Review: The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Despite three live-action movies (and an upcoming fourth film), The Transformers: The Movie is still the only Transformers film worth watching.

For about 60 of its 84 minute run time, it is a shockingly mature, thrillingly violent production that doesn’t pull any punches for its younger audience who had grown accustomed to somewhat incompetent villains and a laugh-filled happy ending. That’s not the case here and the film is all the more memorable and better off for it. If only the film’s final act were stronger, the likely casualty of one too many rewrites and changes in direction, this would doubtlessly be considered one of the best films of the 1980s, animated or otherwise.

The Transformers The Movie - starscream shootingThere’s an actual sense of consequences that rarely were realized in the first two seasons of the mid 1980s TV series. Beloved characters get killed on both the Autobot and Decepticon sides.

The young audience avatar, Spike, is now grown up and a father, the good guys actually lose the war and there’s even some curse words (which were mind blowing at the time for 80s kids like myself).

The Transformers The Movie - UnicronThe film starts in jarring fashion with the arrival of Unicron (Orson Welles in his last performance) — the Transformers’ answer to Marvel Comics planet eater Galactus — who proceeds to devour a planet en route to the Autobots/Decepticons home planet of Cybertron.

This kicks off an exhilarating hour with the best Transformers action we’ve seen so far. It’s nearly one big hour-long fight and it’s every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Megatron (Frank Welker) leads his Decepticons in an assault on Autobot City. The attack soon overwhelms the Autobots led by Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack), Kup (Lionel Stander), Arcee (Susan Blu), Springer (Neil Ross) and Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) leading to catastrophic losses before Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) arrives to save the day.

The Transformers The Movie - fallen Optimus Prime

But this time, the conflict has serious repercussions for both factions. Prime is forced to name a successor and Megatron is rescued by Unicron and reborn into his servant, Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek), with the mission of destroying the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.

Before the days when Oscar winners voicing animated roles was commonplace, the voice talent assembled for this film was truly groundbreaking signaling that the property may be intended for children, but that big-names also saw the potential in appearing in them.

The Transformers The Movie - Galvatron and CyclonusFor fans of the cartoon series, the movie’s animation is a dramatic improvement. There’s a greater attention to detail and shading that gives the robots a more intricate design, which gave the movie an appropriate sense of importance.

Vince DiCola’s score is definitely a product of the 80s, but it’s appropriately heavy metal and the soundtrack, specifically Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch,’ is perfectly suited for the material.

Ok, rose colored nostalgia aside, there are a few issues with the film.

First off, Hasbro’s agenda to push the new characters — and make kids demand toys of the new additions — becomes a bit obnoxious midway through with most of the old guard from the cartoon getting killed off or (no pun intended) transformed into other characters.

The Transformers The Movie - Devastator vs The Dinobots

While the new generation Autobots and Decepticons are interesting (Kup is fun as the old veteran with a story for every occasion and Springer is just a bad a$$ Autobot), the movie really should have been more of a payoff for all of the characters fans had grown attached to in the two seasons of the TV show instead of the abrupt shift in Transformers’ status quo.

It’s especially glaring considering so many of the fan favorites like combiners Superion; Autobot HQ defender Omega Supreme (who would have come in handy in that battle of Autobot City) and the fifth Dinobot Snarl were missing.

There’s also a number of inconsistencies during the Great Autobot City Battle. Most specifically the Autobots getting killed with one laser blast in the first fight while Optimus Prime’s cannon having TV series effectiveness of only stunning the Decepticons when he hits his targets.

The Transformers The Movie - Hot Rod becoming Rodimus Prime

And for all of his world-destroying terror, Unicron’s defeat feels like more of a fluke accident than a deliberate plan, which makes the Autobots appear far luckier than heroic.

Still, despite the last act not holding up its end, The Transformers: The Movie is something that every 80s kid experienced or lied and said they did and all these years later it still holds up remarkably well. Until Michael Bay starts making Transformers worth caring about, venture no further than this flawed, but very entertaining old school gem.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Hot Toys Gen 1 Optimus Prime - Starscream variant - horizontal close up

Transformers Optimus Prime (Starscream Version) Transformers Collectible Figure

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  • keith

    Jeff we think so much alike till its scary. I actually just wrapped up the series on netflix. Some thing now that im older I noticed. I hate hot rod lol. he was such a irresponsible little punk. He makes me love otimus and ultra mangus that much more. Kup was a great addition with voice work and humor. I also hated how all of the guys like prowl, bubblebee, sunstreak, sideswipe, jazz, mirage were all just dumped after the movie. I see why the main show fell off so bad… do you remember something called “head and target masters” smh. it was a transparent ploy to sell toys instead of building something of a story line. As far as other issue with the show, how come autobots could fly sometimes and then they couldnt. Plus I cringe as some of the old school cold war thoughts that were brewing through the show.. However is still awesome and beloved, YES!! I truly see why this series comes back and keeps coming back, and why michael bay screwed up so bad. Yet I keep going.

