Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the problems faced when adapting toys. With the issues in mind, let’s see how Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers stacks up.
The Transformers toy line first appeared in the US in 1985. The core concept of the toys were robots that changed shape into other forms, mostly but not limited to vehicles, becoming small puzzles to solve by the children playing with them. Hasbro licensed lines from first Takara then Bandai, bringing them together as the Autobots and the Decepticons. After the success of the G.I. Joe relaunch as action figures, especially after the related cartoon and comics, Hasbro worked with Marvel to bring out Transformers, integrating the toy and the animated series. The first generation of Transformers were a hit. The success of the line and cartoon led to an animated feature film, which introduced a new line of Transformers toys. Later animated series would either form their own continuity or have a tenuous link to the Generation 1 series.
With Generation 1, several details were set. The heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, voice by Peter Cullen in the cartoon, defended Earth from the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, voiced by Frank Welker. The Autobots were mainly, but not exclusively, ground vehicles, from Prime’s tractor-trailer rig to Bumblebee’s Volkswagen Beetle. The Decepticons had a mix of aircraft, including Starscream and his squadron, and non-vehicular machines, including Soundwave, a non-working radio and cassettes, and Megatron, a Walther P-38 with similar attachments as seen in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.* The next wave during the original run of the cartoon included non-vehicle Autobots, including Blaster, Perceptor, and the Dinobots, and cars for the Decepticons, including the Constructicons, the first combining set for the line. Each side had a symbol to signify which side the toy was one, Autobot or Decepticon.
Both the Autobots and Decepticons come from a distant world, Cybertron, where the main lifeforms are sentient machines. The two sides had been engaged in a long civil war, started when Megatron tried to take over as ruler of Cybertron. The war depleted energy reserves on the planet, forcing both sides to go looking for more energon. The Autobots left on a spaceship, but the Decepticons managed to get on board. The ensuing fight damages the ship, placing all the robots on board into stasis. The ship crashes on an unknown planet and lays dorment for millennia.
The Decepticons are the first to awaken. The ship’s computer, Teletraan-1, also reactivated, scans for the dominant forms, providing them to the Decepticons. The Autobots also get new forms when they awaken. However, the new forms aren’t the dominant species of the planet, revealed as Earth. Instead, they are vehicles used by the dominant species, humans. Megatron plots to drain the energy from Earth while Optimus Prime meets with several humans, including “Sparkplug” Witwicky and his son, Spike. Optimus staved off Megatron’s attempts to plunder the Earth with help from the Autobots and, indirectly, from Starscream (voiced by Chris Latta), Megatron’s scheming second-in-command who would as often as not wreck the Decpticon leader’s plot.
As to be expected in a series based on a large toy line, both sides had a large cast. However, each side also had core characters. On the Autobots, there was Optimus Prime, Bumblebee (voiced by Dan Gilvezan), Ironhide (Cullen), Ratchet (Don Messick), and Jazz (Scatman Crothers). The primary Deceptions were Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave (Welker), and his cassettes Laserbeak, Rumble, Ravage, and Frenzy (all Welker**). Even as new toys were introduced, the core cast remained.
While the Autobot-Decepticon war was the main plot device, as the animated series continued, two other general stories emerged. The first type dealt with how the Autobots adjusted to life on Earth, with the people of Earth learning how to adjust to their new neighbours. The fight against the Decepticons would appear in some of the these episodes, but the thrust was on how the Autobots were learning about life on the planet. The other type of story was essentially “Transformers in Space”, with both the Autobots and Decepticons encountering strange new life and civilizations. These episodes tended to clash with the rest of the series.
Notable later series includes Beast Wars/Beasties***, a Mainframe Entertainment produced series using CG animation, and Transformers: Animated, which followed the success of the live-action film. Each series released had its own set of toys; or, each new set of toys had its own series. The cartoons had mixed success; Beast Wars/Beasties lasted several seasons before becoming Beast Machines, which itself wasn’t as successful.
The live action Transformers was announced in 2005. Fan reaction was mixed. Early designs leaked out, causing some stir. However, the announcement of Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus went some distance to assuage fears. The Autobots, despite the film’s approach in designing them as alien, still looked like their classic appearances, including colours. The film also is its own continuity, its own cinematic universe. Given that prior to the film’s release, there had been multiple continuities in the animated series, it wasn’t a problem. The creation of the Transformers cinematic universe also helps with the adaptation.
Transformers has three separate but related stories running through it. The first features an American special forces team in the Middle East, survivors of a night attack by an unknown hostile force. The second follows a small group of hackers pressed into service to crack an alien code after an attack on Air Force One. The third is boy meets girl, boy tries to impress girl with the help of his alien robot car. The three stories come together in the form of giant alien robots looking for an ancient artifact, the All-Spark.
Scorponok’s attack on the American military base was to search computer records related to the All-Spark. The soldiers on the base manage to cut off the data, leading to Scorponok destroying the base. Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) leads his team away from the destruction. Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), though, managed to get an image of Scorponok in robot form, causing the Decepticon to give chase. The team finds an oasis with cover, civilians, and cell phone coverage. Lennox calls in an airstrike. The first wave barely staggers the Decepticon, but a second wave using heavier weapons and sabot ammunition, drives Scorponok away, leaving his stinger behind.
The Pentagon, aware of the attack on the base and of a hacking attempt from inside Air Force One, start their own investigation. Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor), one of the analysts working on the project, secrets a copy of the date to take to Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson), a hacker of her acquaintence. However, the FBI is aware of the data theft and take both into custody, where they are turned over to Sector 7 through Agent Simmons (John Tuturro) and pressed into service.
