As much as I have heard the phrase “this _______ remake destroyed my childhood” over the years, I never really subscribed to it. It always seemed like the fall back thing to say for nerds and pop culture obsessives to say when something was brought back with a different slant (and if you don’t believe me, read the bro centric and lady phobic comments over the last year to the recent Ghostbusters movie). Oh there are some remakes that warrant such disdain, either because they are too bland or they don’t push far enough to be something different, but destroying your childhood? Childhood is nothing but trauma, so I never understood it. Which is why when discussing the destruction of my childhood, I point out the movie that destroyed my childhood, that unlike most grown nerds, destroyed it during my childhood: 1986’s TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE.
I know the first response to that would be “Don’t you mean the Michael Bay Transformers movies?”, but allow me to explain. While those movies seemed to be getting progressively dopier, revolving around occasionally offensive caricatures, and centered around finding an “artifact” on Earth (every one of these movies involves some alien artifact, like the Transformers lost ALL their ancient crap on Earth), at least the first one wasn’t a shit pile. They took several more movies to get there. And being a bad movie is not as mind altering as a movie that makes you reassess you view on the world. TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE did that for me as a kid.
And just to make things clear, I actually liked this movie, so don’t expect this to be some big hate piece that will “ruin your childhood”. But I’m also not under some insane delusion it didn’t bother me when I first saw it. For all the stuff like its so 80’s it hurts soundtrack and celebrity voiced characters, its a movie that is really different from the TV show that spawned it. That’s not also a good thing if you know the TV show.
Now unlike many who grew up with this on television, my first exposure to TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was when it came out in theaters. This was back when a PG movie was a little more dangerous than it is now (look at Back To The Future and tell me how that movie would get a PG rating now, unlike in 1985 when it did), so a PG rated Transformers movie seemed a little surprising back then. The cartoon wasn’t exactly known for mature storytelling, so what would this mean for the movie? What I didn’t know then what I do now about it, is QUITE A BIT.
Yeah, the random usage of “shit” during an PG animated movie seemed extreme (certainly it was to the audible gasps of almost everyone in the audience I saw it with back in ’86), but that was not the most shocking thing about TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was what they did in the first act, mainly killing just about every character from the animated show. Up until then, the death rate for Transformers on the show barely existed, but here in this movie, the robot mortality rate dropped dramatically. Maybe the best analogy I can come up with it is this: imagine the first Star Trek movie after the original series, and about thirty minutes in, almost all the original crew is murdered, and the rest of the movie are a new crew that you have to accept are your heroes now. As jarring as that can be in a movie for adults, imagine watching characters you liked in the series dying (and sometimes without much fanfare or acknowledgment) in high numbers…as a child.
Now the messed up part of this (and one only a older and slightly more cynical me could grasp) is that this was an attempt to introduce a new series of Transformers toys, and the way they decided to deal with the ones that were around was to slaughter them. Instead of just shuffling them off to other places (and considering it was set in the then future of 2005, it would have been weird, but not illogical), we got to see massive Autobot and Decepticon carnage. And that’s just after we’re introduced to the giant robot planet big bad, Unicron (legendary Orson Welles’ last performance), that devours planets and their population. There’s a lot of death in this movie, and most of it (woe is you who isn’t a popular main Transformer) is jarring.
No death is more jarring in this movie than that of Optimus Prime, pretty much the big hero of the TV show. Hell, Megatron gets equally wounded and gets to be resurrected as Unicron’s new help, Galvatron (and gets a voice upgrade to Leonard Nimoy!), so Prime dying seemed like a gut punch for lots of kids. Sure that all got corrected by the time the show came back, but for some time, Optimus Prime was DEAD, and there was no sign he was ever coming back. You came to see your favorite Transformers on the big screen, and instead of a celebration, you got to watch their funerals.
It was one of the first times in my life I was aware of the concept of death on a major scale, and how intimate and scarring it could be. For all the violence of that first thirty minutes, what stuck with me is how certain characters didn’t even get a death scene, but we just see them briefly in the background, already gone. It’s a certain kind of cruelty you see more in a war movie for adults, not a movie designed for kids. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well as expected (and famously, it affected the animated G.I. JOE movie a year later, which was to have also killed its main hero, but was rewritten at the last minute to suggest otherwise).
Only now has the movie become interesting for reasons other than some morbid childhood hang-up. There’s the animation, the narrative stones to upend the Transformers universe (for better and definitely worse), and the soundtrack. And unlike the recent live action Transformers films, which get longer and less coherent with every installment, there is a brevity that makes it fine for watching over and over again. On that note too, its weird to think this is a better movie for kids than the current films are, as traumatizing as it was.
But still, my childhood got wrecked by this. Not as badly as when Boogie Nights had to dig up the movie’s standout song for a great comedy bit, but, it hurt.