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"Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising": Last Year's Model

When the battle of the Autobots versus the Decepticons found its way to Earth, Optimus Prime set forth to defend his new home. When Megatron finds the power of Dark Energon, he unleashes an army of the dead from their old home of Cybertron. Can the Autobots save the Earth and these three kids they’ve taken in, or will Starscream’s darkness rise over Megatron’s own?

With the commercial, if not critical, success of the Transformers movies (and the rather quick demise of Transformers Animated), it’s obvious that Hasbro would want to continue some form of the series on television in between movies (to keep toy sales going, obviously). Thankfully, they’ve tried something different with Transformers Prime. The series is fully computer animated, a first since the end of Beast Machines over a decade ago, and while fans may have loved the animation from Transformers Animated (and decried the occasionally unfinished animation from the Japanese-animated “Unicron Trilogy” of series), computer graphics is a field that works really well for giant robots.

Possibly more important to the series than its animation style is that the franchise has now reached “everyone knows the origin” status. We don’t need to see Batman’s parents die; we don’t need to see Krypton explode; and at this point, we don’t need to see Optimus Prime and Megatron crash onto Earth, take on the forms of Earth machines, and continue fighting over Energon. The movies have permeated that enough that for the target demographic, at least, the origin story is common knowledge and can therefore be skipped over.

This adjustment in the narrative structure allows for both mystery and advancing characterizations. We don’t need episodes of the series focused on Optimus doubting himself, or Starscream being traitorous to Megatron. These facets are built in, and with them established, the series can allow heavily revised characters such as Arcee to take the spotlight. While the five-part miniseries (retooled here as a movie) that launched the show has a larger plot of the Autobots meeting three children (Raf, Miko, and Jack), the true star of the storyline is the lone female robot of the crew. Having recently lost a partner, she’s both cold and distant at times, but learns to rebuild connections in new people. The show’s kid characters fail to stand out in any meaningful way, but don’t become as annoying as the kid from Headmasters or as unstoppable as Shia LeBeouf.

Any time a new Transformers show comes out, there’s usually a mix of new and old voice actors in the mix. Thankfully, Prime has a quality stable of notable and enjoyable voice actors. Peter Cullen and Frank Welker return to voice their factions, while actors Jeffrey Combs, Ernie Hudson, and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson all get their chance to voice either Autobots or their allies. The three kids don’t have the name recognition of “That Guy From Ghostbusters” or the inherent legacy in having vocally created the character, but they all pull their own weight, and thankfully (at least in this movie) avoid some of the worst stereotypes to befall human accomplices. Except Miko, who can be a little too energetic at times.

Visually, the show has its high and low points. The actual animation is fluid. Emotions come through on both the human and robotic characters, and the action has its moments without standing out. The largest problem the series has is one it shares with many CG shows, and that’s the general concept of “if it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s not there”. It’s an understandable thing; if we don’t need to actually see someone, why build a body? It would be fine if it was done for the occasional camera trick or budget-saving maneuver, but beyond a few classmates, the city in which our heroes inhabit is almost abandoned. Maybe the war of the Transformers has killed more civilians than we’d like to admit.

Part of the problem with this set is that, logically, it’ll be supplanted by Transformers Prime: The Complete First Season, announced within a week of this disc’s release. While it does offer the “movie” version of the first five episodes, all that amounts to is a few visual transitions and the lack of openings and endings throughout the run. Character and set design features are interesting, especially on a CG show where they do work better on disc than on paper (with rotating models and such), but only merit one look. An animatic on the first episode is appreciated, and undeniably someone out there will be interested in it. The everyday viewer will be done with this disc in about two hours, only to put it away and never watch it outside of curiosity, especially if they’ll be picking up The Complete First Season.

Darkness Rising is a great start to the series, and should encourage further looks at the latter episodes. With a strong female lead actually getting screen time, and largely inoffensive companions, it’s got a better assortment of cast mates than usual. Still, a rather weak release that will be rendered superfluous with the release complete first season means that this disc should be sent to the scrapheap, unless you’re completely lost on something to buy a Transformers fan for the holiday.

Here’s a hint: buy a figure or two for the cost of this.

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