"Transformers Animated" Season One is "Teen Titans" for the Giant Robot Set
Before Teen Titans debuted in 2003, American superhero cartoons were either played completely straight or completely silly. Teen Titans rejected this dichotomy, keeping one foot firmly in each camp. As a result, the show could encompass villains as diverse as the ludicrous Mad Mod and the sinister Slade, and manage big laughs that were matched by big emotional wallops. In fact, Teen Titans didn’t change the rules as much as it tossed them entirely and wrote its own, creating one of the most memorable (and polarizing) superhero cartoons in recent history.
All of which is a prelude to say that Transformers Animated, the new series headlining the famous toy robots in disguise, does for the Transformers franchise what Teen Titans did for superhero cartoons: inject a vein of lighthearted fun into a genre that was generally as serious as the grave in the past. Watching the 13 episodes of season 1 on the newly released 2-disc DVD set reveals a series that alternates between the serious and the silly, sometimes within the same episode. If the mix isn’t quite as smooth as Teen Titans, it is still fairly successful, as well as being undeniably fun and enjoyable. Fans who insist that their cartoons based on toys should be taken seriously have no doubt dismissed this series out of hand, but that’s their loss. If you can’t laugh occasionally at robots that turn into toys, what can you laugh at?
The core group of Transformers Animated is the Five Man Band of Autobots, with Optimus Prime taking the leadership role as the Hero, the silent and deadly ninja-bot Prowl taking the Lancer position, the massive Bulkhead acting as a quintessential Big Guy, and the diminutive Bumblebee being the Smart Guy. This leaves the grizzled veteran Ratchet to fill in as the Chick, but since he is often the group’s voice of reason and its moral center, he fits the role if not its stereotypical gender. Like Teen Titans, the five may start off as straightforward archetypes, but they quickly develop depth as we get to know them better. Joining them on the main cast is Dr. Isaac Sumdac, a brilliant but absent-minded robotics expert, and his 8-year old daughter Sari. Sari gained a mysterious key infused with the energy of the Autobots’ Allspark during the debut episodes Transform and Roll Out, making her a key figure in the Autobots’ lives and a positive magnet for trouble. The season one DVD set picks right up where the Transform and Roll Out DVD left off, as the heroic Autobots adjust to life on Earth while battling an array of antagonists, both robotic and organic. The Decepticons, the Autobots’ mortal foes, turn out to have a larger presence on Earth than initially thought, and an array of bizarre human enemies keeps the threats from being just the “giant robot of the week.” The worst threat of all for the Autobots is Megatron, the brutal and ruthless Decepticon leader. Seemingly destroyed in Transform and Roll Out, Megatron turns out to have survived in pieces in Dr. Sumdac’s super-secret lab, and researching his technology has been the true source of Sumdac’s technological breakthroughs. Along the way, some old fan favorite characters get reintroduced, such as the Dinobots and the female Transformer Arcee. However, newcomers to the franchise won’t be lost at all, but I’m sure that long-time fans will be spotting nods and winks at them throughout.
The Transform and Roll Out DVD was a blast of fun, putting the pedal to the metal from start to finish. The rest of season one follows in the same tracks, and if it isn’t quite as successful as Transform and Roll Out, it is still great fun that usually doesn’t take itself too seriously. However, it can achieve a surprising emotional poignancy when it does get serious, such as in “Thrill of the Hunt,” which reveals the backstory of Ratchet, and “Along Came a Spider,” which introduces the complex antagonist Black Arachnia. The show is also very effective at communicating the menace of Megatron, who comes off as a genuine and very credible threat as compared to the original, whose constantly foiled plans made him a pretty ineffectual villain. The two-part season finale, “Megatron Rises,” is genuinely tense and thrilling, as internal strife sets in amongst the Autobots at the worst possible time. While the character designs of Transformers Animated are quite well done, the animation is a bit choppy. However, I can’t help but note that I enjoyed the first DVD so much that I didn’t notice the slight stutter to the animation, and it’s rather telling that I finally picked up on it somewhere in the middle of watching this season.
As enjoyable as the show is, it does suffer from some small but notable flaws that can’t be excused as lifts from the Teen Titans playbook. Sari tip-toes on the line where the cute and spunky kid sidekick becomes insufferably annoying, and crosses it more than once as season one unfolds. It also feels like the show falls back on “Bumblebee Does Something Reckless” and “Bulkhead is Big and Clumsy” plots a few too many times. The lead police officer, Detective Fanzone, is rapidly undermined as a credible character, since he does little more than repeat his constant mantra of, “This is why I hate machines!” Some of the throwaway villains also cross over from “whimsical” into “flat-out bizarre,” like the Robin Hood wanna-be in the first episode and the seriously weird Professor Princess. The late season villain Headmaster is simply idiotic, like Teen Titans‘ Control Freak except without any of the humor or entertainment value. Finally, there are quite a few glaring plot holes that even the slowest kids in the audience could pick up on, such as why the Dinobots didn’t just incinerate the antagonist of “Survival of the Fittest” right at the start, or why a squad of police officers searching for Decepticons can swarm over an airfield without a single one asking, “Why are those planes over there the only ones painted purple?”
If there is a disappointment to be found in Transformers Animated Season One, it’s in the DVDs themselves. Transform and Roll Out was a pretty bare-bones DVD, with a decent full-screen transfer and a plain stereo soundtrack, and no extras other than two quick but entertaining shorts. Fans hoping that the Season One set would make up for lost time will be bitterly disappointed; this 2-disc set has no extras other than a photo gallery preview of season 2, which accomplishes little other than revealing a handful of returning villains and what seem to be a few new Autobots. The episodes themselves are still in their original full-screen format with a stereo soundtrack in English and Spanish, and the sensible chapter stops in each episode are greatly appreciated. The meat of the series is in the episodes themselves, but the complete lack of substantive extras is a real shame (or an opportunity for a re-release further down the line).
Transformers Animated doesn’t quite reach the all-ages high water mark set by shows like Batman the Animated Series and the subsequent follow-ups, or the more recent Avatar the Last Airbender or Spectacular Spider-Man. While those shows have plenty to offer viewers of all ages, some of the sillier elements make it clear that Transformers Animated is skewing towards a younger audience. Still, despite this and the somewhat lean DVD release, Transformers Animated Season One has plenty to offer action animation fans, and is a fine entry into the world of the Transformers. It’s a very strong start to a delightful series, and will leave viewers anxious for the debut of the second season.