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"Transformers Animated" DVD is Full Throttle Fun

by on June 20, 2008

I grew up in the 1980’s, the golden age of toy-commercials disguised as animated entertainment, and while I watched my share of these shows, I never managed to get into The Transformers. In hindsight, this seems like an odd omission, considering the number of my friends who were fans and the number of elements in the show that appealed to the young Ed (specifically, giant robots, cars, jet planes, a lead hero with a cool name and an even cooler voice, a villain who turned into a P-38 handgun, and giant melodramatic battles of cosmic import). Nearly two decades later, the new Transformers Animated DVD proves more than capable of resurrecting that inner 15-year-old. Paramount Home Entertainment has just released the first three episodes of Transformers Animated on DVD, and it’s a real blast. It may not aspire to much more than brightly colored pop entertainment that can’t stray too far from a pre-determined formula, but if it suffers from a relative lack of ambition, it enjoys an overabundance of energy and skill in the execution that more than makes up for it.

Out in the depths of space, a war has raged for millennia between two tribes of robots: the Autobots and the Decepticons. The fires of conflict have burned themselves out at the start of Transformers Animated, which begins with five Autobots on a lonely mission doing the equivalent of road repair. The youngest member of the crew is the diminutive Bumblebee, whose attitude is as bright as his yellow coat of paint. His small stature stands in stark contrast to the massive bruiser Bulkhead, who provides overwhelming muscle. In contrast, the mysterious lone wolf Prowl comes off as some kind of Autobot ninja: lithe, fast, silent, and deadly. The grizzled Autobot Ratchet acts as their medic and the designated old codger. Leading them all is Optimus Prime, a young but charismatic Autobot who refers to his past at “the Academy,” possessing great natural leadership skills and a slightly over-dramatic sense of purpose.

Through a strange accident, the five discover the mysterious Allspark–a MacGuffin that is supposedly the source of all robot life. Shortly after their discovery, they come under attack from a Decepticon warship, commanded by the massive Megatron. Treachery by Megatron’s second-in-command Starscream sends all five Autobots to Earth, where they crash land in Lake Erie. Fifty years later, the Autobots awaken and emerge in 22nd century Detroit, quickly establishing their bona fides as friendly alien life forms and genuine heroes. They are assisted by the spunky young girl Sari, the daughter of robotics genius Dr. Sumdac, especially after Sari’s security key somehow merges with the Allspark.

These opening episodes are remarkably trim and lean, sketching in the characteristics of all five Autobots quickly and efficiently as the story unfolds. It even manages to squeeze in all the necessary exposition and character introduction between the explosions of two terrific action sequences–a feat it repeats later to introduce Dr. Sumdac, Sari, and the Motor City of the future as the Autobots combat a monstrous bug. These are all helped by pitch-perfect voice casting, and while David Kaye’s performance as Optimus Prime doesn’t have the gravitas of Peter Cullen, it is perfectly suited to this show’s much younger and less experienced Prime. Impressively, Sari comes dangerously close to being a typical annoying child character shoehorned in so kids can identify with a cast member, but she never crosses that line. In addition, it’s nice to see that she and her father are very matter-of-factly South Asian, adding a bit of ethnic diversity to the television lineup in an unobtrusive way.

Visually, Transformers Animated is a treat. The character designs for the Autobots and the Decepticons are much less blocky than earlier incarnations, but they are extremely evocative and stylish. If nothing else, the reduced cast size and highly distinctive character designs makes it easy to distinguish one cast member from another. The human characters are extremely cartoony, looking like the even more extreme descendants of the cast of The Spectacular Spider-Man. In addition, Transformers Animated has much better animation than its original predecessor. Action scenes pop, with an emphasis on adrenaline over violence, and they’re always well-choreographed and easy to follow, even as the tension mounts and the bolts start to fly. The final action sequence packs a surprising punch, both physically and emotionally. However, there are also numerous smaller, quieter grace notes executed with real skill, such as Optimus Prime’s reaction shot when Sari whispers to him where babies come from.

It’s also remarkable to notice how well the three individual episodes link together to form a more coherent whole when watched in sequence. They form a solid foundation on which to build more adventures, from gentler explorations as the Autobots and the humans get better acquainted, to larger action pieces with the missing Decepticons or whatever other menace the 2100’s can produce. The writing is always sharp and sure-footed, and often displays a sly sense of humor that often draws genuine laughs. In short, Transformers Animated is a great big pile of fun.

Considering how much fun the episodes themselves are, the Transformers Animated DVD comes off as a bit lackluster. The disc contains three episodes of the new show, presented full-frame with English and Spanish soundtracks. The only other extra are two amusing but lightweight short films, both of which are played for laughs. In one, Optimus Prime’s visit to an elementary school Career Day is derailed by some incredibly impertinent questions. In the other, Prowl attempts an extreme stunt that doesn’t quite go off as he planned. They are both rather entertaining, but really only serve to whet the appetite for more. There isn’t even a chapter selection menu. Other than the shorts, there’s really very little reason for fans of the show to pick this DVD up.

There is a fine distinction between entertainment suitable for children and entertainment that is childish. The former can appeal to young and old audiences alike, with the younger getting exposed to brave new worlds of imagination and the elder being able to enjoy a brief regression to that younger mindset. The latter may appeal to children, but does little for older viewers except insult the intelligence. Good entertainment for children makes you feel like a kid again; childish entertainment requires you to regress your mental development to that stage. Two other recent 80’s revivals–Star Wars and Indiana Jones–have fallen sadly into the “childish” category, but Transformers Animated is clearly in the former. This DVD is frustrating only because it is so good at creating a yearning for more.

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