Transformers Animated is an odd duck: simultaneously the redheaded stepchild, yet praised beyond comprehension. I’ve seen multiple complaints about the art direction and its kid-centric appeal (which is strange since the show not only aims for that demographic, but its closest counterpart – the G1 cartoon – is hardly any less cheesy), while the show languished in relative obscurity under Michael Bay’s moneymaking Transformers films. However, none of those factors prevented it from achieving considerable cult status and recognition. There are merits from both ends of the critical spectrum, but I fall squarely into the camp that praises it beyond comprehension. Maybe I’ve built up a tolerance, but any show that has a little girl dressed in frilly, princess pink and isn’t afraid to engage giant, alien robots in combat deserves my respect. Yeah, it’s a bit out there, but if the show doesn’t quite juggle its mood swings, it’s at least consistent.
The series depicts a group of lowly Autobots composed of leader Optimus Prime, grumpy medic Ratchet, energetic kid-friendly Bumblebee, gentle giant Bulkhead, and stoic ninja Prowl. Their unassuming janitorial duties take a sudden turn when they discover the elusive Allspark, the mystical MacGuffin that serves as the robots’ chief creator. A run-in with the nasty Decepticons accidentally forces the crew onto Earth where they vow to protect the Allspark and the local inhabitants from any ongoing threats.
The first thing everyone notices is the unusual art direction. The chunky robot legs, skinny waistlines, and unusually organic appearances emphasize a comically exaggerated style. The average Transformers fan might consider the first season to be unconventional in its approach and alienating at worse. The fundamental premise of Autobots vs. Decepticons is pushed aside in favor of wacky human villains. The wise and all-knowing father figure Optimus Prime is gone, replaced with a younger version who can only dream of achieving such a role. A number of episodes are devoted to mundane shenanigans like trick-or-treating or camping, and it’s bright, colorful setting seem to indicate it was made purely for a younger crowd. I don’t blame any longtime fans who refused to stick around.
Patient viewers who did will be rewarded though. Visually, it’s remarkably easy to adjust to. The aesthetic is sleek and delightfully simple in execution, preferring to use simple geometric shapes to distinguish the cast. Everybody has their own identity and it’s arguably the most groundbreaking part of the show.
Even if you’re not a Transformers fan, Animated stands on its own as a competent, if not familiar take on the genre. Season One is nigh-perfect in its approach, maintaining a steady continuity and expert level pacing. It’s the healthiest balance of character and story, successfully transforming a group of mismatched rejects who struggle to work together initially to a tight-knit team built out of genuine friendship by end. Much of the episodes derive from mandatory life lessons and silly plots, but they’re often gateways to appropriate developments that expand each character’s choice archetype. Optimus Prime’s role makes a great deal of sense if you see Animated as something of an origin story. It’s not so much who he is now, but what he can be later.
Human girl Sari Sumdac straddles the line between reproachable annoyance (she will misuse her Allspark Key a million times) and genuine tolerance. She’s fairly resourceful and intelligent for her age and is cleverly involved in the greater story without stepping on the Autobots’ heels. Sari also gets points for being the target audience’s sole representative, even though the show is aims more for the young boy demographic. I am also impressed at how unabashedly South Asian she is without ever forcing an ethnicity issue. Season One may lack ambition, opting for safe plotting, but the marvelous scripting and explosive action ensure plenty of entertainment value. The first sixteen episodes could easily be all that existed of the show and it would still be a solid, above-average series that skillfully illustrates the unsung heroes.
I’m so impressed with Season One that I reluctantly have to confess the rest of the show slowly drops in quality after it, never regaining that sense of balance. It routinely shoves new scenarios the narrative simply can’t catch up with, overwhelming what was originally a simple but effective method of storytelling. It drastically reduces the one core element that made Animated so approachable in the first place: the characters. Season Two suffers from an overarching plot involving Allspark fragments that are frequently ignored until the last minute. It repeats life lessons from Season One that logically shouldn’t have been an issue by that point. It also introduces the Constructicons: contenders for Worst Characters Ever. Season Three collapses under its own weight, asking a platoon of questions that rarely produce an answer. The pacing deteriorates in favor of gimmicky plots that mean little in the long run (even if one of them is a fun concept.) One character in particular undergoes a massive upgrade, but the show hardly devotes any time to htis plot twist in spite of its importance. It ends on a somewhat decent finale and one scene in particular had me stunned due to how unexpected it was, but I was left feeling that under slightly different circumstances, it could have been more meaningful.
