Before 'Bumblebee': A Look Back at 1986's 'Transformers' Animated Movie

Critics like the new prequel, but 32 years ago, a very different kind of project came on the scene before Michael Bay's movies.
Courtesy of Photofest

Is Bumblebee "the best Transformers movie ever?"

Some critics, including Collider'Scott Mantz and ScreenCrush's Matt Singer, think so. Others, like New York Times' Glenn Kenny, appreciate that Bumblebee is at least better than the last five Transformers films: Kenny begins his Bumblebee review by rhetorically asking, "Can a 'Transformers' movie be good? It turns out the answer is yes."

I tend to agree more with Vulture's Bilge Ebiri, who writes that "[Bumblebee's] action sequences, when they do come, are also fairly modest — the all-out, citywide destruction porn of the previous films is mostly a thing of the past — and cleanly, effectively handled." I particularly agree with Ebiri when he concludes that: "[At] a couple of points I found myself slightly missing the gonzo, go-for-broke bravado of those earlier pictures. That is perhaps the contradiction at the heart of Bumblebee: Its restraint feels like a necessary corrective to the earlier movies’ gargantuosity, but in the end, we’re all still here for the exploding, fighting robots."

I'd even got a step farther and say that Bumblebee doesn't play to the established spirit or strengths of the Transformers cartoons. I'm not a big fan of Michael Bay's Transformers films, but I was a huge fan of Transformers: Beast Wars when I was a preteen. I also loved checking out VHS tapes of the original Transformers cartoons from the Queens Library's Jamaica branch when I was even younger. So I'm totally down with the show and its flashy, silly sensationalism. So for me, Bumblebee is not the best Transformers movie, not by a long shot

No, the best possible Transformers movie is still, in many ways, Transformers: The Movie, the theatrically released 1986 feature-length cartoon that pitted the Autobots and the Decepitcons (and the Junkions and the Dinobots) against Orson Welles' world-devouring Unicron. I hasten to add that Transformers: The Movie is also, in many other ways, the worst possible Transformers movie. Or one of the worst (I really, really don't like the Bay Transformers films).

OK, let me explain before you sucker-punch me through the Internet. Transformers: The Movie is a molten-hot mess. Its plot is barely coherent, as many critics and fans have known for decades now. I mean, I basically know what I mean when I refer to "The Matrix," the life-giving whatsit that the Autobots' square-jawed leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) asks his loyal second-in-command Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) to protect and therefore keep away from the evil Decepticons boss Megatron (Frank Welker), the latter of whom is swiftly transformed (by Unicron) into a flashier, more powerful villain named Galvatron. But really, all the Wiki-synopsizing in the world can't make that brief plot description any less weird or messy. 

Because Transformers: The Movie is a weird and messy movie. I mean, just look at its insane voice cast: Eric Idle, Casey Kasem, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Stack, Lionel Stander and Welles are just the tip of this dada-looking iceberg (they also happen to be the film's most famous performers)! Transformers: The Movie is simultaneously too much and too little movie. It's got goofy-looking dinosaur robots delivering really bad one-liners, like when the lovably stupid Dinobot Grimlock (Gregg Berger) exclaims "Me, Grimlock, say you full of cesium salami!" Transformers: The Movie also features a scene where old-timer Autobot Kup (Stander) teaches youngster Hot Rod (Nelson) how to communicate with foreign-language-speaking robots, including the whimsical Junkion leader Wreck-Gar (Idle), using the "universal greeting" of "Baa weep grahna weep ninny bong." And how about when Grimlock shouts, "Me, Grimlock, no bozo! Me king!" (pretty much any Grimlock line is hilariously strange).

And don't get me started on the illogical nature of the film's weirder set pieces and plot points, like the way that Megatron guns down Optimus Prime early on in the film...but then Prime doesn't come back until the movie's almost over? Or how about the completely out-of-nowhere mini-side plot involving the sadistic three-faced Quintesson (Roger C. Carmel), who arbitrarily sentences hapless robots to death by throwing them into his vast Sharkticon(!!)-filled water tank? Or pretty much anything involving the Junkions or Unicron? Or that weird exoskeleton space-suit worn by giddy human kid/audience surrogate Daniel Witwicky (Daniel Mendenhall), the one that he only uses to transform into a car one (1) time. So much of Transformers: The Movie barely makes sense, probably because it was (at the time) a big-budget commercial for robot figurines, just like the original mid-'80s cartoon before it.

But here's the thing: Transformers: the Movie is also pretty decent, as far as big-budget commercial for robot figurines go. Why would you expect or want a movie whose main source of excitement and spectacle is a bunch of talking robots cracking wise before and after they turn into dinosaurs, insects, guns, cars, and even a matching cassette tape and boombox? Why would you want to trade well-lit, lavishly illustrated scenes of animated robo-carnage for dark, overedited scenes of relatively tame computer-generated robo-tussling? Or, to put it another way: why settle for a few minutes of competent but uninspired robot violence and a bunch of lackluster human drama when you could be watching a movie featuring crazy, nonstop action scenes that are basically Busby Berkeley-levels of opulent? I know this is a personal preference, because I don't think I can truthfully say that either Bumblebee or Transformers: The Movie is a good movie. But I also know which movie I think is the best Transformers movie to date, and it ain't the one that's in theaters now.