    Oh I finally saw the leggo movie. cute, good and harmless but I would have harsher if i saw this in the movie. I guess I cant see why it was such a blockbuster? Im just glad it wasnt so dark on the live parts. Still lacking on train your dragon 2 and word of mouth for think like a man too is 5o/50. I think we getting more kevin stand up later this year or next. His next movie looks like he may start to jump the shark lol

  • keith

    transformers gave us some cool names for djs and MCs. If you call yourself ultra mangus or omega supreme( he disappeared as well?) you better have some skills lol

  • Yes we are my friend. Great minds think alike. I was determined to watch it and bask in all the Transformers greatness despite a headache last night. By the time it was over the headache was gone. That movie’s got the Touch! 😉

    What didn’t click for you if you saw it in the theaters? I’m sharing my thoughts on that trailer later today actually.

  • LOL. Too true!

  • keith

    if you mean the leggo movie, I saw it home last night. Just kind of corny, but still nice voice acting and it was goofy insansity. It just wouldnt be worth a theater day or night to me. I rented from amazon. no major gripes, but I guess Im more of the films above, dreamworks, or pixar for my kiddie movies. By the way any sugguestions of transformers series you like after the original seasons. Beastwars I think brought them back and the 3d animation REBOOT(i swear dot was based on halle berry) failed to make mainstream

  • keith

    you got the POOOOWER! lol

  • keith

    so you dont care for “roddiums prime”(whatever, freaking scrub. galvatron should have blasted him) Star scream should have survived but his cowardly treachery got what it deserved POW!

  • I gotcha.

    I kinda get stuck in my ways and loyal with one take over another so I’m more of the rewatching the original series. Think Fred mentioned he found a good deal for the whole series online.

    I just rewatched the Headmasters/Targetmasters mini-series. The show went downhill after the movie and I largely thought the new additions were lame.

  • Nah, I always looked at Rodimus like he lucked into being the leader for catching the Matrix as opposed to earning it. It sure did make Galvatron look like a bad a$$ until the cartoon made him stupid.

  • Aw man, it’s not streaming on Netflix OR Hulu. I need to see this. I had the viewmaster slides (oh who am I kidding? I still have them in my closet somewhere). I love Transformers as a kid, I had the tennis shoes to prove it! Happy to hear that the movie still holds up pretty well after all these years.

  • I think you can find a DVD copy for a relatively decent price on eBay.

  • The first sentence of this review really does say it all. Pure poetry, Jeffrey.

  • I should point out that the reason why the “Scramble City” Combiners (like Superion) do not appear (nor virtually any character from season two other than Blaster and Perceptor, including the aforementioned Omega Supreme) is the movie was pretty well set before the second season crew of TFs were even finalized. They actually started making the movie while the first season of the show was still airing, and they had been working on it to one extent or another pretty much from the beginning! (I remember that, in the TV spots for the movie, they even touted how it was “two years in the making.”)

  • I realized I wasn’t completely clear in a point there. I meant “set” as in “all set” not as in “setting.” Obviously, the setting for the movie is twenty years after season two, even though it was largely made before season two.

  • Appreciate it Barry. Without Prime and Bumblebee, Bay could call this anything else and I would probably like them a bit more, but in no way shape or form are those Transformers movies to me!

  • I went back and did all kinds of backstory research, which I probably should have included in the review, but I found that so interesting as well. I suppose Superion and Omega Supreme would have tipped the scales in the Autobots’ favor a bit more anyway 😉

  • Nah, I understood exactly what you meant. I think it’s so crazy that something like that was set so far in our future at the time and now that “future” was just about 10 years ago!

  • Yeah, it’s pretty wild. I remember New Year’s 2005, I tried to get some folks to watch it and time it such that the narration, “It is the year 2005…” would hit right after midnight.

    Sadly, I got no takers.

    It’s also interesting to look at Hot Rod, Kup, Blur, Springer, et al’s alt modes and realize that’s what cars were supposed to look like by then (assuming they weren’t supposed to be Cybertronian modes; the toys generally just called them “futuristic”).

  • Well, I will give Bay credit on a few points. I felt like (for the very small amount of screen time he received) Starscream was pretty much in character (even if he did look like a monster bird). And Peter Cullen’s voice as Optimus went a long way toward legitimizing him as the real deal (even though he DIDN’T seem in character much of the time, especially in the third film; I’m told it’s even worse in the fourth). And… uh… they used the name “Witwicky” so I guess that’s something…

    Then again, scratch that last one. Bay turned the name “Witwicky” into a curse (something akin to “Binks”).

  • LOL.

    That’s a good point. They were all edgy and stylized, even Kup, which was funny seeing as how he was an older Autobot.

  • Agree with you on Starscream and Cullen, but man did he drop the ball on Prime’s characterization, Bumblebee in general and making Spike a doofus. Sigh.

  • Joel G. Baldwin

    Personally, I like Hot Rod. I know there are numerous flaws to TF:TM and the show, but The Movie is my favorite movie despite the flaws, and the show got better in the 3rd season (I also liked Rodimus Prime and felt he was a better leader than Optimus) than it had been prior, as it actually developed some continuity and character development. Also, I liked the Headmasters, and felt that the show ended on a high note instead of just going plop. I would’ve loved to see a full 4th season as opposed to just 3 episodes. Had it concluded after a full season, it would’ve been awesome, but it still ended on a high note for me

  • Joel G. Baldwin

    The character’s name isn’t “ultra mangus” it’s Ultra Magnus. If you’re doing that for a joke, it isn’t funny.

  • I liked Hot Rod, besides getting Prime killed of course, but the transition to Rodimus always felt so rushed and forced to me.

    I’m curious though, why you consider him a better leader than Optimus?