This isn’t to say the latter seasons are unwatchable. If Season One came from a humble but solid background, Season Two opens up the world, introducing bigger stakes, grander arcs, and jaw-dropping revelations. Transformers Animated is masterful in its foreshadowing, with numerous hints established from the start, and continuously paying off in big ways throughout the series’ run. This allows for broader topics and meaty themes that are surprisingly insightful. A frequent subject is the Autobot government, its culture, and the devastating impact it has on others (if you squint hard enough, you might notice possible signs of classism.) The faction is xenophobic and closed-minded; their very presence demands superiority, presuming little of other Autobots who think outside the box. The best example of this occurs during Ratchet’s personal journey. A veteran of the Great War, he experienced firsthand the kind of brutality that was necessary to win the war. His arc remains the most poignant contribution to the show. The show also earns mileage in seeing Optimus’ crew abandon the traditional Autobot mindset to become individuals capable of far greater potential than what they were initially programmed for. However, even though the Autobot force is demonized enough that their methods are clearly in the wrong, it is not hard to understand and sympathize their reasoning. Besides, the alternative is much worse.
Megatron is an inspired antagonist: soft-spoken, deviously intelligent, and just a tad classy; yet he’s also shown to be ruthless and imposing. Keen eyed viewers will note that (with the exception of the snakelike Starscream) Megatron never raises a hand to his comrades, rarely insults or treat his fellow Decepticons as lowly minions (as long as they acknowledge his leadership and don’t betray him), and easily accept freaks into his rank without fear of scrutiny. For the last point, the Autobots come off much worse in comparison, as in the way Blackarachnia’s half-organic, half-robotic form is a cause of alarm for many. Viewed in another light, I can see where Megatron is coming from. Sadly, Animated only meagerly hints that the Decepticons are struggling, second-class citizens wrongfully exiled from their home, and much of what Megatron believes in is something I have to take at face value. This is under dubious circumstances anyway since they care little beyond their own clan and blatantly enjoy raining destruction on helpless passersby. Still, I can respect any villain who eliminates what he considers dead weight without hesitation (even if he’s forced to do it several times).
I’m making this sound more complex than it actually is. The show ultimately strives for a standard Autobot = good and Decepticons = bad. Animated doesn’t sugarcoat the tragedy, but it never betrays its lighthearted tone in favor of transparent “darkness.” It’s certainly different by the time it ends (I can say with utmost horror that one particular scene in “Transwarped” still sends a chill down my spine), but the change is comfortably gradual, even if it encounters a few hiccups along the way.
The DVD presents the episodes in its original widescreen format, a welcome addition since the show was in standard format in previous airings (before the show was syndicated by the Hub) and older home video releases. Those who already own the first two seasons and aren’t willing to pony up the cash for the complete set are in luck as a separate Season Three DVD set (previously the only season inaccessible at the time) is available for purchase. Curiously, Shout! Factory omitted the shorts that came packaged in with the Paramount editions. I’m a bit disappointed since they’re little slices of heaven on their own (my personal favorite is Optimus clumsily hosting a group of schoolchildren only to be bombarded with impertinent questions by a very curious boy.) Also absent are the two audio commentaries that accompanied the older DVD set, but they make up for it with four brand new ones for Season Two’s “Garbage In, Garbage Out” and the Season Three trilogy opener “Transwarped.” They’re very informative and highlight the labor of love the creators clearly had for the show.
Far from perfection, Transformers Animated demonstrates a case of why covers don’t matter in the long run. The childish surface belies the voluminous content it has to offer to people regardless of age. Kids will dig the action and cartoony appeal while adults can enjoy the continuity and heavy themes. Longtime Transformers fans will appreciate the many, many nods to past incarnations worthy of freeze-frame moments. The show may dip into well-worn shoes and some of the goofier moments clash horribly with the serious bits, but the endearing cast of characters and compelling narrative will satisfy even the biggest naysayers. Fans of the franchise and newcomers alike will find plenty to enjoy.