Transformers is the story of violent giant robots that destroyed their own planet with a stupid and pointless war, then brought their battle to Earth and seem always on the verge of destroying that planet, too. Characters are locked in constant conflict. They suffer, and they die.
Because the characters are robots, such things have always fallen just in the range of acceptability for cartoons for older kids, but it’s a little too much for something based on the Playskool version of the toy. So the Rescue Bots toyline and cartoon episodes on the new Roll to the Rescue DVD stay away from the war and focus instead around a toddler’s fascination with fire trucks and other rescue vehicles.
The Rescue Bots in the series are four Autobots from an elite rescue team who have been in stasis since before the fall of Cybertron. We see them in the pilot in generic Autobot mode, traveling through space in a spaceship.
They intercept Autobot leader Optimus Prime’s call for all Autobots to come to Earth, but instead of asking them to help smash Starscream’s optics in, Optimus orders them to take on the disguise forms of Earth rescue vehicles and teams them up with the Burns family of first-responders in the high-tech town of Griffin Rock.
Griffin Rock is already brimming with robots and mad science gadgets, so they’ll fit in. Besides, the town has at least one major natural or science-gone-mad disaster a week and needs all the help it can get.
Luckily for them, all of the rescue squad have names that describe Earth rescue vehicles. So Heatwave becomes a fire truck, Boulder becomes a bulldozer, Chase becomes a cop car, and Blades would have to admit that his name fits the helicopter form he takes (because it’s the last one left) better than the wheeled form he had in his previous life.
Each Rescue Bot is teamed with a member of the Burns family, who have diverse public-service-related careers that also luckily fit the Autobot’s names. Patriarch Charlie, a police chief, teams with Chase; firefighter Kade teams with Heatwave; engineer Graham teams with Bulldozer; and pilot Dani teams with Blades.
The main character of the series, however, is Cody Burns, who looks about eight, and serves as the focus for its young-boy-centered plots. Cody almost always feels like he’s being treated like a kid and left out. Because this is a cartoon, the answer isn’t “Shut up, you are a kid,” but to make Cody coordinator of the Rescue Bots and have him teach them to fit in on Earth.
There is no Momma Burns, by the way. I guess she would get in the way of all of the rescuing. The series is so boy-targeted there’s a very distinct lack of female energy, and the two female characters use the boyish nicknames Dani and Frankie.
There are no villains in these episodes. The Rescue Bots simply respond to disasters, most of them caused by goofy super scientist Doc Greene. A typical scenario: a robot baby created by Doc Greene tosses a rubber ducky down a drain, which blocks a sewer pipe and causes a sinkhole which threatens the entire town.
The Rescue Bots and Burns family would have an easy time solving these problems if they could just cut out all the bickering.
All of the conflicts seem to come back to and amplify a young boy’s feeling of powerlessness, lack of responsibility, and lack of respect. The Rescue Bots also chafe under the fact that their mission requires them to pretend to be “sparkless machines.” There’s an episode where both Dani and Blades feel they aren’t getting enough respect. And Heatwave is constantly complaining about something.
But it all works out in the end. The moral of each episode seems to be to stuff that kinda crap and do your damn job, which is good advice that kids are going to have to accept eventually.
The action in the plots is mostly mild. There’s no violence against anything sentient, not even a robot. There’s definitely danger, but nothing gets especially intense except in one episode where Kade seems prepared to stupidly sacrifice his life to prove a bond of friendship with Heatwave, and another where Cody and Dani almost roast alive inside Blades when he’s forced to set down in a forest fire.
The comedy is gentle, too, mostly deriving from the slightly wacky tech-obsessed town setting, the Rescue Bots pretending to be mindless robots, and some character quirks like Blade being afraid of flying.
The visual look complements the general softness and friendliness of things. It looks a lot like a kid’s storybook, with bright, friendly Playskool colors, button eyes for the human characters, simple shapes, and thick outlines. Unfortunately the animation looks a little stiff and cardboard in motion.
On the sound front, I really appreciated that this series is willing to have a cheesy “explain the plot” opening theme. I love those. The voice cast also does a good job. Levar Burton’s Doc Greene has a weird Jamaican-type accent that’s annoying, though, and Steve Blum’s fiery, intense Heatwave sometimes sounds like it belongs in a different cartoon.
The thing that amuses me the most about Rescue Bots is that there’s ample evidence that it does fit in Transformers canon and is happening at the same time as the war on Earth. I couldn’t help but have the hilarious image of Optimus coming back from a fight to the death with Megatron and then calling the Rescue Bots on their monitor and helping them sort out a squabble about who is getting too much credit for rescues. Optimus must have impressive patience.
When I’m watching a kid’s cartoon I try to pay attention to the moral and psychological messages it’s putting out there. Most parents would probably have no problem with Rescue Bots. But keeping the mission secret does require a ton of lying, and there’s one episode where the whole cast lies to and humiliates a reporter who has figured them out.
But other than a couple of quirky moments, it’s a fun, harmless thing to plop the kids down in front of. If you’re an adult Transformers fan, though, you’re definitely going to want to reenlist and go back to the war.