Optimus Prime’s band of misfits are forced into a situation none of them are prepared for when they discover the elusive Allspark, the giver of life to all Cybertronians. Unfortunately, the Decepticons are not far behind with intent to snatch it for their own means.
Transformers Animated is the Wind Waker of the Transformers franchise. No, really! Back in 2000, Nintendo unveiled a short video to demonstrate the capability of the upcoming Gamecube system. The video sported a realistically modeled Link and Ganondorf duking it out. It was enough to send fans into enthusiastic praise that the future Zelda game will sport this rendition. Previews a year later contradicted everyone’s expectation. Gone were the dark and dreary settings and instead replaced with a cel-shaded pastry coloring book. The serious, hawk-eyed adult Link now became an adorable kewpie doll. Fans raged against the childish graphics and character design with presumption that this would be the ultimate downfall of the Zelda franchise. Fast forward a decade later and Wind Waker is now generally herald as a masterpiece; the programming is first-rate, the cel-shading remains gorgeous and stylish to this day, and the story and characters are as charming and lovable as ever. Transformers Animated suffered the same fate with its distinctively cartoony design and colorful palette. This was not the angular, blocky—and in a way—mature look of the more famous and beloved 80s incarnation and it certainly looked too childish to possess any sort of depth like Beast Wars. I mean, what is wrong with Optimus Prime? Why does he have disturbing blue lips? This show is too kiddy; it’s going to suck. Years later and three seasons under their belt, general disdain evolved into surprised acceptance. While I don’t think Transformers Animated has reached the near-universal love that Wind Waker holds, it’s steadily regarded as top-tier entertainment among Transformers fans for producing a fantastic story and a healthy respect for the overall franchise as a whole. What’s not to love?
Transformers Animated’s Five Man Band includes leader Optimus Prime; a well-meaning captain who strives for glory, he ends up in a situation bigger than he can comprehend. The silent and stoic ninjabot Prowl, my favorite character, plays the Lancer role and remains distant and impersonal. Gentle Giant Bulkhead is The Big Guy while his best friend Bumblebee unsurprisingly plays the Kid-Appeal character. Medibot Ratchet juggles between two roles as The Smart Guy and The Chick. I assure you the last comparison is not a typo—he really does fit that role. The introduction immediately reveals their archetypical traits and right from the get-go, you’ll be able to figure out which one is which. The episode doesn’t elevate itself into anything beyond its standard formula. Optimus Prime’s crew are unimportant rejects living a drab, monotonous life until they stumble upon the Allspark: a mysterious source of energy and originator of all Cybertronian life. When their spaceship detects an active Decepticon vessel, their fate takes a sudden and unexpected turn. This setup isn’t exactly innovative, but the creators take this familiar material and execute it with flair. This first episode also contains plenty of foreshadowing, subtly setting up plot elements to be explored in future episodes. This is the kind of beginning that marvelously works when you revisit it with the benefit of hindsight.
The central focus here is on Optimus Prime and his quest to be a recognized hero. He envisions a grander life and genuinely wants to help people, yet we instantly get that his journey is a humble one. He doesn’t have an ego, but you can feel his lack of self-esteem when other characters put him down despite his talents. Formerly a top student at the Autobot Academy, he has to contend with the idea that he’ll never achieve his dreams of becoming someone inspiring. This isn’t the Optimus Prime people grew up with. He’s not the famous, wise leader of the Autobots; this Optimus can barely keep his crew under one singularity. He constantly questions himself and relies on Ratchet for guidance. Heck, Megatron doesn’t acknowledge of him as a worthy foe in this continuity and instead sees him as a no-nothing, pesky Autobot. Optimus Prime is, simply put, a washout. This may be a point of contention for some, but I personally enjoy this interpretation. Typically Optimus Prime is the guy we look up to; Animated Optimus is who we are.
