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"Transformers: Rescue Bots" - More or Less Exactly What Meets the Eye

I must admit a significant amount of skepticism when confronted with the idea of a Transformers cartoon aimed at the pre-school-to-elementary crowd. Transformers just seems like a property that’s not too well suited for that target audience, and after watching the premiere of Transformers: Rescue Bots, I’m not entirely sure that I was wrong. The show isn’t bad, especially considering how intolerable some comparable shows can get, but it also doesn’t strike me as terribly inspired or essential. It’s not a bad way to introduce younger viewers to the Transformers franchise, although I’m not positive how much it will manage to appeal past its target audience or really entice those same kids to keep watching Transformers after they outgrow the series.

Transformers: Rescue Bots is set in the bucolic town of Griffin Rock, whose suburban setting belies its role as a technological testbed. One of the show’s more amusing sequences involves the show’s hero and audience identification character, Cody Burns, riding his bike in the morning, completely blasé to the many bizarre things going on around him. The Burns family seems to consist entirely of first responders or public servants: dad is the chief of police, eldest brother Kade is a firefighter, next eldest brother Graham is a civil engineer, older sister Dani is an EMT specializing in aerial medevac, and mom is conspicuously absent. Cody’s sense of being left out of the action doesn’t last long when a ship of four Autobot Rescue Bots crash-lands on Earth, drawn to the planet by Autobot leader Optimus Prime’s call to any survivors of the Cybertron wars.

The four bots are led by the hot-headed fire truck Heatwave, and are rounded out by the no-nonsense police car Chase, the tough but sensitive bulldozer Boulder, and the tentative helicopter Blades (who is afraid of heights and speed, and yes that’s as cliché as it sounds). Prime commissions the four rescue bots to disguise themselves among humans to protect them and learn their ways, and it’s an entirely unsurprising coincidence that there’s one rescue bot vehicle for each member of the Burns family except Cody. This, of course, means that Cody will be the first one to discover that Griffin Rock’s new rescue equipment is more than meets the eye, and the first to befriend the new Transformers and act as their liaison to the rest of the family and humanity in general. Add in one malfunctioning robotic dinosaur running rampant to unite the family and the robots and you’ve got yourself a series premiere.

On the one hand, Transformers: Rescue Bots goes out of its way to balance out the importance of both its human and its robotic characters. The human characters are all at least as interesting and as developed as the robots, and they all have a strong reason for being there. The show also sets up plenty of opportunities for contrasting and complementary personalities between the Burns family member and the Rescue Bot they are partnered with. However, all of this ends up making the show feel rather forced and artificial. Everything lines up so neatly that it feels a bit too manufactured. I suspect the usual Transformers baddies won’t show up, but the Burns’ occupational hazards present plenty of opportunities for at least the idea of peril and some reasonably safe action scenes. I think the show will appeal to its target audience, if only because of the big vehicles and the robots, but I suspect the kid-centric approach will be even more polarizing among hardcore Transformers fans than Transformers Animated.

Vocal performances are solid across the board with a few standouts. Steve Blum is a treasure as Heatwave, the gruff and skeptical firefighting leader of the rescue bots. Maurice LaMarche as Chief Burns has the exact right blend of authority and warmth, while Lacey Chabert’s Dani has a palpable tomboyish charm. Fans will also get a kick out of Peter Cullen’s cameo appearance as Optimus Prime, who will be a guest star in future episodes as well. I wish I could say I was as taken with the animation for the show, which has solid designs but whose Flash-based style can never quite manage to get characters and backgrounds to mesh together consistently.

I get that Transformers is one of Hasbro’s most valuable intellectual properties, but it didn’t seem like something flexible enough to stretch to a show aimed at this young of an audience. Transformers: Rescue Bots actually succeeds at stretching Transformers to reach that audience, but it’s still just an OK show rather than a really great one. It just clears the hurdle for a supervising adult to be willing to watch with their kids instead of finding something else to do, especially if that supervising adult is already a Transformers fan, but I think the Hub has done better by the younger kids with some of their other shows.

Transformers: Rescue Bots premieres Saturday, February 18, 2012, at 11:30 AM (ET)/8:30 AM (PT) on the Hub Network.

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