to get rid of the old toy line and bringing in the new one. They didn’t realize the impact it would have on the fans and, in particular, children some of whom were traumatized by his death. In retrospect, they probably wouldn’t have killed off Prime.

“The Cast and Characters” examines the voice actors who worked on the movie and how certain voices defined that particular character. Key crew members recount anecdotes about the famous voice talent.

“Transformers Q&A” features key crew members revealing what their favourite scene is in the movie, how they named the characters, their favourite character and so on.

“Deleted/Alternate Footage” is presented with commentary by a couple of the participants from the fan commentary. Included is a promo reel that presents Unicron as much more organic in nature. One fan points out what this footage is, what was used and what wasn’t. Also included is test footage with some of it in an unfinished form.

Also included are “Scramble City” commercials, U.S. and Japanese toy commercials.

Finally, there are “Animated Storyboards” for four scenes, including one cut scene.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 98%

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