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Cartoon Universe: Monkey, Not Truck: Why Beast Wars is Great

by on February 4, 2010

Beast Wars Transformers is one of those rare, near-perfect cartoons that pop up seemingly out of nowhere to become classics.  It’s quite possibly one of the best shows of the 1990s, combining unexpectedly deep scripting with fun, nuanced animation that was cutting edge for its time.  The characters feel real, their conflicts seem intimate, and everyone – from the leader, Optimus Primal, to the comic relief, Waspinator, sees significant character development.

The original Transformers series is as toy-driven as they come, existing only to sell toys.  Consistent plot and character development are secondary to pushing the newest extension to the toyline.  There was no general story arc or story line, and the self-contained episodes often contained such preposterous ideas as “Decepticons open a nightclub in order to control people’s minds”.  Characters barely qualify as one-dimensional, with personality deriving solely from the voice cast.

Now, I ask, which version of the franchise is generally ignored these days, and which one spawned a pair of blockbusters that grossed about 5 skillion dollars?

Yeah, kinda sad isn’t it?

Let’s look at the original cartoon first.  On a creative level, the original Transformers cartoon is not very good.  The basic “robots in disguise” concept of the Autobots and Decepticons is terrific, the execution not so much. It’s charitable to call the animation quality “mediocre” – episodes are often filled with mistakes, and the clunky animation means the show barely moves.  There’s a reason the Shout Factory featurette focused almost entirely on the voice cast, the saving grace of the show.

This, of course, is the nature of the beast.  Transformers exists, like it or not, to sell toys.  Consistent plot and character development is secondary to pushing the newest extension to the toyline.  For proof, simply look at the story guide for the original cartoon: episodes are listed not by title or plot, but by the toy Hasbro wants to push.  If an episode featured, say, the Dinobots, odds are it wasn’t because the writers felt the need to explore the characters, but because the toys are now on sale for $14.99 at Toys R Us.  The cast would easily number in the dozens – Optimus and Megatron were literally controlling huge armies.

Now, I ask you: what transformers do you actually remember from the original show?  Optimus Prime and Megatron probably popped in your head almost immediately.  Starscream and Soundwave were probably next, because of their distinctive Cobra Commander and Harmonica voices respectively.  Bumblebee probably fades into memory because of his distinctive alt mode (punch buggy yellow no punch back), and Arcee probably appears because she was, well, a girl.

After that… well, you probably don’t remember anyone else, don’t you?  I remember the one that said “but PRAHME” a lot, and the one that sounded like Casey Kasem.  But those are just random voices assigned to random vehicles.  Even the ones I named don’t have much of a personality – Prime’s personality doesn’t go much beyond “leader”, Starscream’s personality doesn’t go much beyond “annoying whiner”.  When you have to write everybody in, there’s no room to explore characters or build plots around their personalities.

So why does Beast Wars work?

Well, let’s start with the technology.  Hasbro contracted with Mainframe Entertainment, the minds behind the now-classic Reboot, to produce a fully CG television show.  While the visuals are now regularly surpassed by the modern video game consoles, the animation quality was very advanced and impressive for 1997. 

However, there were limits.  To keep costs reasonable, the rosters had to be limited, so the Maximals and Predacons featured much smaller rosters of about 7 characters each.  When Hasbro wanted a new toy, other characters had to be de-emphasized to make room.  The large cities of Generation 1 were gone, replaced by more desolate environments.

These technical limitations turned out to be the greatest asset Beast Wars had.

Instead of using these limitations as shortcuts, story editors Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio, as well as the Mainframe staff, used them as starting points.  The desolate environment problem was solved with the decision to strand the characters on a largely uninhabited planet.  New characters couldn’t pop up out of nowhere like in the original, so each new addition was accompanied by a detailed explanation and backstory. 

Perhaps most importantly, the character roster limitation meant that the characters could be fleshed out and explored. Optimus Primal is not simply the pefect leader his namesake was – he exploits loopholes, isn’t afraid to use crazy ideas, and will speak with his fists when necessary.  The new Megatron is much more competent – he has an agenda, manipulates others, and seeks to restore Predacon glory.  Cheetor, a young, naïve ingénue of Optimus Primal, essentially goes through puberty during the course of the series and emerges as a formidable warrior in his own right.  Rattrap is shown as a streetwise, wisecracking rat who prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. Tarantulas takes Starscream’s role of schemer, but works on his plans in the shadows away from Megatron.  Blackarachnia’s eventual defection from Predacon to Maximal is a major storyline of the latter half of the series.

And then there’s Dinobot, the series’ most remarkable character.  It’s easy to classify him as a Predacon who becomes a Maximal and one of the good guys, but that’s not true.  Dinobot clearly is only allied with the Maximals because he believes Megatron is insane, and retains a code of honor and a warrior mentality that is clearly Predacon in nature.  He is constantly questioning this decision, is always fighting with his Maximal teammates.  At one point, he defects back to the Predacon side before realizing his honor is more allied with the Maximal point of view.

Thanks to Forward and DiTillio, these characters not only emerge in three dimensions, but grow and change throughout the series’ run. All of the surviving characters are very different people in the last episode than they are in the first.  I cannot say that about very many cartoons; even Batman, in B:TAS, is essentially the same character throughout, just a bit grumpier by the end.

The differences between the two series are clearly visible in their respective high points: the original animated movie and Beast Wars’ Code of Hero.  Both feature the death of a major character; Optimus Prime in the movie and Dinobot in Beast Wars.  Those events are, essentially, largely similar – both characters perish in an all-out, no holds barred struggle against their respective Megatrons, and get to enjoy a very drawn out death scene.

So why does Dinobot’s death move me, yet Prime’s death seems hollow?

While Dinobot was fully realized, Optimus Prime was never, ever developed beyond being a leader who spoke kind of like John Wayne.  I care that Dinobot dies; I don’t really care what Optimus’ fate is.  Furthermore, there’s a lot more at stake in Dinobot’s last stand: he defends humanity from an early extinction in a 1 vs. 7 battle, while Optimus simply fights Megatron to a stalemate.  Dinobot’s death redeems him; Optimus’ demise says nothing about the character.  And when they die, Optimus’ handing of the Matrix of Leadership to a previously unknown character elicits no emotional response.  Dinobot’s Hamlet-inspired speech and the Maximals’ funeral gets me every single time.

That’s why Beast Wars works – I care about these characters.  I’m invested into them.  I can’t say that about the G1 cast.  And even as the latest video games threaten to overwhelm the series’ visual quality, the characterization keeps luring me back to the series each time.

Robots in disguise gets you only so far.  Strong characterization gets you the rest of the way.

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