Elsewhere, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBoeuf) managed to earn an A in his classes. His father, Ron (Kevin Dunn), follows through on a promise to pay for half the cost of Sam’s first car. At the car lot, Sam finds an old yellow Camero. While the price is initially too high, the dealer (Bernie Mac) agrees to Ron’s offer after the Camero sends out a pulse that damages the rest of the stock. While Sam believes the car is his, and tries to impress classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), the Camero has a mind of its own.
Interweaving the three plotlines is Frenzy (Reno Wilson), a Decepticon spy and the source of the hacking attempt on Air Force One, and his search for the All-Spark and Megatron through the only link he has, the eyeglasses of Captain Archibald Witwicky, Sam’s great-great-grandfather, who found Megatron. Despite the attempts by the Pentagon to block the hack, Frenzy found enough to link the glasses through to Sam, and passes the information on to Barricade (Jess Harnell). Barricade, in his form as a police cruiser tracks down Sam. He generates a hologram to arrest Sam, but the teenager gets help from an unexpected quarter, his new car, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan). Bumblebee and Barricade drop their façades and transform to their robot forms to fight; Bumblebee doing what he can to protect Sam and Mikaela.
Sector 7 also tracks down Sam, thanks to Barricade arresting him. Sam had reported that his car was stalking him, before Bumblebee revealed himself, alerting Sector 7. However, Bumblebee managed to get a message sent prior, summoning several of his Autobot allies. Optimus Prime, Jazz (Darius McCrary), Ironhide (Jess Harnell), and Ratchet (Robert Foxworthy). The Autobots try to extricate Sam and Mikaela, but in the confusion, Sector 7 takes Bumblebee, Sam, and Mikaela prisoner, leaving the glasses in Prime’s possession. Sam, Mikaela, and Bumblebee are taken to Hoover Dam, which turns out to be a secret installation housing both the All-Spark and what Sector 7 calls Non-Biological Entity One, or NBE One. Sam, thanks to conversations with the Autobots, recognize NBE One as Megatron (Hugo Weaving).
Lennox’s special forces team, now safely back in the US, are ordered by the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) to go to Hoover Dam. Lennox’s team is the only one with first hand knowledge on how to defeat the alien robots. Unfortunately, Frenzy has tagged along, disguised as Sam’s cell phone. Frenzy locates Megatron and shuts down the cryonic stasis Sector 7 had been keeping him in. Megatron revives. and summons his Decepticon soldiers, Starscream (Charlie Adler), Barricade, Devastator, Bonecrusher (Jim Wood), and Blackout. As Megatron escapes, Lennox and his team force a stand-off with Sector 7 agents. The tension is broken by the Secretary of Defense who orders Simmons and Sector 7 to release Bumblebee and Lennox to accompany the Autobot, Sam, and Mikaela as the trio takes the All-Spark to the nearby city.
The remaining Autobots catch up and join the convoy. In the city, Lennox and Epps make contact with a F-22 Raptor. Ironhide recognizes the jet as Starscream, confirmed by Epps because of the low altitude the jet flew at. The Autobots barely have time to prepare for Starscream’s attack and Bumblebee loses his legs. The other Decepticons arrive, leading to the climactic fight with the Autobots trying to defend Sam and the All-Spark from Megatron’s forces. The Autobots lose Jazz who is ripped in two by Megatron. One the Decepticon side, Starscream is the only one to escape, with Megatron defeated by Sam and the All-Spark.
The key to the movie is that it is based on the Transformers line of action figures, not the Generation 1 cartoon, even though the original toy line was tied closes to the series. Helping here, as mentioned above, is that the movie is the start of the Transformers cinematic universe and its own continuity, something that prior animated series had also pulled off. That said, there are efforts to remain accurate to the toys. Both Optimus Prime and Bumblebee keep their colour schemes, Ratchet is still an ambulance, Starscream is a modern jet fighter. Just as critical, perhaps moreso, is the return of Peter Cullen as Optimus, still capable of giving the same inspirational speeches as in the Generation 1 cartoon.
In the cases changes were made, there were some shout outs to the original. Due to licensing restrictions, the movie could not use a Volkswagen Beetle for Bumblebee. However, the car that Camero Bumblebee sat beside in the dealer’s lot was a yellow vintage Beetle. With Optimus, the progress of time meant replacing his original cab-over form with a long nose truck, with a similar change happening with Starscream’s vehicle form. Starscream, though, still disappointed Megatron with his failure to acquire the All-Spark. Megatron has his distinctive helmet design and an arm cannon, and both he and Optimus had melee weapons as seen in the Generation 1 theatrical animated movie, Prime with a red-orange sword and Megs with a ball-and-chain. And, like the Generation 1 cartoon, the movie had its own toy lineup.
As a film, Transformers has some issues. Technical issues prevented the title characters from appearing for most of the film; the rendering of robots in disguise was pushing the envelope in computer animation. Michael Bay is best known for action sequences, and the ones seen in Transformers are breathtaking. However, some of the purely human scenes have issues. As an adaptation, though, even with the limitations in the ambitious rendering, the movie captures the essence of the Transformers.
* Megatron’s change to Galvitron, with an artillery piece alternate form, eased some concerns about the sales of a toy gun.
** Frank Welker, voice of the Decepticons.
*** Some countries had restrictions on using the work “War” in a title of a children’s series, thus the alternate name.