Behind Optimus, Prowl is the next biggest player. He serves to be an excellent detractor to Optimus’ Boy Scout nature. He’s a loner who doesn’t play well with others and constantly disobeys his commander’s orders. While Optimus encourages teamwork and loyalty, Prowl is distant and relies only on himself. Notice Prowl is the first and only bot to criticize Optimus’ analogy of a united crew. He’s the last one introduced and when he arrives, it’s from the shadows. There’s also a hint of pride, both to his abilities and personal philosophy. This is best demonstrated when Optimus encourages his crew to destroy a rock through synergy only for Prowl to break it within seconds of his own accord. He’s also seriously awesome; most notably when he slices Megatron’s arm off!
Ratchet’s crotchety persona seems to belittle his status as a healer. He smacks Bumblebee when the little guy insults him, rants sarcastically and bitterly to get his point across, and will not put up with nonsense. However, he possesses an endless stream of profound thought and good advice. This is where The Chick part comes in. For as grumpy as he is, Ratchet is also thought-provoking and soft spoken. He isn’t the glue that holds the team together, but he is the primary adviser to the bot who IS—Optimus. As an old war veteran, Ratchet counters Optimus’ youthful exuberance and constantly warns him that wartime isn’t a kiddie carnival and should not be glorified. In fact, the first time you see him, he’s dispensing sound advice to Optimus. It’s his morality and wisdom to the overall team that serves to provide the heart behind the crew.
Bumblebee and Bulkhead do not carry the weight as the first three, but that makes sense. Being the youngest, they haven’t experienced as much as Optimus, Prowl, and Ratchet has. They’re still childishly naive and in the process of maturing.
The Decepticons are even more caricatures of themselves (their line-by-line debut is almost less of an embarrassing exposition dump than this ), but a couple of moments do stand out. The first is Megatron. When he enters the bridge, his previously silly, squabbling comrades instantly straighten up. The music especially stuck out to me because it isn’t bombastic or loud, but eerily soft and chilly. It emphasizes not only his menacing stature, but his grace. He’s very soft-spoken and hardly raises his voice even when he manhandles Starscream (otherwise, he does not physically abuse his fellow ‘Cons). You immediately understand that he’s not a guy to be trifled with, yet he oozes elegance. His battle scene with Optimus’ crew is no less memorizing when all five Autobots cannot take one of him, and this is after Starscream crippled him with a bomb. Optimus has to push him out via airlock to ensure their survival. Megatron is simply magnificent. Another good moment is Starscream actively trying to end his superior’s life minutes after his introduction. It doesn’t explain why it took him this long to succeed (as far as he’s concerned), but it must be a shocker to some fans who weren’t expecting him to pull a big stunt as early as the first episode – let alone the first ten minutes. Then there’s the multi-faced Blitzwing singing and dancing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” It’s so ridiculous that you just have to take my word for it and check it out yourself.
To this day, the biggest issue with Transformers Animated is the art style. Even back when I wasn’t a Transformers fan, I looked at promotional images and cringed. It looks like a Looney Tunes cartoon suffering an identity crisis because it’s trying too hard to imitate Anime. It took time to adapt, but not as long as I thought—the robotic designs are surprisingly easy to adjust to. Most importantly, they’re unique. Transformers Animated relishes in its wacky aesthetics, but there’s creativity behind each of the robots; they’re a mash of exaggerated size and shapes. The big, lumbering Bulkhead; is made round. The sleek and agile Prowl is skinny and flexible. Optimus sports a broad chest to promote a superheroic figure. The bad guys? Spikes, lots and lots of spikes. It’s so simple that it wraps around to sensibility. The designs are so unique that you can figure out who is who if they were cast in shadows. I also have to lend credit to the character designers for going the extra mile and giving the Bots both a Cybertronian AND Earth mode. If I have one complaint, it’s the animation’s frequent choppiness. It doesn’t flow as well as I wish it could. Ahh well, you can’t win ’em all.
“Transform and Roll Out: Part 1” is a fantastic opener and establishes everything you need to know without overbearing the audiences with heavy expositions. The dialogue and writing are genuine and sharp; breezing through without feeling stilted and uninspiring. I especially love the little touches they added; like giving echoes to the voices to emphasize their robotic stature or how every Bots have individual sound effects whenever they move (Ratchet appropriately sounds like a rusty old crank). Everything fits.
At its core, it’s a simple story, but it’s clear a lot of love was poured into it.