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"Transformers: Animated": More Than Meets The Expectations

Ever since Transformers: Armada‘s debut five years ago, fans have clamored for the one thing neither Armada nor its two sequels ultimately had: U.S. writers. The last three Transformers series (collectively known as The Unicron Trilogy) were produced entirely in Japan, so they featured some great design work and good characterization, but too many episodes functioned as parts of an overarching saga rather than as individual stories. The Japanese style of more homogenous writing; the minimal characterization of secondary characters; some bad translation errors: these had many fans looking back on the original Transformers (and especially Beast Wars) as series that had made the best use of Western writing.

So many were pleased when it was announced that Transformers: Animated, which would follow Transformers‘ successful live-action debut, would be a U.S. production; but we were also told it would be stylized along the lines of Teen Titans. Now, I love Teen Titans; and Beast Machines had already set a precedent for highly stylized, non-traditional designs. But even I wondered how well such a style would suit a 2-D series about battle-hardened robots from another planet. And I was hardly alone. But although I consider the original series the best Transformers show of all, I think I can see past the hallowed Generation 1 series and give newer concepts a chance.

The first good news is that Transformers: Animated, though primarily aimed at children, does feature some smart lines and distinctive characters, so that it can also appeal to an older fan base. The three-episode pilot, “Transform and Roll Out,” even starts with some “historical footage” of the last Great War that is actual footage from the original G1 Transformers series. We then get our first look at the new characters in action. There’s no getting away from it: these are by far the most stylized Transformers designs yet. Vaguely human proportions are out; in are top-heavy designs and a vastly simplified aesthetic, reminiscent of the first season designs from the original series. Fortunately, the new designs do make the animation (from Japanese studio Mook) extremely fluid and dynamic. Admittedly, the look takes a lot of getting used to, but once you’re caught up in the characters’ natural-sounding dialogue and acting, the designs become a negligible concern.

The motley crew, which we find in deep space, is strongly reminiscent of Beast Wars‘ small cast of characters. Like Optimus Primal, the new Optimus Prime doesn’t start out as an all-knowing, all-powerful leader. Rather, this initial story, and possibly the rest of the series, deals with Optimus Prime’s evolution into a more iconic role. Even though Optimus isn’t quite Autobot Leader material yet, he’s clearly more capable than he’s willing to admit, and it’ll be especially interesting to find out just why he’s on a simple space bridge repair ship. As for the other Autobots, Ratchet is a pleasing combination of the original series’ somewhat cranky character and the world-weary veteran in the live-action movie. Prowl is quite the lone-wolf, Bulkhead the Transformers equivalent of Ben Grimm, and Bumblebee his ever-eager and enthusiastic self.

It’s not long before the Allspark is accidentally discovered in space, and the Decepticons themselves are not far behind. The story immediately sets up Megatron as a credible threat by having him attack the Autobot ship all by himself. (Naturally, Starscream has his own agenda, and as usual it doesn’t involve Megatron succeeding.) We also get brief glimpses of the other Decepticons, including a virtually-unchanged-from-Beast Wars Blackarachnia, the intimidating Lugnut, and the three-way schizophrenic Blitzwing (very reminiscent of classic Masters of the Universe‘s Man-E-Faces). Eventually, the Autobots (and Megatron’s remains) crash-land on Earth. Cut to fifty years later in the 22nd century, where the brilliant Professor Sumdac’s research has transformed Detroit into a hub of robot manufacturing. One of the professor’s advanced experiments accidentally results in a nanobot insect monster capable of exponential growth. It goes on to cause havoc, in the process threatening the professor’s daughter, Sari. After their fifty-year stasis, the Autobots finally spring into action, taking on futuristic Earth-modes.

Having saved Sari and Detroit, the Autobots are publicly lauded as Earth’s new heroes. However, Starscream has finally tracked the Allspark, which has somehow been absorbed by Sari, to Earth; armed with his greater fighting experience, he then attacks the Autobots. Thanks to a combination of skill and guts, the Autobots eventually defeat him, but on the sidelines Professor Sumdac is regretting keeping the fifty-year-old source of his amazing inventions a secret from Earth’s new protectors.

It’s striking just how far the new series goes in making the Decepticons into a threat. Megatron single-handedly takes on a fully-crewed Autobot ship; later, Starscream attacks the Autobots and nearly destroys Optimus Prime; obviously it will be a big deal if and when all the Decepticons attack at once. (One can easily imagine the season finale built around such a story.) It’s pretty clear from this treatment that the Decepticons will not always be regular adversaries on the show, and that it will have a secondary focus on technologically advanced human enemies and/or techno-monsters like the pilot episode’s nanobot creature. This approach clearly carries risks: though it makes each individual Decepticon a stronger adversary, it risks alienating fans, who remember that the conflict between Autobots and Decepticons is the heart of the story.

The risk is especially apparent in the series’ fourth episode, “Home Is Where the Spark Is,” which has the dreaded Angry Archer as its villain. It doesn’t seem possible that such a loser could be a threat; nor does he prove to be. Hopefully, upcoming villains will display a little more credibility and maybe a stronger tie to Professor Sumdac’s technology. After Angry Archer is defeated, though, we do get to see the hard time the lone wolf Prowl has adjusting to being part of a superhero team. Such a specific character-building episode hasn’t really been seen since the days of Beast Machines, and it’s a pleasure to see them back.

David Kaye, who played versions of Megatron from Beast Wars through Transformers: Cybertron, finally gets to voice Optimus Prime and does a great job as a younger version of the iconic character. Transformers veteran Corey Burton (G1 Shockwave), does a great job as the aged Ratchet: besides sounding appropriately ancient, he even credibly echoes Don Messick’s original voice for the character. He is also perfect as the new, more subtly icy version of Megatron. Tom Kenny is very impressive as Starscream, and follows in the best tradition of the great Chris Latta and Brian Dobson. Likewise, Bumper Robinson as Bumblebee, Jeff Bennett as Prowl and Bill Fagerbakke as Bulkhead are all well-cast. I’ll have to wait until I can hear more of the other Decepticons to make a judgment on them, but they were all impressive enough in their brief scene.

The human characters are similarly fresh and engaging; only Sari might cause viewer consternation. But her having taken on the Allspark’s power gives her a pretty credible reason for being a main character. It’s also good to finally see the Transformers starting with a public presence instead of wrapping themselves in the bizarre secrecy we saw in Armada and Cybertron.

I’d still prefer that the show adopt a bit more realistic look (including less of the more cartoony human character designs) and tone down the Autobots’ “expressive” vehicle modes (although, this too has a precedent in Robots in Disguise). But these are really only minor points beside the impressive writing and voice acting. In any case, there’s always time to tweak the designs for season two.

Transformers: Animated is the kind of fresh take the Transformers animated canon has needed for a long time. It’s pretty much a given that Hasbro will use the movies to cater more for an older audience while leaving the cartoons for younger audiences. But I’ll certainly be eagerly anticipating future episodes, including the eventual return of Megatron as the primary antagonist, along with many more homages to other Transformers characters and concepts that have been long-neglected in animated form. Transformers: Animated is a truly worthy follow-up to the best Transformers fiction.

Transformers: Animated debuts on Wednesday, December 26, 2007, at 8:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific)

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